Among the questions raised by President-elect Barack Obama's
victory, one has been largely overlooked by his critics and supporters:
What fate awaits the international missile defense system Washington
has been building over the past decade? After all, as is his way, the
president-elect has been both for and against missile defense.
Before trying to decipher Obama's position on missile defense, it
pays to recall the remarkable progress missile defense has made to date.
Critics of missile defense--and of President George W. Bush--believe
it was Bush who forced the issue and pushed missile defense from the
realm of theory into the arena of international politics. In fact, this
shift began in the late 1990s, after a congressional commission raised
a number of warnings about ballistic missile threats and, as if on cue,
North Korea test-fired a three-stage rocket. President Bill Clinton
then signed legislation that paved the way for deployment of a system
to defend against "limited ballistic missile attack as soon as is
Clinton's critics say he could have done more, which is true. But he
also could have done much less. In the end, he followed the Hippocratic
Oath when it came to missile defense: He did no harm.
By endorsing missile defense, Clinton reflected the emergence of a
national consensus on the issue. As Gen. Henry Obering, director of the
U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA), observes, today's missile defense
program is the product of four administrations, 11 Congresses and $115
billion in U.S. investment.
Thanks in part
to that consensus, Bush was able to accelerate the program.
First, he notified Moscow of America's intentions to scrap the
anachronistic ABM Treaty. He promised to slash America's nuclear
arsenal from 6,000 warheads to 1,700 and assured the Russians that
missile defense wouldn't upset the U.S.-Russia balance of mutual
deterrence. At the time, Vladimir Putin agreed, concluding that
Washington's decision "does not pose a threat to the national security
of the Russian Federation." (Russia's recent reversal is a subject for
By early 2003, Bush was building a missile defense coalition. The
British government agreed to upgrades of radar stations in the UK.
Denmark approved similar upgrades at radar and satellite-tracking
stations in Thule, Greenland.
In late 2003, Tokyo gave the go-ahead for construction of missile
defenses, in close partnership with the United States. Australia and
the United States signed a 25-year pact on missile defense in 2004.
That same year, the United States began deploying interceptor missiles
in Alaska and California, adding a new layer to the missile defense
No less than 18 nations are now partnering with America on missile
defense--a function of the growing global threat posed by ballistic
missiles. ?Three decades ago, there were nine countries that possessed
ballistic missiles. Today, there are 32. By my count, 12 of them are
unfriendly, unstable or uncertain about their relationship with the
West. With their twin terror programs that seek to match rockets with
nukes, North Korea and Iran top this list.
In July, according to Obering, "Iran orchestrated launches of
several short- and medium-range ballistic missiles capable of striking
Israel and the U.S. bases in the Middle East." Just days after Obama's
election, Iran tested a two-stage, 1,200-mile-range, solid-fuel rocket.
At that range, the missile would be able to hit targets in southern
Europe. The Defense Intelligence Agency "estimates that Iran could have
an ICBM capable of reaching the United States by 2015," Obering notes,
ominously adding, "We should not assume that we have full understanding
of ballistic missile activities around the world. We have been
surprised in the past."
That brings us to the paranoid regime in North Korea. Over the past
decade, Pyongyang has tested long-range rockets and detonated a nuclear
weapon--both coming as stunning surprises to Western intelligence
agencies. In September, we learned that North Korea conducted tests on
engines for a new long-range missile and constructed a new facility for
ICBM tests--and launches.
"It would suggest," warns John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org, "they
have the intention to develop the capability to perfect a missile to
deliver atomic bombs to the United States."
Yet if proliferation gives us reason to worry, missile defense's important strides this year offer reason for hope.
- On the diplomatic front, NATO officially endorsed the missile defense system during its Bucharest summit.
- In August, Poland and the United States agreed on deployment of
missile defense interceptors on Polish soil. (Of course, Moscow
announced this month its intention to deploy missiles and jamming
equipment in neighboring Kaliningrad.)
- Beyond Europe, Washington and the UAE announced plans to cooperate
on deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system.
Sitting just across the Persian Gulf from Ahmadinejad's Iran, the UAE
would be a prime target for Iranian missiles in a time of hostilities.
According to the State Department, the UAE "hosts more U.S. Navy ships
than any port outside the U.S."
- On the capabilities front, the Airborne Laser (ABL) was
successfully tested in September. Mounted on a 747, the ABL will be
able loiter just outside enemy territory and intercept missile threats
long before they enter allied airspace.
- Those threats that the ABL can't thwart will be engaged by a
growing number of sea- and ground-based assets. There are already 15
Aegis warships equipped with SM-3 interceptor missiles, with three more
set to be deployed by the end of 2008. We glimpsed the real-world
capabilities of these ships in February 2008, when the USS Lake Erie intercepted a falling satellite--traveling 17,000 mph 150 miles above the earth--with an SM-3.
- In addition to naval assets, there will be 30 ground-based
interceptors at U.S. sites by the end of the year. By 2011, according
to Obering, the U.S. will have 44 interceptors at U.S. sites, with 10
more on the way in Europe by 2012--that is, unless the new
commander-in-chief issues new orders.
That brings us back to the Obama administration. Candidate Obama was emphatic about his opposition to missile defense--sort of.
For example, during the campaign, Obama vowed, "I will cut investments in unproven missile defense systems."
But he said something much different during a debate with Sen. John
McCain. "I actually believe that we need missile defense, because of
Iran and North Korea and the potential for them to obtain or to launch
nuclear weapons," Obama intoned.
He found a line somewhere in between those positions after a
post-election phone call with Polish president Lech Kaczynski, who felt
reassured by Obama's promise that "the missile defense project would
continue," in Kaczynski's words. But an Obama adviser painted a
dramatically different picture of the exchange, reporting that
"President Kaczynski raised missile defense, but President-elect Obama
made no commitment on it." The incoming president, he added, "supports
deploying a missile defense system when the technology is proved to be
That's a typical trope of missile defense opponents, and it likely
reveals Obama's real views on missile defense. Opponents of missile
defense use words like "workable" and "proven" to set such a high
standard for missile defense that anything less than a 100-percent
intercept rate means the system is "unproven" or "unworkable."
To be sure, the missile defense system has failed tests from time to
time. Just this month, for example, the Navy reported that a pair of
Aegis destroyers intercepted one missile and missed another during
tests off Hawaii. But since 2001, as Obering has noted, missile defense
assets have scored successes on 35 of 43 hit-to-kill intercepts, or
81.39 percent of the time. A growing global coalition prefers those
odds over the zero-percent chance of success guaranteed by shutting
down the missile defense program or consigning it to the lab.
This is one campaign promise we should hope President Obama breaks.