WASHINGTON -- Republicans are leaving little doubt that the U.S. government’s ballistic missile defense priorities would be revamped again if Mitt Romney is elected president.
The “American Exceptionalism” section of the party platform approved last week at the GOP convention in Tampa, Fla., charges that President Obama has “systematically undermined America’s missile defense” through funding reductions and cuts to deployment of interceptors in Alaska, among other steps.
It says Republicans “will fully deploy a missile defense shield for the people of the United States and for our allies.”
That wording “suggests to me that there will be a rebalancing of the priorities and the funding towards U.S. homeland defense first, and most likely our warfighters second and Europe third,” said Riki Ellison, chairman of the nongovernmental Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance.
Former U.S. Ambassador Steven Pifer, though, said Romney and the Republicans have yet to offer a clear picture of their antimissile strategy. He and others argued it would be difficult to fully reverse the direction set by Obama without angering Washington’s NATO allies.
“There’s nothing in the platform that suggests what they would do differently,” Pifer, director of the Brookings Institution’s Arms Control Initiative, told Global Security Newswire. “For example, would a Romney administration revive the idea of trying to put ground-based interceptors into Poland? I don’t know that they would. That would be one possibility.”
Obama in 2009 canceled the Bush administration’s plan to field 10 long-range missile interceptors in Poland and a radar base in the Czech Republic. In its place is the “phased adaptive approach,” a several-stage project to station around Europe increasingly advanced land- and sea-based versions of the Standard Missile 3 system and supporting technology.
The administration said the change was based on an updated intelligence assessment indicating the threat from potential Iranian ICBMs was outstripped by the danger that nation’s shorter-range ballistic missiles could pose to U.S. forces and allies in Europe and the Middle East.
Republicans have criticized Obama for focusing energy on missile defense efforts outside the country and for deploying to Europe what Romney national security counselor and former Defense Undersecretary Eric Edelman in March called an “untested and uncreated system.”
Obama “abandoned our friends in Poland by walking away from our missile defense commitments, but is eager to give Russia’s President Putin the flexibility he desires, after the election,” Romney said in his nomination acceptance speech at the Republican convention. He was referring to Obama’s comment in March to then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, picked up by a live microphone, that he would have “more flexibility” to discuss and resolve the two nations’ differences on missile defense after November.
As it focuses on Europe, Washington has cut spending for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense program, which fields long-range interceptors as the primary protection against enemy ballistic missile strikes on the United States. The administration is seeking $903 million for the budget year that begins on Oct. 1, down from $1.25 billion delivered in fiscal 2011 and less than 10 percent of the total $9.7 billion funding request for ballistic missile defenses.
Alongside the funding drop, the Defense Department reduced the number of interceptors to be installed at Fort Greely in Alaska from 40 to 26. Another four are in place at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
The system has not had a successful intercept test in nearly four years, failing twice in 2010, Ellison noted.
“There is a lot of concern about getting that system fixed as soon as possible, resolving those issues within the system, so that you can expand the system and make it more capable, which is what I believe the Republican platform is leaning towards,” he said.
The GOP-led House of Representatives has already backed fiscal 2013 defense legislation that calls for installing additional interceptors on the East Coast. That would be one option for giving the United States a “second-strike” capacity that is missing in existing defenses against Iranian ballistic missiles, according to Ellison. However, there is continuing debate over the number of years Iran would need to field an ICBM that could reach the United States and the Pentagon has played down the necessity of an East Coast site.
“The interceptors in Alaska and California are capable of providing a defensive capability against an Iranian ICBM,” Missile Defense Agency spokesman Richard Lehner said by e-mail.
Romney has suggested he is prepared to roll back Obama’s missile defense plan in favor of something closer to the Bush project, but has been light on details.
The contender’s campaign website says the former Massachusetts governor, if elected, would “begin [the] process of reversing Obama-era budget cuts to national missile defense and raise to a top priority the full deployment of a multilayered national ballistic-missile defense system.”
He would also “commit to the on-time completion of a fully capable missile defense system in Eastern Europe on the current timeline” around 2020, “but retain the option of reverting to President Bush's swifter plan if Iran is making faster progress on developing long-range missiles or if new technologies on which the current plan relies fail to materialize in a timely fashion,” according to the Romney campaign.
“Not very specific, but this suggests a desire to place long-range interceptors in Europe more quickly than as planned under the phased adaptive approach,” Kingston Reif, nuclear nonproliferation director at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, said by e-mail. “It also suggests Romney may increase the number of [ground-based interceptors] deployed in Alaska and California.”
The Republican National Committee and Romney campaign did not respond to requests for comment on their missile defense positions.
Ellison said the Defense Department could provide $1 billion in additional annual funding to establish increased sensor coverage and other enhanced capabilities for the GMD system. Shifting money away from the European project would be likely to slow it down rather than spell its demise, he said in a telephone interview.
A U.S. long-range radar system is already operational in Turkey, while Aegis-equipped guided missile destroyers are on rotating deployment in the Mediterranean. A GOP president is more likely to push back rather than eliminate plans to deploy SM-3 interceptors Romania in 2015 and Poland three years later, according to Ellison.
“I don’t think they want to go through that same process and lose the trust of the allies. I think that would be more of a delay tactic,” he said.
Undoing the phased adaptive approach could undermine NATO’s determination to move ahead with a broad European missile shield, as authorized during the alliance’s November 2010 summit in Portugal and reaffirmed last May in Chicago, Pifer said.
“Tinkering with that could raise the risk of causing NATO support for missile defense to come undone, which I don’t think a Romney administration would want to chance,” he said.
A do-it-all approach that front-loads both homeland and Europe-based missile defenses would also be difficult in this fiscal climate, Pifer said. The Defense Department is already faced with nearly $500 billion in spending cuts over the next decade, with another half-billion dollars in reductions looming if the prospects of budget sequestration remain unchanged.