Missile defense: the lost years

Three years ago Monday, President Barack Obama tossed cooperative agreements with the Poles and the Czechs, scrapping the previous administration’s plan to counter the growing threat of Iranian long-range ballistic missiles by deploying defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Last week, the National Research Council released a report, “Making Sense of Ballistic Missile Defense.” The report concludes that U.S. homeland defense requires — you guessed it — a long-range missile defense site.

Unfortunately, it takes years to develop and deploy these capabilities. And while we have largely neglected homeland defense, countries like Iran and North Korea have been steadily improving their weapons programs.

It was not always this way. In 2002, President George W. Bush withdrew the U.S. from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which barred the Soviet Union and the U.S. from building up robust defenses of their countries. Bush’s action freed the U.S. to feverishly develop and deploy a rudimentary missile defense system that could defend the U.S. from some kinds of missile attacks. This initial system, called the ground-based midcourse defense (GMD) system, was not designed to handle sophisticated missile attacks.

During the Bush administration, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), led by Lt. General Henry “Trey” Obering III, recognized the need to improve the missile defense system to handle emerging threats such as countermeasures and decoys. Since the best way to eliminate these threats is to intercept a missile while it’s still boosting, the MDA developed the Airborne Laser platform and budgeted to study development of a space-based test bed to facilitate boost-phase interceptions.

The Bush MDA offered several other solutions to improve the missile defense system’s ability to handle decoys and countermeasures in midcourse — the longest phase of a missile’s flight. Options included the multiple kill vehicle (MKV) program, more advanced radar discrimination algorithms, and the kinetic energy interceptor (KEI).

Yet the growing gap between rapidly developing threats and the capabilities of GMD led Bush’s intelligence agencies to push for building a third long-range interceptor site (augmenting those in Alaska and California) in Poland. This third site would be accompanied by powerful discriminating radar in the Czech Republic.

The Russians opposed this initiative at every turn, with Moscow claiming the site would upset the “strategic balance” between the U.S. and Russia. But the Bush administration rejected the notion that, in an era where rogue nations were zealously pursuing ever more sophisticated nuclear weapons, it made sense to purposely limit U.S. defenses and, thus, to keep American cities vulnerable to missile attack.

But, when President Obama assumed office, one of his top foreign policy objectives was to “reset relations” with Russia. This — coupled with his arms-control goal of moving the world toward “nuclear zero” — led him to scrap the third site agreements and take a new tack of deploying short-range defenses in Europe. The administration justified the switch by claiming that new intelligence showed Iran’s progress in developing long-range missiles was slower than previously believed. But, despite congressional demands to substantiate this claim, the administration never provided supporting information.

Over the last four years, President Obama has spent $4 billion less on GMD than had been projected by the Bush administration. As a result, the algorithm upgrades never happened, and 14 fewer interceptors will be deployed in the U.S. Cuts to the missile defense budget have also eliminated the MKV program, ABL, the space test bed study, and the KEI program. And the cuts keep coming. Most recently, the president requested $1 billion less for the MDA in FY13 than he had planned to request a year ago.

But as the president’s defense budget shrinks, the threats to the homeland grow.