- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 30, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Critics of President Obama’s NATO missile-defense decision last week resurrected the 1962 Skybolt incident, when President Kennedy canceled that airborne missile and shook the British government, which had committed to it. What the critics did not mention is that Kennedy provided Britain with the Polaris missile instead, which ultimately served as a much more reliable deterrent than the flawed Skybolt.

The same is true for Mr. Obama’s decision to focus on a phased, adaptive approach to missile defense in Europe, centered on the Standard Missile 3 (SM-3) in lieu of the less flexible Ground Based Interceptor (GBI).

Like Kennedy, Mr. Obama has had to endure some political fallout to reverse a deployment decision by a previous administration in order to create a better technical solution to deal with the emerging threat from Iran. Also like Kennedy, he is reinforcing America’s commitment to America’s NATO allies.

Events of last week have reinforced the wisdom of the Obama decision. Both the discovery of the secret Iranian uranium enrichment site and Iran’s subsequent missile tests highlight the immediacy of the threat to Southern Europe. The Obama decision would have defensive systems in place in two rather than seven years to respond to this threat.

The genesis of the George W. Bush administration’s decision to deploy GBI in Poland and the associated radar in the Czech Republic, the so-called “third site,” was to marginally improve defense of the United States beyond coverage currently provided by the two U.S. missile-defense sites located in Alaska and California, which already provide defense for the East Coast.

There are alternative ways to strengthen U.S. defenses, including deploying later phases of the SM-3. The term “third site” itself indicates that defending Northern Europe against a missile attack was a secondary mission.

If the Bush administration had set out to defend Europe from missile attack, it would have started in Southern Europe, where the greatest immediate threat exists, rather than with a system centered on Northern Europe. That is what Mr. Obama proposes.

The SM-3 option has several key technical advantages over the GBI. It has been thoroughly tested, and it works. It is ready for deployment in less than one-third the time. It has growth potential to expand coverage as the threat expands.

It can be deployed at sea or on land. It is scalable and more survivable against attack. It can work with its own Aegis radar system or be networked with new advanced sensors that significantly enhance its effectiveness. It will have some capability to intercept a missile in its ascent phase before countermeasures are launched. It is the system of choice in defending Asia from the North Korean threat. It also is relatively inexpensive, with other nations sharing some development costs. Meanwhile, testing of the GBI will continue.

The first two phases of the Obama plan would provide sea-based and then land-based SM-3 missiles to deal with Iranian short- and medium-range missiles in the next half decade. This would provide new defenses for NATO allies in Southern Europe.

If Iran develops nuclear-tipped medium-range missiles, Turkey in particular will need assurances that it is properly defended, or it may seek its own nuclear deterrent. And SM-3 deployments on Aegis ships in the Mediterranean Sea or Persian Gulf also would provide the prospect of additional missile defenses for Israel and other Middle Eastern friends.

The last two phases of the Obama plan would produce a new “block” of SM-3 missiles with greater speed and range. During the second half of the next decade, defensive coverage would extend to all of Europe and the United States, where it would supplement GBI coverage at home, diversifying our defenses by providing two different technologies to counter the threat.

U.S. intelligence estimates that the phased approach outlined by Mr. Obama can keep pace with Iranian missile developments. That will require constant monitoring. But Northern European governments do not feel threatened by Iranian missiles at this time.

That is particularly true in Poland and the Czech Republic, where the 10 GBI missiles and the associated radar would have been deployed. Those governments agreed to deploy missile defense on their territory as a favor to the United States and to get reassurances that NATO’s commitment to them remains strong. But the deployment decisions were unpopular, and neither government ever pressed the required deployment agreements through their parliaments.

The Obama administration understands that Central and Eastern European states need reassurance. They are taking several steps to do this, including offering Poland the opportunity to deploy SM-3s, maintaining U.S. agreement to rotate U.S. Patriot missiles into Poland, and providing strategic dialogue and military assistance.

Additional steps are under consideration. Taken together, this package should strengthen deterrence and confidence in Article 5 for all alliance members. Meanwhile, both nations should feel more secure, as Russia has removed its threat to deploy missiles to Kaliningrad aimed at it.

The Obama decision has mixed results for Russia. The new X-Band radar architecture for the SM-3s will be aimed solely at Iran rather than in all directions, as would the European midcourse radar near Prague. And Russia’s unfounded concern that the GBI interceptors might somehow be converted to offensive missiles is allayed. But while the GBI deployment would have been limited to 10 interceptors, scores of the smaller SM-3s will be deployed.

The Obama administration made the decision in the interest of defending Europe and enhancing homeland defenses, not to ease Russia’s concerns. Seeking a quid pro quo from Russia might have locked the United States into a bad decision or into limits it would rather avoid.

Russia did indicate at the U.N. General Assembly session this week that it would consider tougher sanctions on Iran. Now Russia also should stop intimidating members of the alliance and cooperate with this new missile-defense program against common threats.

Finally, Iran should take notice and realize it is becoming increasingly isolated from the international community. This deployment is just part of what Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had in mind when she said we need to develop a stronger deterrent to deal with Iran. The Nuclear Posture Review under final consideration in the U.S. administration will need to retain a credible nuclear force in Europe to make sure Iran does not miscalculate. If Iran persists with its nuclear plans, the forces that will array against it will make it less, not more, secure.

Hans Binnendijk is vice president for research at the National Defense University. These comments are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Defense Department or the U.S. government.

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