Obama Administration’s Sound Thinking On Missile Defense

A central critique of the Obama administration’s new defense budget proposal is that it underfunds missile defense systems. If true, this would be a serious problem that the Congress should quickly require Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to repair. The threat of ballistic and cruise missiles of all ranges is clearly a major potential danger to our troops under many plausible scenarios.

But this critique is overblown. The Obama administration’s proposed cuts to missile defense are measured and prudent. There is room for debate on specifics, of course. But there is no cause for alarm that we are lowering our guard.

Under the Obama budget, missile defense will remain well funded, to the tune of about $10 billion annually. That is less than the Bush administration’s $12 billion, but quite a bit more than the average of $6 billion to $7 billion a year under Ronald Reagan and the first President Bush and more than Bill Clinton’s $5 billion (in inflation-adjusted 2009 dollars). Of course, budget comparisons only go so far. The threat has grown, so we should spend more today. But these numbers invalidate the charge that Gates and Obama have gutted missile defense.

It is worth remembering just how much progress has been made over the two decades since a Scud missile killed 28 American GIs in Operation Desert Storm and since other Scud attacks almost brought Israel into that war.

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency now has upgraded radars in Japan, the United Kingdom, Alaska and California and has a sea-based mobile radar off Alaska. The United States has 18 Aegis-class ships with the capability to intercept medium-range missiles. We have about 500 Patriot missile interceptors for short-range missile defense, and nearly 100 Theater High Altitude Area Defense interceptors for medium-range land-based defense. The Missile Defense Agency has conducted at least 35 successful hit-to-kill intercept tests and continues to work on new technologies, including a more advanced medium-range interceptor system in conjunction with Japan.

Gates’ cuts center on four programs. One is the airborne laser system, designed to shoot down missiles Star-Wars-style with light rays during the missiles’ boost or ascent phase. A second is another kind of boost phase defense using “hit-to-kill” kinetic interceptors. The third is the California/Alaska long-range missile defense system. Fourth is the related European-based defense, originally envisioned for deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic.

There is good logic to these changes. As for the California/Alaska system, while Gates will not move now to deploy the full 44 interceptors envisioned by President George W. Bush, we have 30 interceptors in the ground already. That is sufficient given the magnitude of the threat posed by North Korea, the nation they are deployed against.

Building three-stage intercontinental rockets at a cost of tens of millions of dollars apiece is a major feat even if done to North Korean standards. Pyongyang is very unlikely to start mass producing such systems like sausages. As an insurance policy, we could always destroy North Korean ICBMs on the launch pad using aircraft rather than missile defenses. Against the threat in question, the current program is robust.

As for the European system, intended to address an Iranian threat to central or western Europe or the United States, the Obama administration is right to preserve the option of deployment but also right not to deploy now. Iranian missiles are a future, not present, threat. And the proposed system has caused major strains in relations with Russia. Moscow should not have a veto over its deployment, but the Obama administration should use its first year or two in office to try to make any such system a collaboration.

The airborne laser is an impressive technology but a highly advanced one that may not pan out. Accordingly, Gates will continue to fund the aircraft and associated laser we are already building while awaiting further developments.

Critics have a point in noting that both the laser and the kinetic energy interceptor are being curtailed, because these are the nation’s two principal boost-phase defenses.

But on balance, a $10 billion-a-year program is pretty darn serious, and there are already multiple layers of redundancy. Given the other challenges facing the nation on and off the battlefield, Gates’ proposals are prudent and sound.