Europe Based Antimissile System: Defense We Just Don’t Need (Yet)

As we all know, there is such a thing as a good idea whose time has not yet come. This adage can hold even for presidents of the United States.

A case in point is the American proposal to establish a new ballistic missile defense site in Poland and the Czech Republic. The system—which would complement the one established in recent years in California and Alaska—is intended primarily to protect Europe and America from a missile launched from the Middle East. It is in principle a worthy idea, but the military benefits in the short term are not worth the worsening of relations with Russia that it has already engendered.

Rather than push the idea now, when the threat of long-range missiles from the Middle East is hardly acute, it would be better to allow a new American president and a new Russian president—Vladimir Putin is barred by his country’s Constitution from running again next year—to reconsider the subject in 2009 or 2010.

As planned, the system would consist of a single radar on Czech soil and just 10 interceptor missiles in Poland. Despite its modest size, the proposal is quickly becoming the European security debate of the day. The United States is trying to convince Russia that it does not seek to rekindle the cold war, offering to give the Russian intelligence services detailed briefings on the system’s capabilities and to share with Moscow any early warning data we received from it.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tried to make the sale in Moscow on Tuesday, but Russia remains resistant. Mr. Putin has even threatened to suspend his nation’s compliance with the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty if the United States goes ahead with its plans.

Many NATO states support the general idea of a missile defense system. Yet they have wondered why Washington has decided to pursue this plan primarily as a two-track process with only Poland and the Czech Republic—two new, modest-sized members of the alliance—given its broader significance for NATO as a whole.

A bigger question may be why the United States is in such a hurry to get this system going, especially given its inherent limitations. The 10 interceptor missiles could in theory intercept only 10 warheads, and in all probability would do well to destroy a couple. Given the short amount of time available to destroy a missile launched from the Middle East—likely no more than 20 minutes—we would probably have to fire several of the missiles at once to destroy a single warhead, as there would be no time to wait and see if an initial interceptor hit its mark.

In addition, we all know the problems the military has had in testing missiles for the Pacific missile shield, and the interceptors to be used in Central Europe are going to operate in part on a different, even less-proven technology.

True, the flip side of the weaknesses of the antimissile system is that Russia’s objections to it are without serious strategic merit. Russia has several thousand ballistic missiles; thus in the unthinkable event of a nuclear war between it and the West, the Central European defense system would be like using a fly swatter against a bazooka. (Not to mention that Russia could do what a rogue regime might not have the technology to accomplish, deploying countermeasures that could make the small system entirely useless. For example, the antimissile program might well be fooled by missiles that release several decoys after they leave the atmosphere.)

But the fact of the matter is that Russia does object to the plan, many European allies are nervous, and the whole idea could reinforce the global image of the United States as a hypermilitarized, go-it-alone superpower. Any major decision to build a new defense system needs to recognize this perception and factor it into the strategic and diplomatic calculus.

Common sense dictates that there is no need to rush ahead just so that we can start to build the system on European soil in the last 20 months of George W. Bush’s presidency. If the president wants to make creating a third missile defense site part of his legacy, he can still contribute—by setting up a formal NATO process to study the idea and give our allies a greater voice in the debate. Not only would this calm their concerns, it would give the Pentagon more time to design and test the interceptors.

We should also involve Russia in the discussion. No, Moscow should not have a veto. But its perspective does matter, especially as good diplomacy might be able to turn it into a supporter rather than an opponent of the plan. Just because Mr. Putin has been unswayable on the subject doesn’t mean his successor will also be unreasonable.

The next president, Republican or Democrat, will carry far less baggage than Mr. Bush, and may have an easier time making the final sale on missile defense to the Europeans. Given the gradual pace at which any threat is materializing and the relative slowness with which our technology is advancing, this is clearly a matter where haste makes waste. Most important, we must bear in mind that, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates reminded Mr. Putin this winter, “One cold war was quite enough.”