Center for Arms Control

by Kingston Reif [contact information]

A Shift in Focus: Changes in the Missile Defense Program

Published by Foreign Policy in Focus on October 26, 2009

On September 17th, President Barack Obama announced changes in the American missile defense program seeking a more proven and cost-effective system than that introduced by the Bush administration. Such changes are part of Obama's new comprehensive foreign policy based on an assessment of actual threats and towards more diplomatic solutions. FPIF spoke with Kingston Reif, Deputy Director of Nuclear Non-Proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, to understand the reasons for the changes and its effects on American foreign policy. His work focuses on arms control, nuclear nonproliferation, nuclear weapons, and preventing nuclear terrorism.

GABRIELLA CAMPOS: In layman's terms, what are the differences between Bush's program and Obama's?

KINGSTON REIF: The Bush administration's program to put 10 ground-based interceptors in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic was designed to counter Iranian long-range missiles — which do not yet exist — that would target Europe or the continental United States (recall the U.S. already has long-range interceptors in place in Alaska and California intended to protect the continental U.S.). However, this system was of dubious technical efficacy — the interceptors for the system have yet to be tested — and would not have protected large swaths of southeastern Europe from Iran's existing medium- and short-range missiles.

The Obama administration's plan shifts the focus to countering these existing short-range and medium-range threats. According to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the intelligence community now believes that the threat from Iran's short- and medium-range ballistic missiles is developing much more quickly than previously anticipated, while the threat from potential Iranian long-range missiles has been much slower to develop. The Obama administration intends to use Standard Missile SM-3 interceptors, at first based on our Aegis ship destroyers, supported by a more wide-ranging network of radars and sensors. Aegis destroyers are already deployed and the SM-3 interceptor has proven successful in 19 of 23 tests since 2002. The SM-3 interceptor is specifically designed to counter short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, which is the most dangerous near-term threat posed by Iran. The plan is to have the first Aegis ships in place by 2011, a full six or seven years before the Polish and Czech sites would have been completed. Later on, the plan is to put in place upgraded land-based versions of the SM-3 that will be capable of intercepting Iranian long-range missiles, if that threat ever emerges.

CAMPOS: Democrats in Congress have come to say that Obama's plan is better, while some Republicans were infuriated with the sudden changes. What is your take on it? In what ways is the program better or worse?

REIF: I was really shocked by the Republicans' (and some Democrats') reaction to the proposed change. Here you have the Obama administration proposing a system that is actually directed at the existing threat, is far more technically mature, is much more adaptive and comprehensive, and is scheduled to be put in place much sooner. If you are a supporter of a missile defense system that will actually protect Europe, then you should be a supporter of the Obama administration's approach.

The one area where I might sympathize with Republican criticism is the way in which the Obama administration handled the rollout of their new plan. Hurried phone calls to the leaders of Poland and the Czech Republic the night before the decision was to be announced left a bad taste in some Czech and Polish mouths, at least initially. That said, I also agree with the Obama administration's defense of the rollout, which was that as they were getting closer to announcing their decision to Poland and the Czech Republic, there started to be some leaks which led to speculation in the press. Understandably, the Obama administration felt the need to make the decision public faster than they might have liked in order to set the record straight.

CAMPOS: What is the importance of Poland and Czech Republic with the new plans?

REIF: Under Obama's new plan, neither Poland nor the Czech Republic will host U.S. military assets in the short term. However, the long-term plan is to put land-based versions of the SM-3 in Europe, and there are already talks about beginning negotiations with Poland and the Czech Republic to get the first crack at hosting particular parts of this new infrastructure.

CAMPOS: In terms of financing and money, will the new program be more cost effective? The Missile Defense Agency says it will, but do you believe that it will?

REIF: I do believe it will be more cost effective. My understanding is that per missile the standard SM-3 is cheaper than the long-range ground based interceptors the Bush administration planned to put in Poland.

The Missile Defense Agency said in a recent Senate hearing that an SM-3 interceptor costs about $10 million a piece. Do you think that it is a good use of money or could it be spent somewhere else in either maybe national security or international development?

REIF: It is a far better use of money than what the Bush administration was proposing for missile defense. Like I said before the system is more technically proven and is focused on the existing threat from Iran, which is short and medium-range missiles. So our money is much better spent on this particular system than it would have been under the Bush administration's plan for Poland and the Czech Republic.

If we are going to rely solely on missile defense for our national security we are obviously going to be in big trouble. Even the SM-3 system, which has been successful in 19 out of the last 23 tests, hasn't been tested in truly operationally realistic conditions. Like the Bush administration's proposed system, the Aegis system is also vulnerable to decoys and countermeasures. Moreover, according to the U.S. intelligence community, a state or non-state actor seeking to do us harm with WMD would probably find it far easier and less expensive to attack us using either ship-launched, short-range cruise missiles or some form of non-missile means, such as a container entering a U.S. port. Obviously ballistic missile defenses would be powerless to stop an attack that is perpetrated via smuggling. Our best defense against ballistic missiles from adversaries is through deterrence, containment, and diplomacy, and that missile defenses should be just one component of a much larger holistic effort to try to address the threats posed by rogue states.

CAMPOS: Gen. Patrick O'Reilly, Director of the Missile Defense Agency, said that "99 percent of the threat today" is from short- and medium-range missiles. Do you believe this is so? Do you believe that the U.S. should worry about the long-range missiles?

REIF: We have the right to be concerned about long-range missiles, but as Gen. O'Reilly said, that's not where the main threat is. Iran is years away from possessing the type of long-range ballistic missile that could threaten most of Europe and the continental United States. Though intelligence estimates vary, the broad consensus is that Iran, without substantial foreign assistance (which Western intelligence would likely detect), is not likely to possess a ballistic missile topped with a nuclear weapon capable of threatening all of Europe and/or the United States for at least another 10 years. I have no problem with continuing to fund research and development on long-range missile defense technologies, but clearly our best option at this point is to move forward with a system that targets the existing threats posed by short and medium-range missiles, which is what the Obama administration system proposes to do.

CAMPOS: What are the biggest threats today?

REIF: Thirty-two countries, including the United States and its allies, currently possess ballistic missiles. Of those, only nine (China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) either possess or are believed to possess nuclear weapons. Only these nine plus Iran have deployed or tested missiles with a range greater than 1,000 km. China and Russia are the only two states that possess missiles capable of striking the U.S. when launched from their territory.

CAMPOS: What are the chances that an interceptor or shield will be used? Has it even been used in the past?

REIF: We used versions of the Patriot missile defense system to shoot down Iraqi short-range missiles during the first Gulf War and during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, with mixed results. As far as systems designed to hit long-range missiles, to my knowledge no such system has been used and the only time such a system might need to be used would be in the event of a breakdown of deterrence or an accidental nuclear missile launch.

One often hears the claim that missile defense buttresses deterrence. My view is that missile defenses, even if they were 100% effective, which they clearly are not, contribute almost nothing beyond the deterrent effects already provided by existing nuclear and other military capabilities. Similarly, missile defenses aren't likely to provide political and military leaders with added confidence in a crisis situation that could lead to a nuclear exchange, since they could never be completely sure that they could intercept all of an enemy's incoming missiles.

CAMPOS: It has been said that the Russians are supportive of the new program. Will it lead to a united front in negotiations with Iran?

REIF: The Obama administration made its decision to move in a different direction based on technical considerations and the nature of the current threat. The system changes were about the new threat assessment from Iran and technical considerations, not Russia. The Russians have stated that they do not view the decision as a concession. But there is no question that the Bush administration's plan proved to be a major irritant in U.S.-Russian relations. In so far as the decision facilitates greater U.S.-Russian cooperation on joint missile defense efforts and other issues that would obviously be a very welcome side effect.

Regarding Iran, I think it ultimately remains to be seen how cooperative the Russians will be. I think we have seen some positive statements from Moscow in response to the Obama administration's new approach to missile defense and to diplomacy more generally. But we are going to have to measure the actual impact in deeds and not just words.

CAMPOS: Is this a signal for significant changes in the U.S. nonproliferation policy? Where do you see these policies headed?

REIF: Again, the decision was first and foremost about how to best protect America from the threat of Iranian ballistic missiles. From day one, the Obama administration has said that it will deploy missile defenses based on the nature of the current threat and that are cost effective and proven. The Bush administration's proposed system for Poland and the Czech Republic was not based on the current threat and was neither cost-effective nor proven.

As far as nonproliferation policy goes, the Obama administration has laid out a very ambitious agenda on nuclear weapons. In Prague, President Obama committed the United States to seek peace and security in a world without nuclear weapons. He also outlined numerous steps towards that goal, such as negotiating a replacement to the START I treaty, which expires on December 5 of this year. He promised to immediately and aggressively pursue ratification of the CTBT. He also pledged to negotiate a treaty that would ban the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons purposes, and to secure and safeguard all vulnerable fissile material around the world within four years. As I noted in the context of U.S.-Russian relations above, insofar as the change in course on missile defense facilitates the furtherance of this agenda, that is all to the good.

Kingston Reif 202-546-0795 ext. 2103 kreif@armscontrolcenter.org

Kingston Reif is the Director of Nuclear Non-Proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, where his work focuses on arms control, nuclear nonproliferation, nuclear weapons, and preventing nuclear terrorism. He has published letters and articles on nuclear weapons policy in such venues as the Washington Post, Washington Times, Wall Street Journal, Survival, Defense News, and Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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