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Condoleezza Rice with Poland's Foreign Minister, Radek Sikorski, in August before signing an agreement to place a U.S. missile defense base in Poland 115 miles from Russia. (AP photo)

Ask McCain and Obama about missile defense

ASK THIS | September 10, 2008

Pentagon plans for establishing missile defenses in Europe have caused a serious strain in U.S./Russian relations not seen since the Cold War. Dealing with this controversial project will be the most pressing item on the missile defense agenda for the next U.S. president. And that’s only one problem with the ineffective, costly Star Wars shield.

By Philip E. Coyle

Missile defense is the most expensive defense procurement program in history. Since President Reagan’s famous "Star Wars" speech in 1983, the U.S. has spent at least $120 billion on missile defense. Over the next five years, the Pentagon has requested another $62.5 billion for missile defense, with no end in sight.

If the next U.S. President and Congress support this spending on missile defense, by the end of 2013 over $110 billion will have been spent just since 2003, not counting U.S. missile defense spending in the previous 20, 40, or 60 years.

Yes, 60 years. The United States has been trying unsuccessfully to develop effective missile defenses for 64 years, since German V-2 ballistic missiles terrorized London during World War II. Yet today U.S. missile defense hardware still has no demonstrated effectiveness against an enemy missile attack under realistic operational conditions.

Particularly controversial is the Pentagon proposal to establish missile defense in Europe with interceptors in Poland, a fixed radar in the Czech Republic, and a second portable radar somewhere in southeastern Europe (location TBD).

The premise behind the system proposed for Europe is to defend Europe against a missile attack from Iran. While Iran has recently tested short-range missiles, it does not have missiles that can reach central Europe. Perhaps Iran could develop such missiles but that worry misses the point. Iran has done some crazy things, but Iran is not suicidal enough to attack Europe or the United States. Ballistic missiles have a return address, and the retaliation against Iran would be devastating.

There is no credible threat to Europe from Iran to justify U.S. missile defenses in Europe. North Korea also does not have missiles that can reach Europe or the U.S., and North Korea is negotiating an end to its nuclear programs.

Even if there were a plausible threat the Pentagon admits they can’t handle it. The Pentagon claims to be able to handle at best one or possibly two missiles from Iran, assuming Iran would not use decoys or countermeasures.

U.S. missile defenses lack the ability to deal with decoys and countermeasures, lack demonstrated effectiveness under realistic operational conditions, and lack the ability to handle attacks involving multiple missiles. The proposed system is not and will not be effective against an adversary willing to build more missiles to overwhelm our scarecrow defenses.

Accordingly, if Iran believed that U.S. missile defenses would be effective, and was reckless enough to attack Europe, Iran would simply build more missiles to overwhelm those defenses.  Encouraging Iran to build more missiles would be destabilizing and would not lead to a safer world.

We tried this unsuccessfully once before. In 1975, the U.S. briefly deployed in North Dakota the Safeguard missile defense system, whose Spartan and Sprint missiles both carried nuclear warheads. In 1976 the U.S. Congress officially shut it down because it was not effective and could be overwhelmed by Soviet ICBMs. Encouraging the Soviet Union to build more missiles to overwhelm our defenses was not in our best interest then, and encouraging Iran to build more missiles is not in our interest now.

Under President George W. Bush, missile defense spending has run about $10 billion per year. The President’s request for FY 2009 is the highest amount requested for missile defense by any president, $13.2 billion DOD-wide. This is over seven times higher than In FY 1985, two years after President Reagan’s “Star Wars” speech, when his missile defense budget was still “only” $1.8 billion.

If elected president will Senator McCain or Senator Obama actually cut missile defense?

If asked about this, it would be easy for them to dodge the question.  Either candidate could say something pat like, “If elected president I will always defend America.”  Unless reporters press the candidates on the cost, the lack of a believable threat, the lack of effectiveness, and the danger from missile proliferation, the candidates will not even need to show that they understand the situation.

The candidates should also be concerned that the proposed system is causing the Cold War with Russia to be reignited. Proposed U.S. missile defenses in Europe threaten Russia, and proposed space-based missile defenses are also threaten Russia, as well as China.  Russia regards these systems as a threat in that  if they have any effectiveness against Iran they would also be effective against Russia. If those defenses are located where they might be effective against Russia, this is something that Russia cannot accept.

How will the next U.S. president balance the need for Russian support in energy, in dealing with Iran and other difficulties in the Middle East, and with the threats from terrorism?

If elected president, will Senator McCain or Senator Obama forge ahead with missile defense in Europe over Russian objections? How much are the candidates willing to risk in terms of military conflict with Russia over a non-functional missile defense system? President George W. Bush has said that Russia is no longer our enemy, but what is it now, post-Georgia? Will the next U.S. president consolidate Russia as our resurgent enemy for nothing? For a system that doesn’t work?

Given the needs of the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as for rebuilding our forces in the years to come, is spending so much on missile defense a valid priority?

Will the next U.S. president cut the Pentagon’s massive missile defense procurements? Considering the lack of a real threat, wouldn’t a modest R&D program be adequate? Considering the tens of billions being spent on missile defense, and other higher priority needs, wouldn’t the money be better spent elsewhere?

Former Senator Sam Nunn has said it best: “National missile defense has become a theology in the United States, not a technology.” Will the next U.S. president pursue missile defense with religious fervor, or will he thoughtfully examine the facts, and decide that we have been squandering too much?

Additional Resources

1.  See www.cdi.org for regular Missile Defense Updates.

2.  “The Incredible Shrinking Missile Threat,” Joseph Cirincione, Foreign Policy, May/June, 2008.

3.  Testimony Philip E. Coyle, before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, April 16 and April 30, 2008.

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