The Obama administration is failing to seize on a rare strategic chance, presented by Russia’s increasingly aggressive military posturing around Ukraine, to expand the U.S. missile defense footprint in Eastern Europe, says a group of influential Republican lawmakers.
Several members of the Senate Armed Services Committee say the White House should “re-engage” a George W. Bush administration initiative that would have put ground-based missile interceptors in Poland along with corresponding radar in the Czech Republic — effectively establishing permanent U.S. military positions on the border of the former Soviet Union.
While the administration claims it is on track to implement a modified version of the initiative that includes missile defense sites in Romania and Poland, the lawmakers argue that the White House foolishly scrapped the most muscular aspects of the Bush-era plan in 2009 as part of President Obama’s attempt to appease Moscow into embracing his call for a “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations.
Sens. Kelly Ayotte, John McCain and Lindsey Graham said Russian President Vladimir Putin was deeply uncomfortable with the Bush-era plan, even though the defense system was intended to deter the threat of missiles from Iran, not Russia. Breathing new life into the initiative, particularly by pursing a “third site” in the Czech Republic, would be an effective way to punish Mr. Putin for his use of military force to annex Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, the senators said.
“After Poland and the Czech Republic had demonstrated real courage in standing with the U.S. and ignoring Russian pressure on the third missile defense site, it was a mistake to cancel the missile defense plans in those two countries in a naive attempt to pursue a reset policy of concessions with the Kremlin,” Mrs. Ayotte said.
The New Hampshire Republican told The Washington Times that “in light of Putin’s invasion and illegal annexation of Crimea and continued threats to the rest of Ukraine, as well as Iran’s continued work on an intercontinental ballistic missile capability, I believe it is more essential than ever to deepen our defense collaboration with our Eastern European NATO allies.”
Mrs. Ayotte’s remarks concurred with the statements from Mr. McCain and Mr. Graham.
Polish officials announced last week that they are accelerating plans to finance their own missile shield.
The White House should “restart the missile defense system that Obama canceled in order to placate Putin in the Czech Republic and Poland,” Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican, told Fox News this month.
Mr. Graham acknowledged that the Bush-era plan was not focused on intercepting potential missiles from Russia, but he said during a March 2 appearance on CNN that the administration unwisely yielded to Russian pressure and abandoned the plan. “If I were President Obama,” the South Carolina Republican said, “I would re-engage Poland and the Czech Republic regarding missile defense.”
Mr. Obama has ordered the Pentagon to increase the number of American ground forces supporting NATO and to send extra F-15s to Lithuania and F-16s to Poland. The administration says these moves will enhance the rapid military response preparedness of U.S. allies in the region.
But on missile defense, White House officials say they are confident with the plan in place and suggest the Republican outcry is overblown and based on an inaccurate reading of Pentagon tactics during the past five years.
The Bush-era plan was less effective, administration officials argue, than an alternative version the White House began implementing in 2009 under the guidance of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, a Bush appointee.
“We haven’t canceled the program that would protect Poland and the Czech Republic,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in an email to The Times last week. Alternatively, she said, Mr. Obama revised the Bush-era plan based on “changes in U.S. technology and changes in the threat.”
The Bush plan for a large radar site inside the Czech Republic has been dropped, Ms. Hayden said, but “Poland will still host a missile defense interceptor site” that is “on track and on budget to be operational” by 2018.
She also said an interceptor site in Romania is scheduled to become operational in 2015. U.S. officials also have positioned a missile defense ship in the eastern Mediterranean, are in the process of deploying four missile defense-capable ships to Spain, and have positioned missile defense radar in Turkey.
The Czech radar system was dropped, Ms. Hayden said, because of Czech lawmakers’ delays in ratifying an agreement.
Missile defense analysts generally agree with the track pursued by the White House.
“The idea that we canceled the Bush administration’s plan in 2009 and left our allies in the lurch with nothing to replace it defies the fact that we’re moving forward with a missile defense plan,” said Kingston Reif, a senior analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington.
“Going back to the Bush-era system now would be counterproductive,” said Mr. Reif, adding that Republican lawmakers have long known that the Czechs were never fully onboard with the plan.
Mr. Gates tried to hammer home that point during a June 2011 congressional hearing where he told lawmakers, “Let’s be blunt: The third site in Europe was not going to happen because the Czech government wouldn’t approve the radar.”
Even with Russia engaged in some of its most aggressive military posturing since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Czech government appears unmoved.
A spokesman for President Milos Zeman said this month that Mr. Zeman considered the Bush-era plan ineffective years go and hasn’t changed his mind.
Some analysts remain suspicious of the Obama administration’s handling of missile defense.
The Heritage Foundation issued a report last week arguing that the administration “unwisely canceled” the final phase of the plan last year that called for the deployment to Poland “of SM-3 Block IIB interceptors capable of shooting down medium-, intermediate-, and intercontinental-range ballistic missiles.”
Pushed for a reaction to the Heritage Foundation’s criticism, Ms. Hayden said “the cancellation of the SM-3 IIB has no impact whatsoever on U.S. plans to deploy a missile defense site in Poland.”
Her remarks were bolstered by a senior administration official, who told The Times on the condition of anonymity that while the SM-3 Block IIB program was designed to provide some protection to the U.S. homeland against potential Iranian intercontinental ballistic missiles, it was “canceled last year due to funding and technology delays and because the potential threat to the United States was evolving — including the potential ICBM threat from North Korea.”
As a result, the administration is increasing the number of ground-based missile interceptors, from 30 to 44, that the Pentagon has positioned in Alaska and California.
The interceptors “have the advantage of being able to defend the United States from ICBMs from either Iran or North Korea,” the senior administration official said. “By comparison, an SM-3 IIB in Europe would not provide any protection against a potential North Korean threat.”
Still, Mrs. Ayotte was undeterred by the administration’s characterization of the situation. She said Washington should be working overtime “with our allies to increase the number of SM-3 missiles to be deployed in Poland and Romania and accelerate the deployment of the site in Poland.”
“The U.S. should also deploy additional Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense units, as well as more Aegis ships, to the European Command area of operations,” the senator said. “The U.S. should also consult closely with the Czech Republic to see how we can expeditiously further strengthen our military cooperation and extended deterrence.”
But one senior congressional aide told The Times that a core reason for pushing every opportunity to strengthen U.S. missile defenses inside Poland and the Czech Republic would purely be to punish Mr. Putin for meddling in Ukraine.
The aide, who spoke on that condition of anonymity, acknowledged that none of the missile defenses being discussed is technically designed to deter missiles launched by Russia.
“The systems are, in practicality, about an Iranian missile threat,” the aide said. “But they are relevant to Russia because Putin hates them and they’re going to be clearly perceived by him as a cost resulting from his aggression in Crimea.”
Mr. Reif said such logic sounded irresponsible.
“Because it makes us feel good to poke Russia in the eye does not mean it’s a good national security decision,” he told The Times in an interview. “There are smart and effective ways to punish Russia and help Ukraine and our Eastern European allies and there are counterproductive ways that amount to little more than political posturing.”