October 04, 2009

A Better Missile Defense

President Obama has adjusted, not abandoned plans for US missile defense in Europe, in a move that provides new opportunities for cooperation and may please the Russians - or not.

By Andrin Hauri for ISN Security Watch



When US President Barack Obama announced his decision to scrap plans introduced by the Bush administration for a missile defense system based in Eastern Europe in September, criticism followed suit.

Republican Senator John McCain stated that the step called into question the US' commitment to securing NATO allies, and that “the decision to abandon it unilaterally is seriously misguided.” Others saw it as a capitulation to Russia that makes Iran happy or a sign of Obama of abandoning missile defense in Europe altogether.

In reality, Obama has only shelved the former administration’s efforts for a specific missile defense system and not missile defense in Europe per se. The previous program - composed of a missile site in Poland and a radar network in the Czech Republic - was almost exclusively designed to intercept a few intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) bound for the US.

“Those who say we are scrapping missile defense in Europe are either misinformed or misrepresenting the reality of what we are doing,” emphasized Defense Secretary Robert Gates. “It is more adapted to the threat we see developing.”

The administration’s move came in response to new US intelligence assessments that Iran’s progress in developing ICBM capabilities has been much slower than had previously been thought, while its short- and medium-range missile arsenal advances more rapidly than estimated.

This makes an attack with hundreds of smaller missiles against US troops and allies in the Middle East and Europe the most likely near-term threat scenario – a scenario in which Bush’s proposed missile defense, yet to be tested under real world conditions, would have been useless.

Real-life threats, real-life defense

Obama’s new, phased approach to missile defense architecture in Europe addresses this very real threat with proven and more cost-effective missile defense systems.

Phase one of the new plan envisions a sea-based missile defense by 2011 with the much smaller standard SM-3 missiles available today, which are designed to intercept shorter-range missiles typically flying slower and closer to the ground than ICBMs. Improved sensor technologies stationed in Southeastern Europe will complement the system, offering a variety of options to detect and track enemy missiles.

By 2015, a more advanced version of the system would be deployed, including defense missiles that could be launched from both sea and land, while in phase three and four, further improved SM-3 missiles would, after extensive testing, address the potential Iranian ICBM threat to the US by 2020.

The new architecture offers many advantages.

First and foremost, the new system is based on current or soon available technologies and consequently will be operational six to seven years sooner than the previous program, and at less expense. According to General James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, two to three ships would suffice to protect Europe from shorter-range Iranian missiles. The use of the comparatively cheap SM-3 missile makes it a relatively inexpensive defensive system.

It is also a more survivable system and offers a high degree of flexibility in terms of geographical deployment and adaptability to growing threats as it would allow the US to deploy potentially hundreds of SM-3 missiles to sites in Europe and American ships in nearby waterways, thus exceeding the interception potential of the 10 ground-based defensive missiles in Poland envisioned in the previous program by far.

Furthermore, it offers the flexibility to adjust and technologically upgrade the architecture according to the current threat situation, while still leaving the door open to deploy long-range interceptors once that technology is proven to work and the Iranian ICBM threat advances beyond the merely theoretical.

The deployment of land-based elements in addition to sea-based assets in phase two also allows the systematic increase of the defended area if the threat grows as expected. Thus, other US allies in addition to Poland and the Czech Republic, as well as Russia could participate and be integrated in the architecture.

Obama placed specific emphasis on this potential in his announcement: “We welcome Russia’s cooperation to bring its missile defense capabilities into a broader defense of our common strategic interests [...].”

Russia unclenches fist, slightly

Unsurprisingly, the Russian government welcomed the new US approach, with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin calling the decision “correct and brave” and President Dmitry Medvedev terming it “sensible,” and renounced promptly the deployment of Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad, a step taken to counter the previous US plan.

Whether the US also receives Russia’s cooperation on tighter Iran sanctions, the main reason for Obama’s new approach according to some analysts, remains to be seen as the signals given publicly are presently mixed.

The reactions in Poland and the Czech Republic to Obama’s decision vary along the political spectrum. While conservatives feel betrayed, the parliamentary left and the majority of the population in the two countries embrace the US decision.

Through their cooperation on missile defence, both countries had hoped to forge closer bilateral ties with the US against an ever-more assertive Russia. Poland in particular desired primarily US military personnel on its soil.

For compensation, Obama offered Poland and the Czech Republic the possibility to “continue to work cooperatively” with the US on the new architecture. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explained that they remain the key candidates to host potential land-based assets of the system in future and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk confirmed: “We receive an exclusive position.”

In addition, a fully functional US Patriot missile battery will be permanently based in Poland from 2012 as a symbol of the US commitment to its defense.

The relocation of the missile defense system in the initial phase, away from Eastern Europe and toward Southeastern Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean, brings it closer to both the designated threat, Iran, and the Islamic Republic's likely target, Israel. Combined with the use of proven and reliable defense systems, this could convince Israel that there is more time left to find a non-military solution for the Iranian nuclear crisis, as hinted by Gates.

The initial deployment of the system outside of Eastern Europe and the option for cooperation with the US also takes the wind out of Russian criticism’s sails – at least in the short term.

However, when there is no joint assessment of and deeper cooperation on missile threats between the two in the long run, for example through the joint use of the Qabala radar station in Azerbaijan as part of the new architecture, this could ultimately backfire and escalate Russian criticism and threats. This is because when the US actually starts to deploy hundreds of smaller, mobile and proven defense missiles all over Europe and the Mediterranean, they could negate the power of the Russian missile arsenal.

In the short term, the key question is whether Russia’s willingness to cooperate with the US on the Iranian issue and reduce tensions with the West over Eastern Europe will improve. If it does not, Obama will appear extremely weak, especially at home, although his decision to adjust the missile defense system in Europe was correct in the light of the new strategic challenges it has to confront.



Andrin Hauri is a research assistant for the Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich. He holds a master’s of philosophy in political science from the University of Lausanne.

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