Last week, President Obama announced that the U.S. would end the
"third site" missile defense program to field interceptors in
Poland and radar in the Czech Republic. Obama declared he will
instead pursue a new "phased, adaptive approach" to provide
protection for U.S. territory and allies in Europe. The
Administration argues this changed approach, which focuses on
making use of sea-based and Standard Missile 3 (SM-3) technology,
is better suited to the new threat environment and more capable,
flexible, and cost-effective.
These claims, put forward in the White House's "Fact Sheet on
U.S. Missile Defense Policy," do not hold up under
scrutiny. The announced program for shifting to sea-based and SM-3
technology suffers from three serious flaws:
- The Administration's "new" threat assessment is
- The program makes no specific, sustained investment to exploit
the full range of sea-based and SM-3 technology; and
- The plan sets up a false choice between long- and short-range
defenses in terms of sequencing, when the U.S. needs to field
defenses against both short-range and long-range missiles
Congress should be skeptical of the Administration's new plan
and demand protection against all missile threats as soon as the
A False Dichotomy: Short-Range v.
The White House claims that Iran's development of long-range
intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities is proceeding
slower than expected. In response, the President will shift the
focus of America's missile defense program from longer-range
missiles to shorter-range threats. Instead of placing 10
ground-based missiles in Europe for the purpose of intercepting
long-range missiles from Iran, Obama will use a combination of
land- and sea-based missile defense systems--primarily upgraded
versions of the SM-3--to deal with short- and medium-range Iranian
missiles. The installation of longer-range missile defense systems
has been postponed until 2020.
Although the White House argues that the threat from Iranian
long-range missiles is not urgent, according to a U.S. Air Force
assessment, Iran could produce an intercontinental ballistic
missile capable of hitting the U.S. within only six years.
Other experts concur that Iran is not developing short-range
missiles at the expense of longer-range missiles but rather
pursuing its missile capabilities holistically. While Iran may
appear to be flight-testing short-range missiles, it frequently
uses the information gained from such tests to develop longer-range
missiles. For example, Iran successfully developed designs for its
solid-fuel ballistic missile and liquid-fuel space launcher after
only a few test flights, each significantly longer than the last,
according to missile expert Uzi Rubin's recent interview with
Already, Iran has succeeded in producing missiles with
significant reach. In May, Iran successfully launched the
solid-fuel Sejil missile, which has an estimated range of 1,560
miles--far enough to reach Poland. Even the International Atomic
Energy Agency says Iran has "sufficient information" to build an
atomic bomb and that it will likely "overcome problems" with its
There is no evidence that Iran is abandoning or stalling its
pursuit of long-range missile capabilities. Rather, recent
intelligence estimates portray the threat as real and immediate.
Consequently, the Administration should view any missile threat
from Iran, whether short- or long-range, as urgent and make the
necessary investments to counter all of Iran's potential
capabilities instead of selectively interpreting U.S.
The Administration's proposal is also based on a false dichotomy
that the only two possibilities for missile defense are the third
site or an alternative land- and sea-based system. The White House
conveniently assumes that the U.S. could not pursue the third site
and other programs--such as the sea-based system it is now touting,
the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, the Medium Extended
Air Defense System, or the NATO cooperative program--at the same
Third site missile defense does not preclude the development of
other forms of defense. Indeed, the U.S. has long been pursuing
these additional programs in tandem. Rather than creating a false
choice between long- and short-range defenses, the Administration
should pursue both the third site and the upgraded versions of the
sea-based and land-based SM-3 on a technology-driven timeline.
No Reason Why the Old and New Plans
Should Not Be Done Concurrently
The White House also argues that its alternative missile defense
proposal will be more cost-effective and faster to develop and
deploy. Both claims are misleading and require further
clarification from the Administration. The White House's plan will
be cheaper (an estimated $2.5 billion instead of $5 billion for
third site programs) but juxtaposing the two plans is like
comparing apples and oranges: These two plans offer very different
levels of defense. And a lower price tag is irrelevant if the plan
it is attached to offers less protection.
The claim that the alternative system will be faster to deploy
also requires examination. Under the new plan, the U.S. will have
no long-range, intercontinental, defense capabilities until 2020. If
projections that Iran will produce a long-range missile by 2015 are
correct, 2020 is too late.
In the meantime, President Obama is moving to reduce the number
of long-range missile interceptors fielded in Alaska and California
from 44 to 30. Congress needs to ask the Obama Administration why
it is cutting both programs that were designed to defend the U.S.
from the Iranian long-range missile threat at once.
Congress should also ask the Administration to clarify its
statements about whether or not America's missile defense
technologies are effective and improving. After all, another
justification in abandoning the third site is that, according to
the Administration, missile defense technologies have advanced so
much in recent years that additional programs are unnecessary.
Such statements are at odds with President Obama's previous
position that missile defense technologies are ineffective and
unproven. The Administration used the earlier "unproven" charge to
curtail or terminate a number of missile defense programs this year
and to justify a $1.6 billion cut to the overall program. Now
President Obama is using the opposite argument to justify the
termination of the third site. The President's strategy seems to be
based not only on shifting intelligence assessments but also on
shifting evaluations of defense capabilities.
Appeasing the Bear
The decision to end third site missile defense was made not with
national security needs in mind but to appease Russia. The
Administration threw allies overboard to make Moscow happy and yet
should not realistically expect anything in return--like helping
stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, the Poles,
steadfast American allies, feel betrayed.
The U.S. essentially gave Russia a veto over a NATO decision and
turned Poland and the Czech Republic into second-class citizens of
NATO--members under the influence of Moscow. This not only weakens
national defense but also undermines international alliances and
damaged America's position as a global leader and defender of
In defense policy, safety, not savings, should be policymakers'
ultimate goal. While overall government spending explodes,
President Obama continues to target defense alone with budget cuts.
Many painful lessons throughout history have shown that national
security should not be shortchanged. There is scant evidence that
ending third site missile defense and replacing it with an
alternative system will be better, faster, or cheaper.
Instead, this shift will weaken America's missile defense
capability against real and emerging threats, harm U.S. allies, and
embolden its enemies. The choice between defending against short-
and long-range missile threats is a false one. Furthermore, by
relying on a single weapon system family to counter a wide range of
threats, this new "phased, adaptive approach" places all of
America's missile defense eggs in one basket. Therefore, Congress
should demand the Administration fund both short- and long-range
missile defenses, thereby preparing for all potential threats.
Spring is F. M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security
Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy
Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis
Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation and
a contributor to ConUNdrum: The Limits of the United Nations
and the Search for Alternatives (Rowman & Littlefield