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The Real Obstacle to Missile Defense in Europe

Dec 2, 2017
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It’s no secret that the Democratic Party is openly opposed to missile defense. So, when NATO leaders endorsed a defensive shield for Europe earlier this week, it put the party (and its presidential candidates) in a difficult position.

Wary of criticizing alliance leaders–who would be their partners if they win the fall election–both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have adopted a slightly different tack in criticizing NATO’s missile defense stance. While welcoming progress on the issue, Obama and Clinton fretted about the deployment of “unproven” technology, and its potential impact on the alliance. According to Bloomberg’s Janine Zacharia:

Their criticisms came a day after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization endorsed the Bush administration’s plan to build a radar station in the Czech Republic to track ballistic missiles that might be launched from Iran. The system also would include 10 interceptor missiles based in Poland.

“Senator Obama welcomes the progress on missile defense out of the NATO summit, and notes with appreciation the shared commitment among our allies to address this challenge,” Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton said in an e-mail. “Now we must ensure we do not rush to deploy technology that is not proven.”


Clinton questioned whether such a system could protect U.S. allies in Europe against a missile threat and if the deal was worth the strains it put on the transatlantic alliance.

“Senator Clinton welcomes the fact that NATO has developed a unified position to help deter and prepare for threats to its security,” Clinton campaign national security director
Lee Feinstein said in an e-mail.

Unfortunately, the agreement on missile defense reached at the Bucharest summit has come at significant — and unnecessary — cost to the harmony of the alliance, and has given Russia an opportunity to divide NATO.”

Let’s be charitable and say both arguments are overstated, to say the least.

As for the status of missile defense technology, we’d advise Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton to review the recent testimony of Lt Gen Trey Obering, Director of the Missile Defense Agency. General Obering appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this week, outlining the status of the missile defense program and its budget for Fiscal Year 2009.

Obviously, Lt Gen Obering is a tireless advocate for ballistic missile defense; that’s part of his job description. But Obering also has a reputation as something of a straight shooter, unwilling to make unrealistic performance guarantees. Obering has held senior positions in the Pentagon’s missile defense organization for the past seven years, offering some indication of his reputation inside the Beltway–and his ability to get along with politicians of all stripes.

In his latest testimony, General Obering outlined missile defense programs that are maturing rapidly–and already providing limited protection for the U.S. and its allies:

In 2007 we conducted many system ground and flight tests. Our flight test program for Ground-Based Midcourse Defense, Aegis BMD, and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense confirmed technological progress for short-, medium-, and long-range defensive capabilities. Last year we executed successfully a long-range ground-based intercept, six SM-3 intercepts of separating and unitary targets, and three THAAD intercepts of unitary targets. As of today, we have demonstrated hit-to-kill in 34 of 42 attempts since 2001. Last year alone we successfully intercepted the targets in 10 of 10 attempts.

Obering also noted the flexibility of BMD systems that successfully engaged a defunct spy satellite in late February:

This was a very successful joint mission involving the Navy, U.S. Strategic Command, the Missile Defense Agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Reconnaissance Office, and other national security offices. Missile Defense Agency engineers worked closely with the Navy to modify the interceptor and the Aegis weapon system for this one-time engagement. This was a case where the missile defense system was unexpectedly pushed into service and performed exceptionally well.

General Obering also offered compelling reasons for continuing missile defense research–and deployments:

“…there were over 120 foreign ballistic missile launches in 2007, significantly exceeding what we observed in previous years. This comes on the heels of a very active 2006, during which time both North Korea and Iran demonstrated an ability to orchestrate campaigns involving multiple and simultaneous launches using missiles of different ranges.

Currently, North Korea has hundreds of deployable short- and medium-range ballistic missiles and is developing a new intermediate-range ballistic missile and a new short-range, solid-propellant ballistic missile, which it test-launched in June 2007. Iran has the largest force of ballistic missiles in the Middle East (several hundred short- and medium-range ballistic missiles), and its highly publicized missile exercise training has enabled Iranian ballistic missile forces to hone wartime skills and new tactics.

North Korea’s ballistic missile development and export activities remain especially troubling. Pyongyang continues to press forward with the development of a nuclear-capable ICBM. While the firing of the Taepo Dong 2 in July 2006, launched together with six shorter-range ballistic missiles, failed shortly after launch, North Korean engineers probably learned enough to make modifications, not only to its long-range ballistic missiles, but also to its shorter-range systems. North Korea’s advances in missile system development, particularly its development of new, solid fuel intermediate range and short-range ballistic missiles, could allow it to deploy a more accurate, mobile, and responsive force.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons program makes these advances even more troubling to our allies and the commanders of our forces in that region. In addition to its uranium enrichment activity, Iran continues to pursue newer and longer-range missile systems and advanced warhead designs. Iran is developing an extended-range version of the Shahab-3 that could strike our allies and friends in the Middle East and Europe as well as our deployed forces. It is developing a new Ashura medium-range ballistic missile capable of reaching Israel and U.S. bases in Eastern Europe.

Iranian public statements also indicate that its solid-propellant technology is maturing; with its significantly faster launch sequence, this new missile is an improvement over the liquid-fuel Shahab-3.3 Iran has reportedly bought a new intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) under development by North Korea;4 this underscores the urgent need to work with our allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to field and integrate long-range missile defenses in Europe.

In other words, U.S. missile defense efforts are maturing in response to a very real threat–one that (in the case of Iran) may lead to an ICBM, capable of striking the CONUS, by 2015. Mr. Obama might want to rethink his contention that BMD technology is unproven, or that other Democratic chestnut, the idea that the ballistic threat is overstated.

As for Mrs. Clinton, she should note that the NATO communique from Bucharest was a remarkable show of alliance unity in the face of near-constant Russian pressure (emphasis ours). Since the U.S. unveiled its plans to base missile interceptors and tracking radars in eastern Europe, Moscow has used a variety of tricks to create divisions within the alliance. The missile defense statement suggests those efforts have failed, at least for now.

Indeed, one might argue that one of the biggest obstacles facing missile defense in Europe is not pressure from Russia, or potential hesitation within NATO’s ranks. Instead, it’s Washington’s potential to go “wobbly” on the deployment under a Democratic administration.

NATO took an important, even courageous step, in supporting missile defense at this week’s summit. The alliance needs continued strong leadership to press ahead with the planned missile shield. But, with their feckless posturing on the Bucharest communique, both Senator Clinton and Senator Obama have demonstrated that they’re incapable of providing that leadership.

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