Perhaps the most surprising thing about the Obama administration's decision last Thursday to scrap missile-defense deployments in Poland and the Czech Republic is that it was so long in coming.
The handwriting has been on the wall since February, when President Barack Obama sent Russian President Dmitry Medvedev a secret letter proffering a quid pro quo of sorts to the Kremlin. The deal was simple: Washington would walk away from its plans to deploy antimissile capabilities in Eastern Europe in exchange for greater Russian cooperation on Iran.
The missive, promptly leaked by the Kremlin, became something of a self-fulfilling prophesy. Without signs of commitment from Washington, the governments in Warsaw and Prague found it impossible to promote the controversial effort to their own citizens. And so the idea of a European missile-defense shield faltered, progressively mothballed as a political agenda item in both countries. The administration's announcement last week put the final nail in the coffin.
Mr. Obama has defended his decision on both technical and financial grounds. The Bush administration's plans to deploy ground-based interceptors in Poland and early warning radars in the Czech Republic were targeted as part of his campaign pledge to eliminate billions of dollars in missile-defense spending. Instead, the White House now has pledged to develop a new theater and sea-based missile-defense architecture for Europe that "will provide stronger, smarter, and swifter defenses of American forces and America's allies."
But what about defense of America? The Bush-era plan is the best in a series of realistic alternatives for protecting not only our troops and international partners, but the U.S. homeland as well. That's the conclusion of a study released this past February by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). According to that report, "Options for Deploying Missile Defenses in Europe," the previous administration's Poland/Czech plan is preferable to sea-based missile defenses situated around Europe; to mobile midcourse defenses deployed at U.S. bases in Germany and Turkey; and to fast, forward-positioned Kinetic Energy Interceptors (missiles designed to neutralize enemy missiles earlier in flight) located at U.S. bases in Germany and Turkey.
One of those three is no longer an option. Earlier this year, the Obama administration canceled the Kinetic Energy Interceptor project as part of its $1.4 billion in cuts to the Pentagon's missile-defense budget.
Of the two that remain, each suffers serious deficiencies. Mobile ground-based defenses in Turkey and Germany would provide nominally greater coverage of Europe than the Poland/Czech Republic plan, and at comparable cost (between $9 billion and $14 billion over two decades). But according to the CBO, such a system would materialize a full two years later than the estimated operational date of 2013 for a Poland/Czech deployment. So would a sea-based missile-defense option, and at considerably greater cost, since it would require additional ships to be sustainable over the long term.
All of this matters a great deal. Conventional wisdom has it that Iran will be capable of fielding an intercontinental ballistic missile by the middle of the next decade. Iran's space program also has charted serious advances since the Islamic Republic (with Russian help) became the first Muslim spacefaring nation in 2005. There is real reason to believe that—given the similarities between space launch and ballistic missile technologies—the progress Tehran has made on one could lead to quantum leaps in the sophistication of the other.
A long-range Iranian missile capability, in other words, could materialize much sooner than currently projected. And according to a new report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Islamic Republic is now working to marry its ballistic missile arsenal with its nuclear program, fashioning a missile system capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
Our security depends in large measure on beating Iran to the punch. If the U.S. succeeds in deploying missile defenses capable of intercepting Iranian long-range missiles before they are developed, it will help protect itself, its allies and its troops from the menace posed by a nuclear Iran. But if missile defenses become operational after Iran's long-range missile capability does, both America and its allies will find themselves vulnerable to nuclear blackmail, or worse, from the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism.
Pentagon planners have worried about this eventuality for some time. During the Bush administration, technical experts tasked with formulating the requirements for defense of the United States from ballistic-missile attack concluded that the country required three separate locations for antimissile systems. The first and second sites, to defend the homeland against North Korean missiles, are already operational in Fort Greely, Alaska, and at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The third site, intended to neutralize Iran's ability to menace the U.S., as well as American allies and forces in Europe, was to have been built in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Today that deployment may be off the table, but the requirement for such a "third site" remains. That the Obama administration has chosen to disregard it speaks volumes about its attitude toward missile defense, and its disdain for the directive, issued to the White House by Congress over a decade ago, "to deploy as soon as technologically possible an effective National Missile Defense."