Fate of missile defense shield left to Obama
Adding to an already formidable to-do list, President-elect Barack Obama will face a host of concerns as he plots the future of a European missile defense shield touted by President Bush as a necessary measure against potential Iranian missile attacks.
Technically known as the Ballistic Missile Defense European Capability, the shield involves radar stations in the United Kingdom and Czech Republic, as well as missile interceptors in Poland. Essentially, the system would use radar in the Czech Republic to detect and track an Iranian missile, with interceptor missiles fired from batteries in Poland to stop such an attack.
Planning for the shield began in fiscal 2007, and the system will receive $456 million in fiscal 2009.
Between 100 to 200 troops, contractors and Defense Department civilians could be running each site with everything operational by 2013 if host-nation agreements are ratified, according to Richard Lehner, a U.S. Missile Defense Agency spokesman.
Since the U.S. abandoned the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, Bush has touted the shield as an essential counter to Iran’s continued missile testing and development in the post-9/11 world.
But analysts say everything could change once Obama is sworn in. He will face technological uncertainties about the shield and strategic realities among America’s allies and adversaries.
Obama’s transition Web site states the president-elect supports missile defense but wants to make sure development is practical and cost-effective. It should not be pursued at the expense of other national security priorities, the site says.
The European shield will require about $4.8 billion in funding between this year and fiscal 2013, according to the agency.
It is but one piece of America’s missile defense system, with batteries already stationed in Alaska to counter North Korean missiles, among other initiatives.
The European shield should not be confused with former President Reagan’s "Star Wars" initiatives, according to David Mosher, an analyst at the RAND Corporation, a policy think tank. This isn’t a system designed to fend off the missile threats of the Soviets.
"Reagan’s plan was very grandiose," Mosher said. "What we see now, I don’t even know if it’s ‘Star Wars lite.’ It’s pretty limited."
Aside from global realities and politics back in the States, some experts question whether the technology is even ready, and what the ultimate goals of the system should be. Is the shield intended to stop Iranian missiles now or more advanced models later? Can the shield adapt to an evolving threat?
Although Iran test-fired a missile last month, its program is still very basic and the country’s scientists are concerned with just launching a missile at this point, according to Dr. Dean Wilkening, who directs the science program at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.
Any Iranian missile threat — its existence is a debatable point in and of itself — lies in the future.
The European shield system needs more development time, Wilkening said, and he would recommend as much to Obama.
"The Bush administration pushed the deployment of missile defense much more rapidly than an objective engineer might," he said. "The politics pushed the deployment as opposed to the military requirements or the threat."
Due to technological limitations, the system as envisioned today would not protect Turkey or southeastern Europe from attack.
And as the Iranian missile threat evolves, today’s Europe missile shield would become more marginal and less able to protect most of the continent, he said. Those developing the system should anticipate more complex systems as Iran gets better at developing missiles.
Today’s technology can lock on and destroy an enemy missile but it is unable to distinguish the warhead from any variety of decoys launched at the same time, Wilkening said.
Wilkening likened the missile shield’s best path of development to the strategic bomber competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, where there was no final, technical solution, just a constant game of one-upmanship, Wilkening said.
"This is not like sending a man to the moon," he said of the shield’s technical side. "The moon doesn’t care and the moon doesn’t send countermeasures. When you’re involved in a strategic competition, one opponent against the other, it’s hard to come up with a definitive answer."
The Bush administration has followed a "spiral development" pattern when it comes to the European missile shield technology and what it should ultimately be able to do, Mosher said.
"They’ve never really articulated what the end point is for them," he said. "There’s been very little transparency."
Such systems cost a lot and radars in particular are "notoriously expensive," Wilkening said. "Ultimately it’s going to come down to cost," Wilkening said. "It’s good stuff, the technology is good and missile defense has a real role to play in U.S. defense strategy, and they can be very helpful in some situations."
In the end, Wilkening said, there’s only so much defense dough to go around.
"F-22s are also helpful. C-17s are helpful," he said. "There are all kinds of things that are helpful. These things all cost money."
U.S. allies and Russia all have stakes in the European missile shield, another factor Obama will have to consider.
In response to European missile shield plans, Russia’s leaders vowed earlier this year to aim missiles at Poland and the Czech Republic if the shield goes ahead as planned.
But last month, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told reporters he thought Obama would be open to more of a dialogue on the issue.
Russia knows the current U.S. system couldn’t stop its missiles. Analysts say Russia’s response has to do with what could be built onto that system and indignation at the perceived encroachment of the U.S. on its Eastern European stomping grounds.
Poland and the Czech Republic signed preliminary agreements for hosting missile shield sites in the name of solidarity with the West and NATO this year, aggravating Russia and making engagement with it that much more difficult, according to Andrew Kuchins, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
These tensions with Moscow have led some Europeans leaders such as French President Nicolas Sarkozy to question the plan altogether. Last month, Poland’s foreign minister Radek Sikorski said his country needs to know where the Obama administration is going on this issue.
"We signed with the current administration an agreement on missile defense and obviously we want to know where the wind is blowing on that," Sikorski said in an interview with the Associated Press last month.
Regardless of the shield’s future, a short-range Patriot anti-missile battery will be stationed in Poland next year with a small garrison of U.S. troops.
"This is going to be an area the Obama administration is going to review," Kuchins said of the missile shield. "I doubt we’ll see a U-turn, but we’ll see more efforts to engage the Russians and mollify their concerns."
Obama has vowed to consult more with European allies than his predecessor, adding another voice to the missile shield debate, Mosher said.
"This is the complication the incoming administration has to deal with, not only the politics of Poland and a resurgent Russia and the Czech Republic, but also the European politics within NATO about what’s appropriate and what’s not and how to deal with Russia," he said.
Obama will have to consider the consequences for Poland and the Czech Republic if the U.S. slows down or aborts the European missile shield, according to Charles Ferguson, an analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations.
"As new members of NATO, they are looking to the U.S. as a leader and protector," Ferguson said. "They don’t want to be felt like they’re caught out in the cold."
A missile defense shield with international consequences for the U.S., backed by pricey technology that some believe is not proven, could lead Obama away from his predecessor’s plan, Wilkening said.
"Given all the other things this country’s got to wrestle with right now, I just think Obama is going to have a very difficult time funding this stuff," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Falling along partisan lines
Traditionally, missile defense advocacy has skewed along partisan lines, long advocated by Republicans and questioned by Democrats.
About $115 billion has been doled out for various missile defense programs since 1985, with the highest levels of funding coming when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency, according to the U.S. Missile Defense Agency.
President-elect Barack Obama could continue the standard Democratic position of purposefully slow and deliberate development, according to Charles Ferguson, an analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations.
Former President Bill Clinton funded missile defense but was an advocate of ensuring the technology was good to go before any deployment took place, he said.
"They’re probably going to go back to the Clinton criteria without calling it the Clinton criteria," Ferguson said. "Each president likes to put their own stamp on defense policy."
Obama will likely be more cautious in deploying the system than Bush was, and the shield may stay at the research and development level until the tech is totally proven, he said.
"[Obama] would favor a missile defense if it works," said Dana Allin of London’s International Institute of Strategic Studies. "[The Democrats] have been more suspicious of it, because on the Republican side there’s been such a long and strong commitment, accelerated beyond the capabilities."
During the Clinton administration, missile defense focused on the North Korean threat, and Bush established an interceptor site in Alaska in 2004 after pulling out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002.
"The European site as we know it today was not something that was discussed very much at all," said, David Mosher, an analyst at the RAND Corporation.
Traditional Democrat views on missile defense probably won’t lead Obama to scrap the European shield altogether, Ferguson said.
"It’s a concept that’s going to stay alive, at least at the (research and development) level," he said. "But I think he’ll be cautious in deploying the system, especially considering what a sore point it is."