Argument

The New Defense Realism

Obama's missile defense decision represents the victory of pragmatism over ideology.

ANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
ANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

The Obama administration’s decision announced today to cancel the deeply flawed antimissile systems in Eastern Europe is sound policy based on the best intelligence and technical assessments. U.S. President Barack Obama replaces a system that did not work against a threat that did not exist with weapons that can defend against the real Iranian missile capability. Better still, he NATO-izes the system to strengthen the alliance, not divide it.

This is not Munich; it is Prague. It is not appeasement; it is the new defense realism, the triumph of pragmatism over ideology.

The system that former President George W. Bush was rushing to build in Eastern Europe did not work. The interceptors slotted for Poland have not yet been built, let alone tested, and their sister systems deployed in Alaska have demonstrated serious operational problems. The radar intended for the Czech Republic has been shown to have major shortcomings, as documented by Theodore Postol of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other independent experts. In short, it could not see the warheads it was suppose to track.

There was no "shield." There was no defense capability to "give up." It did not exist. Fortunately, neither did the Iranian missile threat that the system was supposed to counter. Iran does not have a long-range missile that can strike Central Europe, let alone the United States, and is unlikely to develop one over the next 10 years, if ever. Nor does it have a nuclear warhead to put on a future missile.

The official U.S. intelligence assessment is that Iran would not have the material for a warhead — highly enriched uranium — before 2013. It would probably take years more to develop a warhead and test it. U.S. intelligence agencies would likely be able to detect this activity, certainly a nuclear test.

Independent assessments, such as that done by an EastWest Institute panel of American and Russian experts, agree. These rocket scientists concluded earlier this year:

Iran will not be able, for at least ten to fifteen years, to master independently the "critical technologies" for advanced mobile or silo-based IRBMs [intermediate-range ballistic missiles] and ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles] because it does not have the scientific, economic, and industrial infrastructure for developing these critical technologies.

This means that Iran could not build modern intermediate-range missiles (3,000 to 5,500 kilometers) that could strike Europe, or intercontinental-range missiles (5,500 to 10,000 kilometers) to strike the United States, for at least 10 years. The scientists concluded that Iran might be able to build a 2,000-kilometer, or medium-range, missile that could strike parts of Europe within eight years, but that missile would be highly vulnerable to counterstrikes while it was assembled on its launchpad. Importantly, the scientists also applied a common-sense filter to this technical assessment: Iran would be highly unlikely to undertake such a suicidal attack if it did have such a weapon. Iranian leaders would know that a devastating counterattack would certainly follow any missile launch. Deterrence, not antimissile interceptors, is still the best defense.

Meanwhile, the costs of the proposed system were skyrocketing to an estimated $4 billion, but the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has warned that these estimates were not credible and could be overrun by billions of dollars in extra construction and operations costs.

The GAO has more bad news for the Defense Department. A Sept. 16 report slams the entire missile-defense operation of the past eight years. The oversight agency concluded: "DOD [the Defense Department] lacks the comprehensive analytic basis needed to make fully informed decisions about the types and quantities of elements and interceptors it needs." This confirms independent expert views that the Bush administration threw money at these programs, dropped normal defense-testing requirements, and pushed deployment over development with the expected results: an incoherent set of dysfunctional systems.

We should be clear: There is an Iranian missile threat. It is a short- and medium-range threat, however, and one that worries Iran’s immediate neighbors, including NATO member Turkey. Obama’s decision is to replace nothing with something. He has told his military to consider deploying existing THAAD and SM-3 interceptors in Turkey or other countries. These systems should have some capability against Iran’s existing Shahab-3 medium-range missiles (which have about a 1,200-kilometer range).

In the end the Polish and Czech sites were not about security; they were about politics. Bush officials and their supporters on the right were trying to box in the next president. They wanted to establish facts on the ground that a future president would find too costly to remove. They were trying to institutionalize missile defense into the U.S. military and security system. The fact that nothing worked was an inconvenience they hoped to overcome by force of will.

Obama has called their bluff. He has replaced nothing with something. Better still, he has turned this into a NATO project, not shady deals struck with this country or that. The new plan announced today promises to provide a real defense capability against an existing threat and strengthen U.S. alliances in the process.

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