The bipartisan push for missile defense

Rebeccah Heinrichs Foreign Policy Analyst
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The coming Congress will bring new opportunity for bipartisan consensus on a traditionally contentious policy matter — advancing missile defense. On November 20th at the Lisbon summit, NATO officially announced it would move forward with a missile defense system for Europe that will use the U.S. plan called the “European Phased Adaptive Approach” as its cornerstone. Although the administration has pledged to move forward with the EPAA, it is not enough that President Obama simply wants to deploy some missile defense over the next several years. The administration will have to do four things in order to ease the concerns and earn the backing of staunch missile defense supporters.

First, it will need to speed up the entire operation by about five years. The EPAA consists of four phases, in which various components of a layered system of sea- and land-based defensive weapons will be deployed to Europe. The administration’s plan has the fourth phase, the phase that will provide protection of the U.S. homeland, scheduled for 2020 — this is simply way too late. An April 2010 Department of Defense report says that with foreign assistance, Iran could have a missile able to hit the U.S. by 2015. The State Department cables leaked on WikiLeaks disclose that Iran has obtained a cache of advanced medium-range missiles from North Korea that moves the Islamic Republic closer to obtaining a long-range missile.

The cable rightly deduces that DPRK aid bumps Iran significantly closer to obtaining a long-range missile capable of striking the United States. The U.S. currently has interceptors in Alaska and California to intercept a limited threat from Iran, but parts of the U.S. population remain vulnerable. Both the previous administration and the current one acknowledge that additional measures are necessary to provide adequate protection of the entire U.S. population.

Second, the administration should hedge against the possibility that Iran will develop an intercontinental ballistic missile before the EPAA is completed. The third and fourth phase of the EPAA face major technical hurdles, and even if the administration commits to more funding to speed up the schedule, they may still fall short. The U.S. already has interceptors that had been planned for the now cancelled “Third Site” called “two-stage Ground-based Interceptors.” They should be maintained, tested, and ready for prime time in case they are needed for rapid deployment in order to protect the homeland. The administration should provide Congress with a contingency plan for this scenario, along with a detailed plan for the entire development and deployment schedule for the EPAA.

Third, the Obama administration should provide the Senate with its proposed missile defense budget for Fiscal Year 2012 before senators even consider casting their votes for ratification of the New START treaty with Russia. Normally lawmakers see the budget for the first time in February, but the Pentagon is no doubt finished with its budget and since there is a chance the Senate could vote on the treaty before Christmas, the FY12 budget should be provided ahead of regular order.

Recent revelations confirm Russia expanded tactical nuke deployments near U.S. allies several times in response to U.S. missile defense deployments. The most recent example is Russia’s deployment of tactical nukes in late spring right after the U.S. deployed a PATRIOT missile defense battery to Poland. Many treaty skeptics suspect the administration will not move forward with the EPAA since the Russians would likely object to the more advanced components of it, especially if they objected to the modest Poland deployment.

Moreover, the Russians have explicitly said they will withdraw from the treaty if the U.S. improves missile defense qualitatively or quantitatively. U.S. officials have tried to assure the Senate that the treaty will have no effect on U.S. missile defense plans. However, since Russian and U.S. officials have vastly different interpretations of the treaty’s impact on U.S. missile defense deployment, the Senate should be made aware of the Obama administration’s specific plans for European missile defense and be convinced that it will go through with them even if it means the Russians will withdraw from the treaty in response. The only way for the administration to prove its commitment to missile defense is to develop hard and fast plans and to fund it at levels that will actually get the job done. As former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice penned in the Wall Street Journal on December 7th, “[t]he U.S. must remain fully free to explore and then deploy the best defenses — not just those imagined today. That includes pursuing both potential qualitative breakthroughs and quantitative increases.”

Last, the administration must provide Congress insight into the missile defense negotiations reportedly occurring between Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher and her Russian counterpart, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov. On December 1st, Bill Gertz reported in the Washington Times that an internal State Department memo confirmed that, despite administration denials that no missile defense negotiations were taking place, the U.S. and Russia were trying to strike an agreement. The day before the Gertz piece, Senators Kyl (AZ), Risch (ID), and Kirk (IL) penned a probing letter to the administration asking it to answer twelve questions related to U.S.-Russia missile defense cooperation.

One question was particularly striking. The senators asked: “Can you certify that there is not any ballistic missile, or chemical, and/or biological, weapons proliferation taking place between Iran and Russia or Russian entities?” This is a perfectly appropriate — and disturbing — question to ask in the context of a deal being struck with Moscow that would hamstring U.S. missile defenses. The senators also asked the administration to provide, at least once a month, briefings on “all aspects of any discussions with the Russian Federation on U.S. missile defenses.” The administration should honor this request in addition to answering all twelve questions.

If the administration can accomplish these initiatives, the administration and Congress may be able to work together to provide the American people with a much more robust missile defense system than we have today — before it is too late.

Rebeccah Heinrichs is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.