Amateur Hour With Missile Defense

Vicenza, Italy. President Obama’s decision to cancel our European ground-based missile defense system will prove to be very costly and his public rationale — changed intelligence and improved technologies — is far from the whole truth.   This is a geopolitical disaster and risks our security as well.

Last year, President Bush said “Iran is pursuing technology that could be used to produce nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles of increasing range that could deliver them.”  His administration successfully negotiated with Poland and the Czech Republic to install a ground-based anti-missile defense system in those countries to counter the accelerating Iranian threat.   

Obama hoped but failed to persuade Iran to change course, so in June, he and other economic world leaders gave Tehran notice to stop enriching uranium and join them at the negotiating table or face tougher sanctions.  Three sets of United Nations sanctions have already been imposed on Tehran to no effect.  Predictably Iran stiff-armed the West by refusing to stop enrichment and participate in atomic talks.  Now Obama must follow-through with the sanctions threat but Iranian ally Russia refuses to help.

Russia says Iran isn’t a threat but the root of Moscow’s resistance is America’s European anti-missile system.  Moscow fiercely opposed the system because it violates Russia’s spheres of influence by placing missiles and troops in former Soviet bloc countries.  Further, Russian military officials fear those missiles could be fitted with warheads and turned into offensive weapons and the associated radar would see deep into Russia giving the U.S. a potential first strike capability.  

Obama hopes his decision to scrap the ground system will dispel these concerns and persuade Moscow to support tougher sanctions, a quid pro quo.  But Obama’s quid pro quo decision is based on to-be-validated arguments.

The changed intelligence argument is a smoke screen.  The Wall Street Journal reports the Obama administration as early as February was prepared to abandon the European ground system.  That’s why it’s not surprising the new Iranian threat assessment puts priority on short- and medium-range threats, which makes the decision to abandon the long-range ground system easier.  Bush administration missile experts were surprised by those findings.

Mary Beth Long, a Bush missile-defense official, said she was “shocked” to hear the findings and claims there were no signs Tehran abandoned long-range missiles.   Ms. Long expects Iran has both the “… resources and capabilities to overcome” any long-range missile problems.

Even retired general Henry Obering, the former head of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, said he was surprised by the Obama assessment which “… was dramatically different from what we were told last spring.  To me, it flies in the face of what is observable,” Oberling said.

Contrary to Obama’s findings Tehran’s recent long-range missile advances suggest a rapidly maturing capability.  On Feb. 2, Iran successfully launched a satellite into orbit using a rocket with technology similar to that used in a long-range ballistic missile.  On May 20th, Iran test-fired a 1,560 mile Sejil, solid-fueled two-stage ballistic missile, that could deliver a one-ton payload as far as Warsaw.  Tehran’s much-tested Shahab-3 can reach Israel and parts of Europe and is the likely platform for an atomic weapon.

The Obama administration also argues that it needs to replace the Bush plan with proven anti-missile systems.  Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said “I believe this new approach provides a better missile defense capability for our forces in Europe.”  He states the proposed system is more effective, cheaper and will be available sooner.

The heart of Obama’s plan is U.S. Navy ships equipped with Aegis tracking systems and SM-3 anti-missile weapons, and land-based anti-missile systems such as the Patriot and terminal high altitude area defense (or THAAD) air defense batteries ashore in Europe.  The U.S. has 18 Aegis-equipped ships and all but three are in the Pacific to contain the North Korean threat.  Three others are in production.  The administration has not announced how many new anti-missile ships and mobile ground systems if any are needed and where they will be located.

Cost was a factor in the decision.  The Wall Street Journal quotes a senior administration official as stating “… a ground-based interceptor is generally about a $70 million-per-missile asset going after a $10-$15 million [Iranian] missile.”  The official said “… the trade is not a good one economically.”  The Journal indicates the administration’s motivation was to decide in the new five-year defense plan whether to fund the Bush system or save half the money and speed up deployment of new systems like the anti-missile ships.  

Gates promises the Obama system will be ready for limited use by 2011 and fully operational by 2013. That’s seven years earlier than the Bush system, Gates said.

Americans may be suspicious of the new intelligence assessment’s reliability but likely they will favor the substitute system if it lives up to its billing.  That verdict will take time but there’s little doubt now about the negative consequences.

First, scrapping the European system creates a security vacuum on both sides of the Atlantic.  It was intended to be America’s third ground system to protect our East Coast.  The other systems are in Alaska and California but can only intercept rogue missiles fired from Asia.  Now we need a permanent fix to plug the gap the European system promised to fill.

Until a permanent facility is built both Europe and the East Coast will be at the mercy of intelligence analysts to make certain our mobile anti-missile systems are in the right places in time should Iran launch.  The Europeans should be especially concerned because they will rank behind any threat to our homeland.

Second, this decision is a diplomatic disaster.  It unilaterally abandons Polish and Czech officials who viewed the American missile defense as a security blanket against Russia.  Further it is a surrender of American strategic influence in the region and makes allies like Georgia and Ukraine question if they will be the next to be sacrificed at Moscow’s altar.

Third, the timing of the decision clearly makes it look as if Russia’s cooperation was in mind and it emboldens Moscow.  The administration denies this is about a quid pro quo with Russia for help with Iran but the announced meeting between Obama and Russian president Dmitry Medvedev this week reinforces the thinking.  

The decision emboldens Moscow because it can now manipulate U.S. policy to suit its purposes.  Russian opposition leader Garry Kasparov argues the Kremlin isn’t likely to help the U.S. resolve the Iranian crisis because it keeps oil prices high and ties down the U.S. in the Mideast and away from Russia’s spheres of influence.

Finally, the decision undermines America’s nuclear credibility and may spark a Mideast atomic arms race.  Earlier this year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke of placing the Mideast under America’s defense “umbrella” to reassure regional allies they don’t need their own atomic arsenal to fend off Iran.  But Obama’s credibility-busting European decision may actually push countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt into a nuclear arms race with Iran.

Obama’s decision to scrub the European ground-based anti-missile system bets our lives on risky intelligence, abandons hard-won East European allies, empowers Moscow, undermines our nuclear credibility and does nothing to persuade Tehran to abandon its mad rush for atomic-tipped ballistic missiles.  

Cartoon by Brett Noel.