How to fix the president’s ballistic missile defense policy

In the wake of the Crimean crisis, a growing chorus of Republican lawmakers and conservative thinkers have called for a reassessment of the president’s European missile defense policy. Charles Krauthammer, Dick Cheney, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) are among those who have faulted President Obama’s 2009 and 2013 decisions to cancel missile defense plans in Europe.  The substance of the critique is correct – the president has been insufficiently committed to ballistic missile defense and overly confident in the efficacy of his “reset” with Russia.  However, there is an opportunity here not simply to go after the president’s weakness on the world stage, but also to move the reality of an effective BMD shield forward.   Proponents of a robust BMD system would do well to consider carefully the best and most realistic course of action.   

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While Obama seemed motivated by the fantasy that unilateral accessions to Russian demands would strengthen our relationship with Russia, one should not overstate his decisions as a complete abandonment of European missile defense.  In 2009, the president announced the cancellation of the deployment of 10 ground-based, mid-course ballistic missile interceptors (GBIs) in Poland and an advanced radar in the Czech Republic.  However, this was to be replaced with the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), a system utilizing the Aegis BMD system and including two land-based interceptor sites in Poland and Romania.  When the fourth phase of the EPAA – which utilized the Standard Missile-3 Block IIB – was cancelled last March, much of the follow-on discussion focused on whether the president had exercised his post-election “flexibility” to bow to Russian demands.  But this was the right move – the Block IIB was an unproven and untested paper concept with costly and time-consuming development issues.  Nor did the decision eliminate the plans to create land-based interceptor sites, each to be equipped with 24 variants of the SM-3 (Blocks IA, IB, and IIA).

Calls to revisit the Obama administration’s BMD decisions are all to the good – the U.S. and its allies would benefit from a fundamental recommitment to development of a robust defense against ballistic missiles.  But this does not mean simply reversing every decision the president made.  For example, some have suggested that the best way to signal to Putin that we mean business is to push forward on the deployment of the Block IIB.  This would be a mistake. 

Although the SM-3 family of interceptors are highly effective (the Block IA and IB variants are 26 for 31 in flight tests), plans for the SM-3 Block IIB interceptor were problematic from the start.  As a result, the project never moved past the drawing board and after-the-fact analyses showed that a larger missile than originally planned (27 inches instead of 21 inches in diameter) would be required to achieve the necessary burnout velocity to intercept longer-range targets from Iran (a larger missile would not have matched the current Aegis launcher design).  Even assuming the program was fully funded for the next 10 years, the United States would not be able to field a single one of these interceptors until 2022 at the earliest.

 Rather than spending limited time and resources on untested projects such as the Block IIB, the U.S. should fully fund planned deployments of the SM-3 Block IA and IB and focus on evolving these variants of missiles.  These interceptors have demonstrated a better-than-expected functionality which the United States can leverage for a variety of missions.  The U.S. should also accelerate current plans to deploy 44 GBIs for the protection of the U.S. homeland.  For too long the administration has underfunded the GMD system, cutting its budget by half between 2008 and 2012.  The administration should also announce it has chosen an East Coast interceptor site and begin construction as soon as feasible.  Additionally, the performance of the kill vehicles (EKVs) atop these GBIs has been sketchy at best and in the last several tests they failed to intercept the target.  Reengineering the current EKV using technology developed for the highly successful SM-3s would be the most cost-effective and least time-consuming way to raise the functionality of the current system. 

The crisis in the Ukraine has surely demonstrated that it makes little sense to make critical BMD decisions with Russian concerns in mind – acquiescence buys us nothing.  By focusing on the real issues at hand, proponents of a strong U.S. BMD shield can help turn the conversation in a positive direction.                

Bergner is an independent national security policy analyst. He writes extensively about nuclear proliferation, deterrence, and ballistic missile defense.