Missile defense: the lost years

Rebeccah Heinrichs Foreign Policy Analyst
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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.

While Iran does not currently have the ability to carry a nuclear warhead to the U.S., a recent report warned that its missile program is steadily improving. “Beyond steady growth in its missile and rocket inventories,” the report notes, “Iran has boosted the lethality and effectiveness of existing systems with accuracy improvements … since 2008 Iran has launched multistage space launch vehicles that could serve as a test bed for developing long-range ballistic missile technologies.” If those 2009 intelligence reports said Iran was slowing down its long-range missile development, they were wrong.

Rather than developing defense policy based on meeting threats, the Obama administration seemingly began with ideologically motivated goals, and worked backward.

Stunningly, the National Research Council recommends a third long-range interceptor site much like the one planned for Poland and the Czech Republic. However, it recommends simply placing the system on American soil, either in Maine or New York.

Russia doubtless would strongly oppose such action, and so, President Obama can be expected to ignore the National Research Council’s recommendation in favor of his own foreign policy and arms control objectives. He made this perfectly clear in a rare and candid moment when the hot microphone caught President Obama telling then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this can be solved, but it’s important for [Vladimir Putin] to give me space. … This is my last election. … After my election I have more flexibility.”

The House-passed version of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act contained a provision mandating studies to determine the best options for an East Coast missile defense site. The Senate version, however, did not include that provision.

The National Research Council report rebuts the contention that an East Coast site is unnecessary. The American people and their allies deserve the best defense possible. That should be our primary national security objective, with arms control and diplomacy initiatives regarded solely as means to this end, rather than as ends unto themselves.

Rebeccah Heinrichs is a visiting fellow specializing in national security issues at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).