U.S. Must Prioritize Missile Defense

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Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel held a press conference last Friday to announce major changes to Obama administration’s missile defense plans. Although Hagel’s statement was littered with technical jargon, his message was clear – the world is more dangerous today than the administration predicted just a few years ago, and it is about to get even more so.

In a few minutes, Hagel folded on the President’s bet that new technology would preclude the need to fully deploy the George W. Bush-era Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) System.  Less than four years ago, after all, Obama curtailed GMD’s California and Alaska-based force at just 30 interceptors and cancelled the deployment of 10 more interceptors to Poland altogether.

On Friday, Hagel instead announced that the administration would increase the number of deployed GMD interceptors from 30 to the originally planned 44. The Pentagon will also restructure the fourth phase of the President’s missile defense plan for Europe – “restructure” being the Defense Department’s preferred euphemism for “terminate.” Finally, the administration will evaluate expanding the GMD system with additional interceptors on the east coast of the United States, replacing those once planned for Poland.

We find ourselves back to the future – accelerating the deployment of a Bush-era system while cancelling its Obama-proposed replacement.

The administration’s reversal is, however, a hollow victory for the President’s critics. Although Republicans – and some Democrats – criticized President Obama’s decision to truncate the GMD system in favor of an unproven approach, Hagel’s announcement is as much a realization of their fears as a vindication of their arguments.

First, consider the increase of GMD interceptors from 30 to 44 deployed missiles. Senior defense officials have long held that such an increase would only be necessary in the face of either growing numbers of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) deployed by states like Iran or North Korea, or if we face ICBMs with sophisticated countermeasures against U.S. missile defenses.

This potential threat is becoming reality, as underscored by North Korea’s successful long-range missile test in December 2012 and claim to have successfully detonated a “miniaturized” nuclear device in February merits the administration’s response. Likewise, of course, for Iran’s ongoing nuclear and ballistic missile programs, which Alaska-based interceptors are not optimally located to hit. Whether or not the tide or war is receding, the ballistic missile threat to the homeland is growing.

Then there is the decision to terminate the fourth phase of the President’s Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA) for missile defense deployments in Europe. This plan centered on the proposed development of a new missile, known as the SM-3 Block IIB, which would help protect the United States homeland against a future Iranian ICBM threat.

One cannot overstate the importance of this leg of the President’s missile defense plans. 

The fourth phase of the PAA was essential for providing what is known as a layered, shoot-look-shoot capability against threat missiles. This distinction would allow the United States to determine whether it had missed on one attempt before launching additional interceptors, as opposed to throwing the kitchen sink in a one-off effort.  Deploying additional interceptors in Alaska will give us a larger kitchen sink, in this analogy, but will not provide a layered, shoot-look-shoot defense.  Especially if Iran or North Korea amass a significant inventory of ICBMs, the difference between the two approaches would be critical.

Moreover, this part of the plan was the President’s response to congressional criticism of his cancellation of the GMD deployment to Poland, which would have provided such a shoot-look-shoot option. Unless the administration now goes forward with a third GMD site on the U.S. east coast, the homeland will be more vulnerable as a result of these cancellations.

Just in case the world is not dangerous enough, missile defense programs face the same mindless cuts that are damaging our national defense across the board.

In the current fiscal year, the administration has already cut its budget request for the Missile Defense Agency by 11 percent, a level that will be further reduced by sequestration. Because the Missile Defense Agency is uniquely reliant on civilian expertise – rocket science and all – it will be particularly hard hit by mandatory furloughs.

Even the Obama administration’s priority of deploying regional missile defense capabilities for our allies and forward deployed forces has been affected by budget cuts.  The administration now plans to field fewer Army and Navy units for regional missile defense operations than it advocated  just a few years ago.

The administration may have reallocated its dwindling defense dollars as well as possible on Friday, but this is no time to shortchange missile defense programs.

The President and Congress should work together to restore missile defense funding this year, with a focus on fielding a third GMD site in the eastern United States, ramping up the acquisition of regional missile defense capabilities, and harvesting SM-3 Block IIB development to enhance GMD capabilities.

At a time when the danger to our homeland is growing, our nation’s leaders have little to gain from mindless defense cuts and everything to lose if our missile defense systems cannot defeat emerging threats.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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