True to President Barack Obama’s pledge to try diplomacy as well as force with foes and rivals, the U.S. is attempting to smooth relations with Russia and engage Iran in talks.
But some missile defense advocates worry that the price tag for such diplomatic overtures may be the scrapping of the planned missile defense system in Eastern Europe.
The Bush administration plan called for protecting the U.S. from a potential Iranian missile attack with 10 interceptors based in Poland and an X-band tracking radar warning system in the Czech Republic. Moscow opposes that idea, and has threatened to target Europe with missile batteries based on the Polish-Russian border.
So far, Obama has avoided specific support for the so-called third site – there are existing Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) interceptor installations in California and Alaska – saying deployment will depend on cost effectiveness and proof that the technology works as advertised.
But in the latest in a series of remarks by Obama administration officials and Democratic lawmakers on missile defense, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said plans for the European site depend at least in part on Iran’s response to calls for an end to its nuclear development program.
“If we are able to see a change in behavior on the part of the Iranians with respect to what we believe to be their pursuit of nuclear weapons, then we will reconsider where we stand” on European missile defense, Clinton said last week after meeting in Washington with Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, who said he agreed with her stance on the Iran threat.
Her statement caused dismay in Eastern Europe where former Soviet satellite nations are looking to the West for support, especially after Moscow’s invasion of Georgia last year.
Even before Clinton’s remarks, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank that first proposed a strategic missile defense system to then-President Ronald Reagan in 1982, was highly critical of the current administration’s approach to date.
Nile Gardiner, a Heritage scholar, says the Obama team’s willingness to bring Moscow into its negotiations over Third Site sets a dangerous precedent.
But the former head of the Missile Defense Agency, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry Obering says Russia’s concerns about the missile shield are really focused on NATO expansion into Moscow’s former sphere of influence.
Intelligence assessments estimate Tehran would be able to put a nuclear payload on an ICBM around 2015. Under the Fiscal 2009 funding profile, the European site wouldn’t be functional until 2014, Obering says, leaving little room for delay.
The Aegis sea-based system, however, could provide an interim interceptor capability should Iran achieve an operational capability sooner than anticipated or if the European ground-based site is delayed. But Obering concedes it would take 8 to 12 Aegis ships dedicated solely to the missile defense mission in the North Atlantic to achieve 24-hour monitoring and intercept capability.
Talk on Capitol Hill about rethinking the ballistic missile defense program prompted Alaska’s congressional delegation – two Republicans and a newly elected Democrat – to write Defense Secretary Robert Gates stressing the importance of the GMD system at Fort Greely, Alaska.
Both Russia and Iran reacted favorably following Vice President Joe Biden’s speech at the 45th Munich Security Conference in Germany Feb. 7 – even though he said the U.S. intends to continue developing a missile defense shield to counter threats from rogue states – as long as they pass the technically feasible, cost effective test
“From their rhetoric, you can’t tell what they’re planning to do,” complains James J. Carafano, senior research fellow in defense and homeland security at Heritage. “If you’re a proponent, there’s nothing you can hang your hat on to disagree with,” he said just before Heritage premiered its new missile defense advocacy documentary – complete with red carpet and curbside spotlights.
The 55-minute film is called “33 Minutes,” referring to the time retired Obering says it would typically take an ICBM launched from Iran or North Korea to reach U.S. territory.