Observers describing the fall of the Soviet Union have noted that President Reagan’s 1983 proposal to develop an anti ballistic missile defense system played a role in the Kremlin’s loss of confidence that led to the breakup of the USSR. Decades later, this unique defensive weapons concept remains at the center of national and international controversy.
The need for defense against a missile attack aimed at the United States and its allies has become more pronounced than ever. China is now a major threat, along with several other states. Iran already has medium range missiles capable of hitting targets throughout the Middle East and Southern Europe, and, with assistance from the Russians and North Koreans, will have an ICBM capable of targeting the USA by 2015. (There are also some intelligence reports that Tehran may share this technology with Syria.)
North Korea’s No Dong missile can reach US allies Japan and South Korea, and is expected to soon perfect its Taepo-Dong 2 missile which can target America. Even more worrisome, Pyongyang is developing a road-mobile ICBM, which could make it immune from allied efforts to prevent a launch of a nuclear strike against American soil.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Ramussen, As quoted in a National Review article, is concerned that over thirty nations have acquired or are seeking to acquire ballistic missile technology.
Not to be forgotten, Russia has modernized its ICBM capability. The Obama Administration’s New START Treaty with Moscow mandates that Washington reduce its strategic capabilities, while allowing the Kremlin to expand theirs. While the U.S. delays implementing an effective ABM shield, START allows Russia to make strategic gains.It wasn’t just Republicans that were infuriated. Rep. Denny Rehberg (D-Mont.) was quoted in The Hill newspaper stating that “The new START treaty with Russia will go down as one of the worst, most one-sided deals in our country’s history.”
The ability to defend against an incoming missile by means other than the threat of launching a counter attack against an aggressor helps eliminate the threat of a nuclear exchange escalating out of control. Ellen Tauscher, the State Department’s Special Envoy for Strategic Stability and Missile defense, noted that “it presents an opportunity to put aside the vestiges of cold war thinking and move away from Mutually Assured Destruction toward Mutually Assured Stability.”
The threat comes from both long-range ICBMs and theater-range missiles. As recently noted by the State Department’s Frank Rose, who serves as the Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Bureau of Arms Control, “Today, the threat from short-, medium, and intermediate range ballistic missiles is likely to increase both in quantitative and qualitative terms in the coming years, as some states are increasing their inventories, and making their ballistic missiles more accurate, mobile, and survivable.”
In response, the House of Representatives included $100 million dollars for ABM development in its version of the 2013 Defense Appropriations Bill this month. The funds would be used to develop a missile defense site on America’s East Coast. (Two other sites exist in Alaska and California.) The new site could become operational by 2015, employing 20 ground-based interceptors at a total cost of approximately $2 billion.
It’s the latest move to provide some protection to the US homeland. Last November, House Members Mike Turner (R-Ohio), Mike Rogers (R-Alabama), Trent Franks (R-Arizona) Douglas Lamborn (R-Colorado) and Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) urged the Obama Administration to move ahead with missile defense.
The Obama Administration and Congressional Democrats have been reluctant to implement missile defense, opposing the House’s appropriation for the East Coast site. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) is seeking to defund the ABM program and redirect the funds to domestic, nonmilitary programs. The President’s opposition has been longstanding. In 2001, then-Senator Obama stated that he was opposed to missile defense; as a candidate for president, he pledged to eliminate funding for it. The President continues to advocate the slashing of funding and implementation plans for ABM systems, and is committed to completely prevent any space-related ABM plans.
The opposition has resulted in significant embarrassment for the White House. Plans to move ahead with limited ABM protection against an Iranian threat to Europe were a product of extensive negotiations between the Bush Administration and Eastern Europe. Former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe, where key ABM elements would be based, had to endure a war of words from Moscow, which has persistently opposed any NATO self-protection measures. However, President Obama proclaimed on Sept. 17, 2009, that he was unilaterally stopping the plan. The date he announced this was the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland. The President’s decision infuriated Warsaw’s leaders, who had to expend significant political capital to gain approval from their voters. The resulting loss of Eastern Europe’s trust in the White House directly led to the Czech Republic’s withdrawal from related agreements.
Thus far, despite wobbling on the part of the White House, Moscow has not been able to dissuade European governments from support for ABM protection. In an interesting development, Bloomberg News recently reported that France’s new socialist-minded President Francois Hollande has solidly backed missile defense.
The second major White House embarrassment came in March. At a meeting in South Korea at a global security summit, the president, believing that microphones were turned off, pleaded for “space” and “time”on the issue of missile defense with Russian President Medvedev. “This is my last election,” he stated. “After my election, I will have more flexibility.” Medvedev replied that he would “transmit this information to Vladimir.”
Rep. Turner immediately demanded an explanation. His insistence that the President define what “flexibility” he was offering has not been adequately answered by the White House. The House of Representatives was so enraged that it included language in the recent appropriations bill limiting the President’s ability to negotiate with Moscow on nuclear arms issues.
Distrust of the Administration’s attitude towards missile defense has been high since the President conceded to Russian demands to cancel plans for additional ground-based interceptors in Europe. The concession didn’t satisfy Moscow, which now demands written, legislative guarantees that the interceptors be forbidden from countering any Russian missiles.
Despite their opposition to American ABM efforts, Moscow has long been a leader in antimissile efforts. In 1962, the USSR initiated construction of the globe’s first operational ABM system, and engaged in a major upgrade in the late1970’s. Its effectiveness, however, was not considered especially high, leading to Moscow’s fears that superior American technology would provide the U.S. with an advantage.
Russia has conceded the fact that the ABM systems being deployed by the US are of little consequence to the Kremlin’s vast nuclear ICBM force. The Kremlin continues to press for concessions from Washington anyway, despite numerous ongoing trust-building efforts and joint projects on the part of NATO and the United States. Part of Moscow’s bluster may be part of an effort to take advantage of what they clearly perceive to be a uniquely friendly White House. Bloomberg News quoted Russian Deputy Defense Minister Antoly Antonov as saying that Moscow seeks to gain long term legislative guarantees against ABM now because “What if a new leader comes in November and dismisses all that the previous one has done?”
In an effort to rapidly solidify concessions given by President Obama before a potential new administration has the chance to replace it, Moscow officials have resorted to threats reminiscent of the Cold War. Despite Washington’s concessions to Russian demands that have already alienated the Obama Administration from American allies in Eastern Europe, the Associated Press reports that Russia’s top military officer, Chief of general Staff Nikolai Makarov threatened a pre-emptive strike on NATO missile defense facilities in Eastern Europe if they are built.
The Russian threats, which are not particularly creditable, are rather hypocritical since Moscow continues to develop its own ABM capability. Russian media widely covered the combat-ready status of a new ABM facility in Kaliningrad in late 2011, for example.
Although continuing to face political obstacles, U.S. ABM technology, both for long and theater range threats, has experienced significant successes. This month, the Aegis Ashore program has been green lighted for deployment in Romania by 2015 and Poland by 2018, according to the Missile Defense Briefing Report. The existing sea-based system had a major success on May 10 in its interception of a short-range ballistic missile target with the Navy’s new second generation missile defense interceptor. This advanced capability, notes the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, will allow the U.S. to handle more sophisticated missile threats.
Significant numbers of nations, some of which are openly threatening U.S. interests and allies, are gaining or have already gained advanced nuclear-capable missile technology. The time for Washington to take protective measures is now.