Obama's Missile Defense Plan: Smart or Surrender?
We are told that the Obama's missile defense system can be installed cheaper, sooner, and will be just as effective as the Bush system. In fact, we really don't know this for several reasons.
First, we are comparing two systems that were never intended to work independently of one another. The Bush system of 10 interceptors was always intended to be supplemented with shorter range missile defenses like the Standard Missile - 3 (SM-3) block I and II systems that Obama is now spotlighting as his "alternative". The SM-3 block I is a known quantity but was never designed to hit ballistic missiles during mid-course (i.e., the longest period) of their flight. Instead it was designed to hit them shortly after they leave the launch pad. The 10 interceptors that Bush's system would employ, in contrast, was designed primarily to hit ballistic missiles midcourse in their flight. That's why the Bush proposal was not just to employ the 10 interceptors, but to employ them along with shorter range missile defense systems geared to hit offensive missiles shortly after take off and as they approached their final target.
Second, while the system that the 10 large interceptors were based on is not as far along as the SM-3 block I missile is, it can at least be tested since it consists of the first two stages of a missile defense system that already is deployed in Alaska. The SM-3 block II's key interceptor components, meanwhile, are not quite as far along. While we know that the SM-3 block II missile must fit in a standard missile launcher, we do not yet know how well this new relatively small system will perform -- i.e., precisely how quickly and how far it can fly to hit offensive missiles in mid-course. It is worth noting that this system was not originally designed primarily to tackle mid-course interceptions. If it should work well at this mission and not cost much, we may well be able to save some money. If not, we may have to use many more SM-3 interceptors to get the job done. This could easily end up costing more money than the original Bush system and might, in the end, force us to deploy larger interceptors of the sort that Bush originally planned for Poland. No one yet knows which scenario is more probable; time and further testing will tell. What is clear, however, is that the least risky way to secure a defense against Iranian missiles (which Tehran is deploying in significant numbers and upgrading steadily) would be to deploy both the 10 interceptor system and the SM-3 block I and II systems. This, again, was what the Bush scheme originally planned to do.
As for the issue of appeasing Russia, there seem to be two story boards. The first is that Russia's views had nothing to do with Obama's decision to kill the 10 interceptor project but instead was a budgetary decision based on a review of the Iranian missile threat. The second focuses on the timing of Obama's decision, which was just before the Czech elections. This was upsetting to the current Czech leadership, which supports deployment of U.S. missile defenses, and welcomed by the opposition that objects to having any missile defenses on Czech soil. Those arguing that Obama's decision was a form of appeasement also spotlight the Administration's desire to get an strategic arms reduction treaty finalized with Russia before December 5th.
Proving the appeasement thesis is not easy. In any case, the budgetary argument administration officials offer is weak. Again, we really don't know how well the proposed SM-3 Block II system will perform, much less how much it will cost or how long it will take to perfect or deploy. As for the intelligence argument, it also seems a stretch: Since when have our projections regarding the strategic weapons and nuclear programs of countries like Iran been sufficiently on target to design military spending programs and deployments around them? In fact, our intelligence community almost always projects disagreeable threats to be five or more years out and they are almost always wrong. More important, when it comes to our military and its ability to field a large, new defense system of the sort being discussed, five years is not that much time. In this case, it almost certainly is not enough.
It also is clear that the timing of the decision -- so boorishly close to Czech elections -- raised more than a few eyebrows. Some reports have it that Obama officials notified the political leadership in Poland only minutes after the President made his decision, i.e., in the middle of the night. If so, it's a message in and of itself. It is fair enough to note that the Polish and Czech public was hardly unified behind the Bush missile defenses project. Still, indicative of how awkward the Administration's move was is that right after Obama's decision and the Eastern European outcry from some, Secretary Clinton seemed obliged to walk the decision back a bit by suggesting that some of the SM-3 block I interceptors might be deployed in Eastern Europe. As for Russia, there seem to be nearly as many Obama officials conceding that Obama's decision has helped ease our relations with Moscow as there are officials insisting that the decision had nothing to do with this. All of this muddies the waters. In the end, though, Obama's decision on missile defenses, unlike his earlier decision this spring to surge more troops into Afghanistan, has hardly earned him the respect of many hawks either here or in Russia. Ultimately, that, rather than whether the move actually was meant to appease, is likely to be what matters.