Center for Arms Control

by Robert G. Gard [contact information]

by John Isaacs [contact information]

by Kingston Reif [contact information]

by Travis Sharp [contact information]

President Obama's Revamped European Missile Defense Offers Better Security

September 17, 2009

In response to the Pentagon's announcement today that it intends to modify plans for the U.S. missile defense system in Europe, experts at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation concluded that the decision is technically and politically wise.

The Obama administration intends to use SM-3 interceptors, at first based on Aegis destroyers and later based from ground-based sites, instead of going forward with the Bush administration's plan for ten ground-based interceptors in Poland along with a radar system in the Czech Republic.

"The decision to revamp the missile defense plan in Europe is based on technological reality rather than rigid ideology," said John Isaacs, executive director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. "The Obama administration's proposal is a better choice for U.S. and European security."

The Bush administration's proposed Poland-based interceptor, which would have been a two-stage variant of the three-stage U.S. interceptor already deployed in Alaska and California, has not yet been built and would not even undergo its first test until 2010. The Bush administration's proposed configuration would not have protected NATO members Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania from current Iranian missile threats because the system was not designed to cover this area. On the other hand, the Obama administration's SM-3 configuration is designed to protect all of Europe by approximately 2018.

"The proposed interceptors for Poland have not even been built, much less tested. The Obama administration is killing an idea, not a program, and replacing it with a more technologically-promising system," remarked Lt. Gen. Robert Gard, chairman of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

Aegis destroyers are already deployed worldwide and the SM-3 interceptor has proven successful in 19 of 23 tests since 2002. The SM-3 interceptor is also specifically designed to counter short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, which are the most dangerous near-term threat posed by Iran. As Missile Defense Agency Director Lt. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly said earlier this year, "ninety-nine percent of the threat today" is from short- and medium-range missiles.

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 until 2015 at the very earliest. Under the Obama administration's plan, upgraded SM-3 interceptors that are more capable of defending against intermediate- and long-range missiles will be deployed as they become available over the next decade. Thus, as the Iranian threat potentially evolves, the U.S. missile defense system will evolve along with it.

While supporters of the European proposal are attempting to characterize the Obama administration's decision as a sign of a slackening U.S. commitment to Eastern European allies or NATO, this is false. First, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen labeled the Obama administration's decision "a positive first step." The U.S. relationship with its NATO allies is crucial for European security, restraining Russian aggressiveness, and retaining support for U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States is not abandoning missile defense in Europe; it is restructuring capabilities to better counter threats that currently exist.

Second, while Poland and the Czech Republic sought the system in order to secure U.S. support in the face of recent Russian assertiveness, the system was not designed, and the Bush administration reiterated over and over again that it was not intended, to defend these countries against Russia. The United States pledged earlier this year to provide Poland with a Patriot missile battery that will help defend against Russia. The United States also has agreed in recent years to provide Poland and the Czech Republic with F-16 fighters and unmanned aerial vehicles, a sign of Washington's commitment to their security.

"The U.S. security commitment to Poland and the Czech Republican remains as steadfast as ever," added Isaacs. "Framing this decision, which was based on technical factors, as a litmus test of whether the United States is committed to Eastern Europe or willing to stand up to Russia represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation."


The proposed U.S. missile defense system in Europe was designed to protect Europe and the United States from intermediate- and long-range missile threats from Iran which do not currently exist.

  • The Congressional Budget Office projected that the Bush administration's proposal would cost between $9 billion and $14 billion over 20 years.
  • Lt. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly, the Director of the Missile Defense Agency, noted in a recent interview that 99% of the ballistic missile threat today is from short- and medium-range ballistic missiles.
  • U.S. analysis of Iran's ballistic missile programs have consistently overestimated the speed of Iran's development of new, more advanced missiles. As Gen. James Cartwright, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated last month, "We believed that the emergence of the intercontinental ballistic missile would come much faster than it did...The reality is, it has not come as fast as we thought it would come."
  • An April 2009 report of the U.S. Air Force's National Air and Space Intelligence Center stated that "With sufficient foreign assistance, Iran could develop and test an ICBM capable of reaching the United States by 2015."
  • In a Joint Threat Assessment of Iran's nuclear and missile potential released in May 2009, a team of U.S. and Russian scientists estimated that if Iran decided today that it wanted to develop an ICBM, it "will not be able, for at least ten to fifteen years, to master independently the 'critical technologies' for advanced...[intermediate range ballistic missiles] and ICBMs because it does not have the scientific, economic, and industrial infrastructure for developing these critical technologies."

The proposed interceptors for Poland have not even been built, much less tested. The Obama administration is killing an idea, not a program.

  • In October 2007, Dr. Charles McQueary, the Department of Defense's Director, Operational Test & Evaluation, issued a report on the proposed European missile defense system. The report concluded that "the effectiveness of the European assets cannot be assumed."
  • In 2008, Dr. McQueary stated that the missile defense capabilities upon which the European interceptors would have been based "will not support a high level of confidence in its limited capabilities...additional test data under realistic test conditions is necessary to validate models and simulations and to increase confidence in the ability of these models and simulations to accurately predict system capability."
  • According to the final report of the bipartisan Congressional Strategic Posture Commission, which included such conservatives as former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger and former FBI Director James Woolsey, missile defenses designed to counter long-range threats have "demonstrated some capability against unsophisticated threats," but "this...system is now incapable of defending against complex threats." The Commission encouraged "a substantial role for defenses against short- to medium-range missiles," but warned that "defenses against longer range missiles should be based on their demonstrated effectiveness and the projected threat from Iran and North Korea." The Obama administration's plans for missile defense in Europe are in keeping with the Commission's recommendations.

Robert G. Gard 202-546-0795 ext. 2111

Lt. General Robert G. Gard, Jr. (USA, ret.) is Chairman of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation where his work focuses on nuclear nonproliferation, missile defense, Iraq, Afghanistan, military policy, nuclear terrorism, and related national security issues. Gard has written for well-known periodicals that focus on military and international affairs and lectured widely at U.S. and international universities and academic conferences.

John Isaacs 202-546-0795 ext. 2222

John Isaacs is the Executive Director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation where his work focuses on national security issues in Congress, Iraq, missile defense, and nuclear weapons. Isaacs has published articles in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Atlanta Journal, St. Louis Post Dispatch, Christian Science Monitor, Nuclear Times, Arms Control Today, American Journal of Public Health, and Technology Review.

Kingston Reif 202-546-0795 ext. 2103

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.

Travis Sharp

Travis Sharp is the Military Policy Analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. He has published articles on defense policy in scholarly journals, internet magazines, and local newspapers, and has appeared on or been quoted in media venues such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, CNN, and Al Jazeera.

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