THE OBAMA administration’s restructuring of plans for missile defense appears, for the most part, to be a rational response to changing circumstances, including an increasing threat from North Korea. However, it raises questions about whether the administration chose to address one of Russia’s largest concerns about a Europe-based missile system without obtaining any concessions from Moscow in return.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel chose Friday afternoon, the traditional time for releasing potentially controversial news, to announce that the administration would add 14 interceptors to an anti-missile base in Alaska and deploy a new radar in Japan. The deployment, which essentially reversed a decision by President Obama to freeze the Alaska system, was prompted by North Korea’s progress toward building intercontinental ballistic missiles that could reach the United States, as well as its recent nuclear test. Iran, too, may be making similar progress: House Armed Services Committee members recently advised Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that Tehran could test an ICBM this year.
That was a good decision. But missed in some of the subsequent stories was the other shoe: The Pentagon is canceling the planned fourth phase of an anti-missile system that had been scheduled for deployment in Poland in 2022. The SM3 IIb missile was significant for two reasons: It was the only interceptor planned for the Europe-based system that could have defended the United States against an attack from Iran; and it was the component of the system most decried by Russia, which claimed that it could be used against its intercontinental missiles.
As it did when it canceled a previous European missile plan in 2009, the administration insisted that its decision had nothing to do with Russia or its objections. The phase-four missile was dropped, officials said, because Congress had cut some of its funding, meaning it could not have been completed in the next decade, even while the timeline of possible ICBM threats is shortening. Officials say the money can be better spent on deploying more interceptors in the United States and improving their components. As proof that Moscow has not been appeased, the White House pointed to statements by Russian officials saying they are still unsatisfied with U.S. missile defense plans and continue to demand binding legal assurances that the system can’t be aimed at Russia.
Still, the fact remains that the United States has removed from its plans the missile that Russian officials previously cited as their foremost concern, just a few months after President Obama promised the Kremlin “greater flexibility” on missile defense after his reelection. In doing so, the administraton has eliminated the possibility of a defensive system that would give the United States two shots at an Iranian ICBM — what in Pentagon jargon is called a shoot-look-shoot capacity. It also has decoupled the European missile system from the defense of the continental United States. These compromises could have made sense as part of a broader agreement with Russia on missile defenses. To undertake them unilaterally, for what are portrayed as purely budgetary reasons, is imprudent.