Commentary: Has Obama changed his tune on missile defense program?

E. Thomas McClanahan is a columnist for the Kansas City Star.
E. Thomas McClanahan is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. MCT

When President Barack Obama came into office, many people (this writer included), expected him to mothball the nation’s missile defense program, much as President Bill Clinton had done. During his campaign, Obama gave lip service to the concept but promised to slice funding for “unproven” systems.

Putting it that way was clever. It made him sound reasonable and moderate. But his phrasing hinted at a Catch-22, because the only way any such system can be “proven” is to test it, and that requires money. Many feared that under this administration, the “unproven” would always remain so.

Nor were Obama’s initial moves encouraging. In his first year in office, he tore up plans for strategic anti-missile installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. In doing so, he bent to Russian pressure and stiffed key allies.

But since then, the administration’s approach overall has been more level-headed, although it has drawn little attention from the media.

In last year’s periodic reappraisal of defense policy, the administration called for regular upgrades in theater-level, or regional missile defense, with the goal of fielding a robust theater-level system by 2020.

Last week, StrategyPage.com reported the delivery to the Army of the first two production-model versions of an interceptor called the THAAD, or Terminal High Altitude Area Defense.

The Army already has two THAAD batteries equipped with 24 missiles, each 18-feet long. Two more such batteries will be formed this year. THAAD can shoot down incoming missiles with ranges of 2,000 kilometers — a distance considered medium range. It has a perfect record in its last seven tests.

Meanwhile, the Patriot, which debuted during the Gulf War, has been steadily upgraded to better handle shorter-range missiles at lower altitudes.

Then there’s the Aegis system deployed on warships, which fires missiles with longer ranges than the THAAD but still within the medium-range category.

“All these systems work very well,” said Dan Gouré, who follows missile defense at the Lexington Institute in Washington. Even so, they’re spread very thin. The overall theater-level defense, Gouré said, is technologically capable but not “robust.”

Unfortunately, not much is taking place on the strategic level, which involves intercontinental missiles that fly high and fast, generally above the reach of THAAD and its kin.

To be sure, the United States does have a strategic anti-missile system. Interceptors now sit in their silos in California and Alaska. But the technology remains iffy — the last two tests have been failures — and these installations are oriented toward threats from the west, meaning North Korea. There’s little coverage for missiles launched from the east.

On the strategic level, the administration has chosen to monitor the threat and upgrade as needed — what the Pentagon calls a “phased, adaptive approach.” The thinking is that even if the Iranians develop a crude nuclear bomb, it will take more time for them to build intercontinental missiles and even more time to miniaturize a nuke and put it on a nosecone.

In an era of tight defense dollars, perhaps the phased adaptive approach is the least-bad choice. But it would be much better to accelerate improvements in the strategic-level system because it would directly undermine the Iranians’ heavy investment in nukes and missiles.

Moreover, we should not discount the risk that some rogue state may achieve a quantum leap in missile technology. As Gouré noted, these countries share technology, often test recklessly and then share the results. As we have learned in the past, our ability to know what adversaries are up to is somewhat short of flawless.

In any case, at some point Obama may have had a change of heart on missile defense.

“Somebody persuaded him,” Gouré said. “Or as people say, ‘He got the threat briefing.’ ” The president was informed that if Iran, for example, launched a couple of long-range missiles, we would have no credible way to stop them. The interceptors in California and Alaska probably wouldn’t be up to the job. Obama could order a massive retaliation, but the nation would still suffer the incalculable loss of a major city.

That lack of alternatives is what prompted President Ronald Reagan to begin a missile-defense program to begin with. It shouldn’t be surprising if Obama, too, found the implications of the threat briefing unacceptable.

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