Making Sense of the Missile Shield Bait and Switch

Rebeccah Heinrichs

September 1, 2009

President Obama’s scrapping of the Europe-based missile shield has inspired a flurry of explanations from those who command the respect of policy-makers across party lines. Vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General James Cartwright and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates—a Bush Administration hold over—have been defending the new plan in an attempt to allay the concerns of Republicans and Democrat hawks with claims that the U.S. has reassessed the threat from Iran and found a greater threat from Iranian short range missiles than from Iran’s long range missiles. This, so the argument goes, justifies the shift from a more permanent site—equipped with large and fast interceptors capable of intercepting far reaching Iranian missiles—to a more “sleek” and mobile plan using smaller, ship-based interceptors. These mobile interceptors will later be converted to land based, albeit still smaller, interceptors. These smaller interceptors will defend against Iran’s shorter ranging ballistic missiles, ones that if launched from Iranian soil, will not be able to reach America’s shores.

The new plan’s missile interceptors are called Standard Missile 3s (SM-3s) and are on Aegis ships. The ground based system this plan will replace was dubbed “the Third Site” because it was to be the third immovable missile defense site operated by the United States that would offer protection of the U.S. homeland from intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). This “Third Site” promoted by the Bush Administration promised protection, particularly, from Iran. The other two ground-based sites are located in California and Alaska and they offer protection from a North Korean ICBM. The “Third Site” would also serve to provide a defense of Europe, thus strengthening our alliance with countries within reach of Iranian missiles, as well as protecting forward-deployed U.S. forces.

The switch in missile shield configurations would seem to make good economic sense—if this more mobile, less hefty plan is actually cheaper and if it is capable of providing the same defense. Unfortunately, it is not cheaper and it does not provide the same defense. According to an independent report from the Congressional Budget Office, the sea-based alternative would be far more costly. What is more (and a point that has been lost in the media morass) is that these Aegis ships equipped with SM-3 missiles are already being used by the Navy and are, predominately, at the disposal of Pacific Command. Although the Aegis ships have missile defense capabilities, they were created with much broader purposes in mind. Further, it is widely known that the Navy does not like ’special purpose’ platforms—that is, using ships for a single, limited purpose.

So if the new Obama European missile defense plan will not provide a defense of the U.S. homeland, promises to drain resources that are intended for multi-purpose operations, and will not offer the taxpayers any savings, is there anything in the new plan that off-sets these problems? May we, at least, see promise that these SM-3 missiles do a better job of protecting American interests from the Iranian threat? Sadly, if you include protecting the American homeland as something among America’s “interests,” the answer is a decided, “No.” In March 2009, General Michael Maples, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency stated before the Senate Armed Services Committee that “Iran’s February 3, 2009 launch of the Safir space launch vehicle shows progress in mastering technology needed to produce ICBMs.” And as of a few short months ago, Congress was still getting briefs suggesting that Iran will master this ICBM capability by 2015. Iran has not slowed down its ICBM mission and indicates no sincere desire to begin a slow down. It is true that the belligerent country has a greater number of short range missiles than it has of long range ones, but is it sound strategic judgment to defend our allies from the missiles of greater quantity while we ignore the missiles of greater lethality?

This is the rub of the matter. While President Obama is oft called the “Realist President” by those on the left, this missile defense shift displays a stubborn disinclination to look reality squarely in the face. It represents a dramatic shift in U.S. assessment of the nature of the enemy, and a hard break from the strategy of the previous administration. It elevates hope and theory above evidence and experience.

Iran is striving to become a real world player. What better way for Iran to do that than to develop a nuclear weapon with which they can hope to coerce the United States? President Bush was not willing to permit the Iranians access to that chess move. But, like other persistent missile defense skeptics, our current President does not believe in the benefits of these crucial strategic defenses. Instead, he is banking on his own conviction that the Iranians will be too rational to launch such a weapon because a nuke soaring at us from Iran would promptly result in a nuke soaring toward Iran from us. This plan does not give much comfort when one considers that there is a significant element within the Iranian leadership that considers a cataclysmic end to the world a desirable political aim. Therefore, in calling their ’bluff,’ the President chooses to leave the U.S. and much of Europe in the ’buff’—exposed to elements of Iranian design.

And let’s not forget about Russia. The President, leading up to negotiations with the Russians on strategic arms reductions, agreed to eliminate the Third Site, in part, to win brownie points with the Russians. Russia never liked the idea of having a U.S. missile defense system in what they consider their backyard—a.k.a. Czech and Polish soil—even though it must be conceded that the system would have zero defensive capability against the monstrous Russian arsenal. So, did our President’s plan work? Did this concession to the Russians win us any concessions from the Russians? No. Unfortunately, we came out losers. As astutely noted in a superb Wall Street Journal piece by Mark Helprin, the Russian ambassador to NATO characterized the reversal as “the Americans…simply correcting their own mistake, and we are not duty bound to pay someone for putting their own mistakes right.”

For those who have been following the politics of the Third Site, President Obama’s abandonment was a predictable but nonetheless gut-wrenching spectacle. Aside from being utterly mortified by our President’s tragic thumb-nosing at our allies in the Czech Republic and Poland, Americans should also be outraged at his sacrifice of the protection of the U.S. homeland in an effort to prove out an academic (and unproven) theory of strategic arms reductions with the Russians—a dirty business that will, more than likely, leave the United States the losers once again.

Rebeccah Heinrichs is a graduate of Ashland University and the Ashbrook Scholar Program. She is currently an aide to Congressman Trent Franks (R-AZ).