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Obama Is Getting Missile Defense Right in Europe

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Mitt Romney has made ballistic missile defense in Europe a centerpiece of his presidential campaign's assertion of President Barack Obama's weakness on national security. North Korea's recent missile test and Iran's nuclear program combine with President Obama's "hot mic" comments to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev about post-election "flexibility" on European ballistic missile defenses seem to offer political gains from exploiting Americans' anxieties over global security trends. If, however, the Republican Party wishes to reestablish its credentials on national security -- then playing politics with it is no way to instill confidence.

As NATO leaders gather later this month in Chicago and while Russian officials are making unnecessarily belligerent threats about "preemptive" force against missile defense sites in NATO countries, this topic needs a careful look. Ballistic missile defense was never a very good idea as the science and technology are either non-existent or easily overwhelmed by decoys and other tactics aligned with incoming missiles while trying to "shoot a bullet with a bullet." It also provides incentives for adversaries to build more missiles, does not address cruise missiles and is useless against terrorist methods employing weapons of mass destruction. President Obama inherited a system from George Bush that ignored all the flawed assumptions about missile defense in Europe. Obama thus made a wise shift away from a senseless plan to deploy a system in Poland and the Czech Republic, replacing it with a limited, but more effective, system that focuses on actual emerging threats and existing technology.

Two myths about ballistic missile defense in Europe are being advanced to make this political sale as Mitt Romney seems to politicize important national security decisions which have actually bolstered our alliance with Europe and provided for a tougher approach to dissuading Iran from its nuclear pursuits.

First, it is asserted that the Obama administration "abandoned America's allies in Europe" and made "concessions to Russia" in its reset of U.S.-Russian relations. Actually, the new concept for European ballistic missile defense is based on an alignment of threats and capabilities which increases the security of American allies most likely to be in range of hostile ballistic missiles. The Bush plan, which included interceptors and radars in Poland and the Czech Republic, left most of southern Europe uncovered -- a problem the Obama plan seeks to fix. Meanwhile, the Bush plan was accepted in Poland mainly to get U.S. support troops there, not out of excitement for missile defense. The Czech public overwhelmingly opposed the concept from the beginning. The Obama plan -- which focuses on Aegis cruisers at sea, and then deploys similar systems on land, provides a credible foundation for a new look at NATO collective defense -- relevant to all allies. Making NATO collective defense credible is hardly a "concession" to Russia.

Second, the so-called "hot-mic" incident -- in which President Obama is heard telling Medvedev that there will be more flexibility after the election, merits scrutiny. We cannot really know what they were getting at in their private conversations -- other than an obvious statement that any American president might have more flexibility on foreign policy after an election. However, it fed into a narrative that if left to their instincts Democrats will not stand up for national defense. The problem is that being ideological about ballistic missile systems and being strong on national security is not the same thing. If a working arrangement could produce stronger pressure right now on Iran, one might ask why candidate Romney would want to advocate against this and complicate any president's ability to advance the national interest? Mitt Romney has talked himself into arguing against a NATO missile defense system that is tougher on Iran than the previous approach and yet at the same time calls the Obama administration weak on Iran. It is a circular argument to call for a tougher position on Iran, and then at the same time criticize efforts to promote such a policy.

The new architecture for ballistic missile defense in Europe (the European Phased Adaptive Approach) bolsters American national security because it aligns capabilities with threats. Phase One is being implemented with a focus on Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense ships equipped with SM-3 Block IA interceptors which are proven and effective. These missiles target an enemy missile close to launch, when it is slow and ascending with higher accuracy and speed. The naval vessel USS Monterey was deployed in 2011 as part of a rotational deployment of Aegis cruisers into the Mediterranean Sea. In September 2011, Turkey agreed to host a land-based early warning radar as a key part of this first deployment. Phase Two is set to be completed in 2015 and would deploy a land-based SM-3 missile defense interceptor site in Romania with a new kind of interceptor -- the SM-3 Block IB. Phase Three would deploy in 2018 if technology agreed and include missile interceptors with longer ranges -- the conceptualized SM-3 Block IIA would be deployed. This phase is based on technology that does not exist and thus seems intended more to reassure Poland after it lost bases promised under President Bush. Similarly, Phase Four, set for 2020 would target medium and intermediate range missiles and include Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile threats to the United States.

The total number of missile interceptors envisaged by the start of the Third Phase of NATO's deployment, according to the Arms Control Association, would reach as high as 500 interceptors based on more than 40 ships. This would grant U.S. missile defense mobility up into the Black Sea and the high north Arctic and include eventual bases in Poland and Romania -- both of which move the system into range of Russian missiles. Technical experts George N. Lewis and Ted Postol indicate that Moscow asserts that forward deployed radar systems could target three hundred times more missiles for detection than currently deployed American radars. Russia has thus sought written guarantees to limit total missile interceptors numbers and speed.

Russian negotiators want a limit of 3.5 kilometers per second, which would make the NATO missile interceptors unable to catch up to Russian ballistic missiles. Russia is laying down a marker on Phase Three and Four of the NATO plans which envision SM-3 IIA and IIB missiles with expected speeds of 4.5 kilometers per second at least -- and their protests, while exaggerated, are based on legitimate technological concerns as they see it from their strategic perspective.

The United States, as with the Bush plan, thus continues to risk significant alienation from an essential national security partner over missile defense technology that does not exist. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen testified to Congress in 2011 that he had "confidence that we can continue to pursue that path" of the SM-3 IIB, even though "the missile you're talking about I know doesn't exist yet."

Even worse, Republican members of the U.S. Senate continue to force this issue, arguing in 2011 that missile defenses should be deployed in the Republic of Georgia -- where Russia, of course, fought a war in 2008 -- even though there is no clear technological rationale or need for such a deployment given the new plans which have been approved by NATO. The position advocated by these senators, which would also preclude basic negotiations over incorporating Russian elements into missile defense cooperation, would only backfire on NATO, making it harder to sustain consensus among the allies who wish to not upset Moscow unnecessarily.

If the later phases do not work, and the trajectories in them are not relevant to likely Iranian missile capabilities -- why not see if there is an arrangement that would allow research and development on these systems between now and 2020 to continue if that would help to provide incentives for greater Russian pressure on Iran? We would give up nothing, reassure Russia, and if successful, get immediate additional leverage on Iran -- which is now seemingly delayed by the Romney campaign's politicizing of the issue. Perhaps it is time to get the politics out of missile defense and let threats, capacity and, indeed, science inform the national interest. The Romney criticism is hard to understand, but one possible explanation is that in advancing the national interest, President Obama has exposed missile defense, long embraced as an ideological mantra by the neoconservative Republican foreign policy establishment, as weakening American national security as it was planned by the Bush administration. The Obama administration has, instead, responsibly bolstered NATO in a way that allows for both a tougher approach and greater international cohesion on Iran. Political posturing over missile defense in Europe should be left to the side in the weeks and months ahead so that the NATO allies can focus on their mission of organizing for collective defense of their common interests.

Sean Kay is professor and chair of international studies at Ohio Wesleyan University, and Mershon Associate at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at the Ohio State University. He is also a fellow in foreign policy and national security at the Eisenhower Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is Global Security in the Twenty-first Century: The Quest for Power and the Search for Peace (Rowman and Littlefield, 2011).