If you went strictly by the MSM reporting on the Defense Department’s recent announcement about missile defense, the thought in your head would be “we’re deploying more interceptor missiles because of North Korea.”
The “North Korea” deployment
What’s probably not in your head is the auxiliary details. DOD has requested that funding for the additional deployments start in fiscal year 2014. The deployments won’t start until after that. Assuming DOD gets the funding, it will take until 2017 for the interceptors to be in place. And the deployment, if it happens, will do no more than provide the ground-based interceptor baseline that was originally planned by the Bush II administration (44 interceptors), a baseline the Obama administration cut back to its current level (30 interceptors) in April 2009.
To put the last point another way: if the Obama DOD hadn’t cancelled the remaining ground-based interceptor (GBI) deployments in 2009, the 14 additional interceptors would already be deployed.
That said, the utility of deploying the additional GBIs – which would raise the deployed total from 30 to 44 – can justifiably be questioned, if former Secretary Bob Gates was right in 2009, when he said the 30 GBIs in Alaska and California were enough:
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told senators that 30 ground-based interceptors “provide a strong defense” against “the level of [missile] capability that North Korea has now and is likely to have for some years to come.” The system is designed to defend the United States against intermediate- and long-range missiles in the middle range of flight.
The North Korean satellite launch in December 2012 didn’t change the profile of the North Korean threat; it merely validated the predicted type of threat against which the GBIs were originally deployed. Frankly, the 30 GBIs we already have in their silos probably are enough.
They are if the threat we’re worried about is North Korea, at any rate. What if it’s not? Suppose the threat we’re really concerned about is China? It’s an interesting point, given the lack of precision or clearly-stated strategic purpose behind, basically, any move the Obama administration makes on missile defense.
Cancelling an Atlantic-side ICBM defense
Consider the decision announced by DOD at the same time as the GBI augmentation: that the U.S. will cancel the fourth and final phase of Obama’s missile defense plan for Europe. The European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) is the new plan Obama ordered up in 2009 when he cancelled George W. Bush’s plan to deploy GBIs to Europe.
GBIs in Poland would have provided missile defense for North America as well as for Europe against threats coming westward from Asia. In Bush’s original plan, the GBIs would have started going into Poland in 2013. (The GBIs in Alaska and California defend North America against threats coming eastward from Asia, or – to some extent – against missiles from East Asia coming over the North Pole.)
Obama’s replacement plan for the cancelled Bush deployments was to develop a new, ground-based mobile interceptor out of the Navy’s shorter-range SM-3 missile, and eventually to deploy a follow-on interceptor, called the SM-3 IIB, which would have “some capability” against ICBMs. The projected timeframe for this deployment was to be 2020-22, some 7-9 years after the GBI deployment in Poland was to have begun.
A key weakness of this approach, however, has been that, for the purposes of defending North America, the geometry isn’t workable for using a new-generation SM-3 in Europe against an ICBM from South Asia or the Middle East. In September 2012, the National Research Council published an assessment of the prospects for defending North America using the EPAA deployment concept, and concluded that the prospects aren’t good. Obtaining the NRC report costs $62, but fortunately, Defense Industry Daily has summarized its findings as follows (scroll down at the link):
[The NRC assessment] states that EPAA Phase IV is not likely to be an effective way to defend the United States, and recommends that the USA make changes to its own GMD system and radar set. They’re not advocating the dismantling of EPAA, just saying that the USA should have a system in which EPAA is about Europe’s defense, and the USA has a system that doesn’t depend on it.
More on that in a moment. Meanwhile, the Russians’ objections to U.S. missile defense plans have always centered on any proposed capability to defend North America (or Europe, for that matter) against missiles that might be launched from Russia, principally ICBMs. That was their objection to the Bush plan for GBIs in Poland, and it’s been their objection to the Phase IV concept of an ICBM defense in the Obama plan. They don’t want us to be able to defend ourselves against ICBMs, because their security concept is predicated on holding us (the U.S., along with NATO, but definitely the U.S.) at risk with global-strategic nuclear weapons.
Triangulating away from the Reagan vision
The Russians never bought off on Reagan’s determination to end the “MAD” nuclear stand-off, or on Bush II’s announcement in 2001 that such risk-based deterrence was no longer our policy: we would base our national security instead on missile defense. Bush formally consigned MAD to the ash heap of history. But the Russians still don’t concur in that, because they insist on being able to hold the U.S. at risk with nuclear missiles as the basis for their security. They call this condition “stability.”
Now the Obama DOD has decided to cancel Phase IV of the EPAA, a move that tacitly abandons the Reagan-Bush missile-defense approach. With no new policy articulated, this move is effectively a reversion to the Cold War approach, circa 1965. But the reversion has a twist, because we now have missile-defense systems that work.
Apparently, the Obama administration sees missile defense as applicable to local or regional theaters – or, at most, to less-than-global missile problems, like that posed by North Korea – but not to global strategic stability. I say “apparently” because we can only derive the administration’s perspective from its actions. No guiding perspective has been articulated on these questions by the Obama administration.
Obama may be worried in general about the existence of “nuclear weapons,” but he has enunciated no posture on the power or security meaning of these weapons, mated to ICBMs, in the hands of Russia, China, Iran, etc. He is enthusiastic about missile defense as a tactical shield for Israel, and for U.S. troops and allies in the Middle East and Far East – all of which are uses of missile defense for contingent, tactical purposes in small areas. But he doesn’t make the logical connection Reagan did between missile defense as a game-changer in the power calculus of nations, and reductions in nuclear arms. To get those with nukes to give them up, we have to make it pointless to have nukes – for Russia and China as well as for anyone else.
That was a core principle of the Strategic Defense Initiative. Reagan’s executive direction on this approach lasted for 30 years, from his “Star Wars” speech in March 1983 to the demise of Phase IV of the EPAA in March 2013. It has now been terminated, not by an announced policy but by a series of actions contravening the original intent of missile defense.
So what about the U.S. East coast?
In practical terms, this transition means there is no longer even a pretense of planning for an “early-intercept” defense for the continental United States against missiles launched westward from western Asia or the Middle East – whether such missiles are launched by Iran other another nation.
Meanwhile, we have no GBIs positioned for an East coast intercept. Neither Patriot nor the Navy’s Aegis SM-3 missile is designed to intercept an ICBM, with its very high terminal velocity (e.g., 6-7 mach). The ICBM presents a problem the tactical systems aren’t designed for or tested against, as does a submarine-launched missile coming from the Barents Sea. In any case, however, we don’t have (and are not planning to have) a constantly-maintained ring of Patriot batteries or Navy Aegis warships deployed on missile-defense duty to protect the East coast. Nor could we maintain such a defensive ring while also keeping up our existing defense commitments.
Will there ever be GBI-type interceptors stationed on the eastern side of the United States? That’s a good question. Republicans in the House of Representatives want a GBI site on the East coast. In May 2012, the House Armed Services Committee approved $100 million in the 2013 Defense Authorization Act for developing a new GBI site on the East coast (the Democrats voted against it). The Democrat-held Senate didn’t buy off on the $100 million or the requirement to actually develop a site, but the final joint bill does require DOD to study potential new sites in the U.S.:
[T]he legislation … require[s] the Defense Department to conduct an environmental impact study on three sites for a possible additional ground-based interceptor site in the United States. Two of these sites must be on the East Coast, which could be a first step for the original House plan championed by [Howard P. “Buck”] McKeon [R-CA] and Mike Turner, R-Ohio. But [Democratic Senator Carl] Levin insisted, “There is no operational deployment plan.”
According to the 15 March defense briefing, DOD is fulfilling the requirement from Congress to study potential sites, with the emphasis apparently on environmental impact.
These points have received little attention in the U.S. media. Yet, taken in the aggregate, they are more meaningful than the misleading popular headline about additional interceptors facing North Korea. If you don’t keep up with the policy-wonk news, what you think about our national missile defenses is probably wrong. You can comfort yourself, however, that Russia and China are probably as mystified as you are about where Obama is going with all this. Our nuclear allies Britain and France may be so as well.