September 18, 2009

September 18, 2009 | WebMemo on Missile Defense

White House Fact Sheet on Missile Defense Raises More Questions Than It Answers

On September 17, President Obama announced that the United States would not honor its commitment to field missile defense interceptors in Poland and radar in the Czech Republic.[1] At the same time, he announced that the U.S. would pursue a new "phased, adaptive approach" for missile defense to provide protection to U.S. territory and America's friends and allies in Europe.

The White House accompanied the President's announcement with a fact sheet describing this alternative approach.[2] The fact sheet makes assertions that, at a minimum, are difficult to validate. As such, Congress would be well-advised not to take the assertions in the fact sheet at face value. Rather, it should be prepared to ask Administration officials probing questions about these assertions.

Ambiguous (at Best) Assertions

The assertions that the Obama Administration has included in the fact sheet are listed below, along with analysis that explains the difficulty in assessing their validity.

Assertion #1: The Iranian Ballistic Missile Development Program Is More Focused on Short- and Medium-Range Missiles. Specifically, the fact sheet states: "The intelligence community now assesses that the threat from Iran's short- and medium-range ballistic missiles is developing more rapidly than previously projected, while the threat of potential Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capabilities has been slower to develop than previously estimated."[3]

Leaving aside the fact that intelligence estimates of foreign ballistic missile developments is an inexact science and that the U.S. is often taken by surprise regarding these developments, the reality is that Iran is developing its ballistic missile capabilities holistically. Neatly dividing the Iranian development program between the efforts for short- and medium-range missiles from ICBMs and space-launch vehicles (SLVs) is at odds with this more holistic approach. Developments toward what in a particular flight test may appear to be a short-range missile can make material contributions toward the development of a long-range missile.

Congress needs to delve into the specifics of the assessment cited by the Administration and inquire how either:

  • The intelligence community was able to separate elements of the Iranian missile development program so precisely, or
  • Whether the Obama Administration simply read the intelligence in a way that interpreted the assessment to arrive at the conclusion that there were neat distinctions within the structure of the program.

Assertion #2: U.S. Missile Defense Capabilities and Technologies Have Advanced in Recent Years. This assertion is accurate, but is completely at odds with President Obama's previous statements that missile defense technologies are ineffective and unproven. The Obama Administration has used such statements to curtail or terminate a number of missile defense programs earlier this year and justify a $1.6 billion cut to the overall program in fiscal year 2010 compared to fiscal year 2009.[4]

Now, he is using the opposite argument to justify the termination of plans to install missile defense systems in the Czech Republic and Poland. Congress needs to inquire why opposite arguments are being used to the same end--justifying the termination of specific missile defense programs.

Assertion #3: The Sea-Based and Standard Missile Interceptor Technologies Can Be Matured in Four Phases through the Next Decade. Certainly, the sea-based and Standard missile programs can be matured during the time period cited by the fact sheet.[5] But such maturation can be realized only if there is a sustained commitment to the program over the entire developmental period.

Nowhere in the description of the program is such a commitment made, and long-term funding levels are not revealed. There is no guarantee that arms control considerations will not be allowed to interfere with this program, just as they led to the termination of the system intended for the Czech Republic and Poland. Congress needs to ask about firm commitments to the future of the program.

Assertion #4: The Alternative Approach Will Provide for the Defense of the U.S. Homeland against Long-Range Missiles. Even if there is a sustained commitment to the alternative program, this will occur only at the last of the four phases, or around 2020. In the meantime, the Obama Administration is moving to reduce the number of interceptors fielded in Alaska and California from 44 to 30 to counter long-range missile strikes against the U.S.

Now, it has canceled the fielding of the interceptors in Poland, which would also have served to defend the U.S. homeland. Congress needs to ask why the Obama Administration is not pursuing both systems for the defense of the U.S.

Assertion #5: The Alternative Plan Speeds Protection to Europe for the Defense of U.S. Forces Deployed There and of U.S. Allies. This assertion is based on a comparison of the time the defensive system for countering long-range missiles from Iran would go into the Czech Republic and Poland against doing nothing. It conveniently assumes that the U.S. would not pursue other programs such the sea-based system it is now touting, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, the Medium Extended Air Defense System, and the NATO cooperative program along with the systems in the Czech Republic and Poland. The U.S., however, has long been pursuing these additional programs in concert with those for the Czech Republic and Poland. Congress needs to ask the Administration about what clearly is a false assumption behind the comparison.

Assertion #6: The Alternative Plan Provides More Flexibility to Respond to the Emerging Iranian Missile Threat. Clearly, the sea-based and Standard missile program, if pursued on an aggressive and sustained basis, can provide flexibility because of its highly mobile deployment mode and the options for adding technological upgrades to the system. As described regarding the previous assertion, this could have been achieved in concert with the fielding of the radar and interceptors in the Czech Republic and Poland. It poses a false choice to say that it is either the previous option or the Obama Administration's alternative plan. Congress should ask whether in fact greater flexibility could be achieved by pursuing both options in tandem.

Poor Choices

In an attempt to justify its decision to terminate America's commitment to field missile defense interceptors and radar in the Czech Republic and Poland, the Obama Administration has released a fact sheet. The questionable validity of the fact sheet's assertions, however, serves only to highlight the shortcomings of the Obama Administration's decision.

Congress should not let the Obama Administration go unchallenged regarding this matter.

Baker Spring is the F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Baker Spring F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Show references in this report

[1]The White House, "Remarks by the President on Strengthening Missile Defense in Europe," September 17, 2009.

[2]The White House, "Fact Sheet on U.S. Missile Defense Policy: A 'Phased, Adaptive Approach for Missile Defense in Europe," September 17, 2009.


[4]Baker Spring, "Obama Missile Defense Plan Puts America at Risk," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2292, June 29, 2009, at

[5]Report of the Independent Working Group on Missile Defense, the Space Relationship, and the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, MA: Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, 2009), pp. 24-26.