Military Pushed for New Missile Defense Plan

(Sep. 21) -A U.S. Standard Missile 3 interceptor lifts off from a Navy warship during a July test. Top U.S. military officials endorsed a missile defense plan involving the interceptors over a Bush administration proposal to field ground-based interceptors in Poland (U.S. Missile Defense Agency photo).
(Sep. 21) -A U.S. Standard Missile 3 interceptor lifts off from a Navy warship during a July test. Top U.S. military officials endorsed a missile defense plan involving the interceptors over a Bush administration proposal to field ground-based interceptors in Poland (U.S. Missile Defense Agency photo).

Top leaders in the U.S. military had pushed to scrap a plan to deploy Europe-based defenses against long-range missiles, the Washington Post reported today (see GSN, Sept. 18).

The Obama administration announced last week that it would, in fact, abandon its predecessor's effort to field 10 missile interceptors in Poland and a sophisticated radar in the Czech Republic. In its place is a program that focuses on defending U.S. personnel and allies in Europe against Iranian short- and medium-range threats, largely through deployment of evolving versions of the Standard Missile 3.

The stance of U.S. generals was based on budget concerns and the need to safeguard U.S. forces in other nations against strikes by shorter-range missiles, according to the Post.

The decision came as the Obama administration looks to reduce funding for missile defense, cutting the program budget by more than $1 billion and cutting off deployment of silo-based interceptors in Alaska and California at 30, among other rollbacks (see GSN, May 22).

"I believe what's happening is what you witnessed happening in the Clinton years," said nonproliferation expert Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund. "The military never liked this stuff; they were willing to support it as long as the budget was increasing, as the president's pet rock. But as soon as the budget starts contracting, they're willing to throw this overboard."

Military officers have historically emphasized the dangers posed by short- and medium-range missiles, and viewed sophisticated defense activities as a potential competitor for limited budget money, said Robert Joseph, former U.S. undersecretary of state. He argued, though, that the Obama administration's move would produce "a weakening of our capability against long-range threats." It also could leave the United States vulnerable to coercion by ICBM-equipped antagonists, Joseph suggested.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates addressed such concerns in a commentary yesterday in the New York Times:

"I have found since taking this post that when it comes to missile defense, some hold a view bordering on theology that regards any change of plans or any cancellation of a program as abandonment or even breaking faith," he stated.

Even taking into account the administration's focus on short-range threats, one-fourth to one-third of missile-defense funding would go toward addressing long-range missiles, according to the Missile Defense Agency (Jeffrey Smith, Washington Post, Sept. 21).

President Barack Obama said yesterday his decision was not directed at Russia, which has strenuously objected to plans for European missile defenses as a threat to its strategic security. Washington, under Obama, has sought to "reset" relations with Moscow that became strained during the Bush administration and to gain Moscow's support in cracking down on Iran's nuclear program.

"We have made a decision about what will be best to protect the American people as well as our troops in Europe and our allies," Obama told CNN. "If the byproduct of it is that the Russians feel a little less paranoid and are now willing to work more effectively with us to deal with threats like ballistic missiles from Iran or nuclear development in Iran, you know, then that's a bonus" (Xinhua News Agency, Sept. 20).

Not everyone appeared convinced, the Times reported.

“I hope our administration really thought this through and this was not about appeasing Russia, because I don’t think that justifies the decision,” said Riki Ellison, head of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev promised no reward for the U.S. move. He said, though, that "there always is a score in politics. And if our partners hear some of our concerns, we will, of course, be more attentive to theirs" (Levy/Baker, New York Times, Sept. 18).

The head of the Russian General Staff today countered reports that Moscow has already decided against placing short-range missiles near Poland, the Xinhua News Agency reported. The Kremlin had threatened the deployment if Washington moved ahead with the interceptors.

"There is no decision to that effect so far. It must be a political decision," said Gen. Nikolai Makarov, according to Interfax. "I cannot make this decision; that is a responsibility of the president" (Xinhua News Agency, Sept. 21).

September 21, 2009
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Top leaders in the U.S. military had pushed to scrap a plan to deploy Europe-based defenses against long-range missiles, the Washington Post reported today (see GSN, Sept. 18).