by Kingston Reif
On March 11, 2008, Vice President Dick Cheney spoke at a Heritage Foundation dinner commemorating the 25th anniversary of President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), labeled by critics as “Star Wars.” Cheney used the occasion to reiterate five Bush administration talking points about the need for missile defense:
- In 1972, nine countries had ballistic missiles. Today, it is at least 27 — and that includes hostile regimes that oppress their own people, seek to intimidate and dominate their neighbors, and actively support terrorist groups.
- …the fact remains that North Korea today is developing an intercontinental ballistic missile with the potential of striking the American mainland with a nuclear warhead. The North Koreans also today possess a large force of missiles that threaten America’s closest allies in Asia and our forces deployed in the region.
- Existing Iranian missile and rocket capabilities already threaten U.S. forces in the Middle East, as well as Israel and our Arab partners. Tehran continues to develop technologies that could lead to its building an ICBM capable of striking the United States — perhaps as soon as late in the next decade.
- From tests we’ve conducted in the Pacific, we now believe we have a credible measure of protection against long-range threats from Northeast Asia.
- The next step is to deploy long-range missile defense in Europe, to protect our friends and allies.
Not surprisingly, the evidence supporting Cheney’s assertions is remarkably thin at best, nonexistent at worst.
First, Cheney’s claim that at least 27 countries possess ballistic missiles obscures the fact that the ballistic missile threat to the United States and its allies is not nearly as great as the vice-president would have us believe. As arms control expert Joseph Cirincione pointed out at a recent House hearing on missile defense, “By most measures, the threat has steadily declined over the past 20 years.” Nearly all countries that possess ballistic missiles today are, in Cirincione’s words “friends of the United States, and almost all have only short-range missiles that threaten only their neighbors.” At the same hearing, homeland security expert Stephen Flynn noted that the United States is far more likely to be attacked with weapons of mass destruction (WMD) transferred via non-missile means such as a dirty bomb than by ICBMs.
Second, Cheney’s assertion that North Korea and Iran are developing ICBMs capable of striking the United States paints a misleading picture of Pyongyang and Tehran’s actual capabilities. North Korea’s Taepo Dong-2 ICBM is alleged to have a range of 5,000-15,000 kilometers, but it failed after a mere 42 seconds during its only flight test in July 2006. Though it is conceivable that North Korea could one day develop an ICBM capable of delivering a nuclear payload, doing so would require a level of sophistication that the North Koreans are far, far away from achieving. North Korea does possess a number of theater/shorter-range ballistic missiles capable of targeting U.S. troops and allies in East Asia. However, it is not at all clear that Pyongyang has the ability to fit these missiles with a nuclear device.
The Iranian Shahab III program is based on North Korean missile designs and is believed to have a range of 2,000 kilometers. Yet, like its North Korean counterpart, the Shahab III has not been successfully tested. In February 2008, Iran tested a Shahab III it claimed was a space launch vehicle. Purportedly successful, video footage of the test analyzed by former UN weapons inspector Geoffrey Forden suggests that Iran still has a long way to go before it will be able to successfully field the Shahab III (to say nothing about longer-range Shahab IVs and Vs, which are even more technologically demanding).
Though U.S. intelligence assessments have concluded that North Korea and Iran could test an ICBM within a decade or two, Cheney is manipulating these assessments to:
- buttress “worst case” assumptions about what North Korea and Iran might be able do in the future;
- give the impression that diplomacy, deterrence, and a comprehensive evaluation of the threat posed by North Korean and Iranian ballistic missiles relative to other threats have no place in U.S. policy toward North Korea and Iran; and
- put aside any evidence or arguments that would challenge or undermine his preferred policy course.
The Bush administration has not made a strong case that the North Korean and Iranian threats are so urgent that all other means to combat them would be ineffective. Deterrence is alive and well.
Cheney’s claim that U.S. missile defense assets already in place could protect the U.S. homeland against long-range threats from Northeast Asia also rests on a willful distortion of the facts. In its annual report released in March 2008, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) observed that tests of the ground-based mid-course defense (GMD) element of the Bush administration’s proposed ballistic missile defense system (BMDS) “have not included target suite dynamic features and intercept geometrics representative of the operational environment in which GMD will perform its mission,” and thus “do not provide high confidence that GMD will perform well operationally.”
Similarly, missile defense experts Lt. General Robert Gard (USA, ret.) and John Isaacs note in a recent Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation report that, “There is no defensive system under consideration than can neutralize a ballistic missile threat that employs even relatively simple countermeasures that could be developed by any country able to build a long-range, nuclear tipped missile.”
Finally, Cheney’s call to deploy missile defense in Europe is deeply flawed. According to Brookings defense analyst Michael O’Hanlon, the proposed system, which would consist of 10 interceptors in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic, would be no more capable than the U.S.-based mid-course system. It is also important to point out that the GMD element currently proposed for Europe will employ a different interceptor than those deployed in Alaska and California. A February 2008 Congressional Research Service report reiterated that the European interceptors have not been tested.
The European deployment has provoked virulent opposition from Russia. In response, Moscow has (1) already suspended compliance with the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty; (2) threatened to abrogate the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which could pave the way for the reintroduction of large numbers of ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with intermediate ranges in Europe; and (3) suggested that it may target Poland and the Czech Republic and deploy medium-range ballistic missiles in Kalingard on the Polish border.
Advocates of deploying missile defense in Europe often argue that Russia’s strategic objections to the U.S. proposal have little objective merit. However, Russia’s perception that a U.S. missile defense system might compromise its credible deterrent can’t be attributed to paranoia or political posturing alone. U.S. interceptors in Poland could be effective in intercepting Russian ICBMs. Moreover, Russian defense analysts are undoubtedly questioning the purpose of a system that would be in a position to target Russian ICBMs but would be unable to protect a large swath of Europe from an Iranian missile attack. So long as Russia fears that the current proposal could threaten its deterrent capability, it will have little incentive to cut its nuclear arsenal, abandon its launch-on-warning posture, or take further steps on cooperative U.S.-Russian programs that are helping to secure Russian nuclear materials.
In an encouraging development, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently visited Moscow in an attempt to find common ground on this contentious issue. Washington has reportedly proposed to halt activation of the system until an agreement can be reached with Russia as to what constitutes an “imminent” Iranian threat and has offered to allow Russia access to missile defense sites in the United States and Europe. While it remains to be seen if an April 6, 2008 meeting between President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin will bring the two countries closer to an agreement, the bottom line is that in insisting on deploying a system that is of dubious potential efficacy, the Bush administration has eroded relations with Russia and undermined U.S. national security.
Since the 1980s, the United States has spent more than $120 billion on missile defense, and the Bush administration estimates that another $50 billion will be spent between FY2008 and FY2013. Missile defense is the largest research and development program in the Department of Defense, and the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has been exempted from standard budgeting, reporting, and accounting requirements. Though Congress gave nearly $10 billion for all MDA missile defense programs for FY2008, the National Defense Authorization Act imposes a number of important limits on MDA’s freedom of action, the most important of which cuts $85 million from the Bush administration’s $310 million request to begin deployment of missile defense in Europe.
Congress is on the right track. Missile defense should only be contemplated if it is cost-effective, technologically feasible, undertaken in cooperation with U.S. allies, and deployed as a complement – not an alternative – to deterrence and diplomacy.