What the North Korean Missile Interceptors Are Really All About

The announcement last week by Defense Secretary Hagel that the U.S. will, over the coming months, deploy additional anti-ballistic missile interceptors in Alaska and on America's west coast is not really what it is being portrayed as -- to counter the perceived missile threat from North Korea. North Korea has not yet even successfully tested a long range missile and is undoubtedly many years away from being able to deliver a nuclear warhead on a missile. Hagel's announcement may in part have been made in anticipation of the day that 'may' occur, which is one reason the interceptors are not being deployed swiftly. But the real reason is Russia.

Of all the obstacles standing in the way of a better bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Russia, America's intention to place anti-ballistic missile interceptors in Europe over the past decade has been the source of greatest tension between the two countries. Ostensibly intended to counter the perceived Iranian missile threat, this has been the centerpiece of Russian/U.S. discord since 2002, and has prevented progress from being made in a number of areas of mutual importance -- most recently in terms of potential collaboration on Iran and Syria - where the U.S. could really use Russia's help.

In 2009 the Obama Administration canceled the Bush Administration's original plans to place interceptors in Europe and replaced it with the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), a four-pronged approach to missile defense: land-based radar and interceptor-capable ships (deployed in 2011), to be followed by enhanced sea-based interceptors combined with land-based interceptors (being discussed with Romania and slated for deployment in 2015), then even more advanced sea-based interceptors and a second land-based site (approved by Poland in 2011 for deployment in 2018), and finally more interceptors to bolster existing capabilities (2020).

The fourth phase of the EPAA, which will be the assets to be deployed in Alaska and the west coast, was the source of greatest concern for the Russians. The Pentagon said last week that Russian objections to the planned European deployments did not figure in to its decision to redeploy the missiles, though the reasoning and timing for the decision seems odd if that is true.

North Korea is years away from have a long range missile launch capability, and probably even further away from having the ability to deliver nuclear warheads on such missiles. While Iran has long-range missile capability, it is undoubtedly even further away from having the ability to deliver warheads on missiles, given that it is not yet a nuclear weapons power. That being the case, what else besides building some goodwill with Moscow could this really be all about?

The Russian government has yet to formally respond to the news, but Moscow will undoubtedly be pleased that fewer U.S. resources will be deployed in its backyard, and that a potential perceived threat to its own long-range missiles will be diminished. The door should now be cracked open toward greater Russian collaboration with NATO, further progress on nuclear arms reduction, and most importantly, meaningful cooperation vis-à-vis Iran and Syria. Russia holds the key to diplomatic progress in the UN on Syria as well as having the ability to influence the Iranians in the latest round of nuclear talks.

While the U.S. already had 30 missile interceptors based in Alaska and the west coast, and is now apparently adding 14 more, do 44 interceptors really provide that much comfort in the event of an attack? The Israelis have thousands of interceptors as part of its Iron Dome program, with a much higher degree of accuracy than the interceptors that will be deployed against North Korea. If the perceived missile threat from North Korea was really that great, wouldn't sea-based systems make more sense? The number of land-based systems being deployed seem more designed to fit neatly into the larger debate over what to do about North Korea, and to provide a limited degree of comfort, than to have a genuine deterrent benefit.

In the end, it seems far likelier that if North Korea were to engage in military offense, it would be against South Korea. If Iran were inclined to do the same, it would obviously be against Israel. None of the subject missile systems would be useful in the event that were to occur. Moreover, it is doubtful that either Pyongyang or Teheran would hesitate to do whatever they may do in the future because, or in spite of, an admittedly limited attempt at missile defense. Washington clearly knows this. So why not call the Obama Administration's move what it is -- an attempt to break the ice with Moscow -- instead of portraying it as something else. That kind of honesty is sorely needed between the two countries, and would be likelier to yield tangible benefits than spinning it.