National Security

Strategic Misdirection

Are the latest U.S. moves on missile defense making it less safe?

Washington calls them "regional" missile defenses, but Russian and China see a strategic threat brewing.

To counter missile programs in Iran and North Korea, the United States is expanding missile defense capabilities in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.  So far, the United States has fielded short- and mid-range defensive systems against similarly limited threats. But in expectation of Iranian and North Korean missiles that can reach the United States, Washington is planning to deploy mobile, sea-based interceptors that can take out long-range missiles.

And this has Moscow and Beijing worried.

So worried, in fact, that Russia and China are questioning the viability of their strategic nuclear forces, leading Moscow to resist U.S. calls for bilateral arms reductions and motivating both countries to build new weapons to counter future defenses.

This creates a problem for the United States: by planning to counter long-range missile threats in Iran and North Korea that do not yet exist, Washington is making it more difficult to reduce threats from Russia and China that are all too real.

As part if its effort to shift defense resources to Asia, the United States is expanding missile defense cooperation with Japan, South Korea, and Australia. The Pentagon announced in August that it would field a second missile-tracking X-band radar in Japan, after deploying the first in 2006. Japan has purchased U.S. Aegis-equipped ships with Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptors, as well as Patriot interceptors, early-warning radars, and command-and-control systems. The United States and Japan are co-developing the SM-3 IIA missile, which would also be deployed in Europe.

South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin and U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta met in Washington on Oct. 24 and agreed to continue to cooperate on missile defense and to "enhance the interoperability" of their command-and-control systems. The U.S.-ROK partnership would reportedly include joint research on a "Korea Air and Missile Defense" system involving a new radar and Standard Missile interceptors for Aegis-equipped destroyers. Seoul is pursuing its missile defense relationship with Washington cautiously, so as not to needlessly antagonize China.

An August 23 Wall Street Journal story said that U.S. officials were evaluating sites in Southeast Asia for a third X-Band radar, possibly in the Philippines, "to create an arc that would allow the United States and its regional allies to more accurately track any ballistic missiles launched from North Korea, as well as from parts of China."

The U.S. X-band radars, know as AN/TPY-2s, would be networked with mobile missile interceptors deployed on U.S. Aegis ships at sea and with land-based interceptors in the region. In effect, the United States is pre-positioning radars that could be used to support the long-range ship-based interceptors when they would be fielded around 2020.

Beijing fears that a U.S. missile interceptor system could undermine China's strategic deterrent. China's Ministry of National Defense responded to the August radar announcement by stating that countries should avoid situations "in which one country tries to let its own state security take priority over other countries' national security." Beijing objected to the first radar in Japan in 2006.

Beijing, which is secretive about its nuclear program, is reportedly responding to U.S. moves by expanding its relatively small nuclear arsenal, working on a new mobile missile, the DF-41, and countermeasures to evade U.S. defenses. Even so, the United States has a 30-to-1 advantage over China in long-range nuclear-capable missiles.

In Europe, the United States is spending billions of dollars to deploy an array of missile interceptor systems, such as hundreds of SM-3 interceptors based on dozens of Aegis-equipped ships at sea and at two land-based sites in Romania and Poland, in four phases through 2020. NATO announced at its May summit in Chicago that the first phase of the system -- a ship with SM-3 IA interceptors in the Mediterranean and an X-band radar in Turkey -- has established an "interim capability." (Nevermind that the SM-3 IA interceptor failed a Missile Defense Agency intercept test on Oct. 25.)

Russia sees the ongoing U.S. and NATO missile defense deployments in Europe through 2020 as a threat to its strategic deterrent. In response, Moscow is resisting further bilateral reductions in nuclear stockpiles beyond the 2010 New START treaty and is planning to modernize its forces, including a new ten-warhead ICBM by 2018 optimized to penetrate missile defenses. This is an unwelcome development for U.S. security, as these fixed-silo, liquid-fueled missiles are highly vulnerable and destabilizing.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin told NATO representatives Oct. 18 that Russia's response to NATO's missile defense plan "is currently mostly virtual, political and diplomatic in character, but under certain circumstances we would be forced to deliver a technical response, which I don't think you'll like."

In the Middle East, a number of states are considering buying longer-range systems, and last year the United Arab Emirates became the first country to buy the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense intermediate-range interceptor system, for $3.5 billion. Israel has an X-band radar and various short-range systems, such as Iron Dome, and this month took part in major missile defense exercises with the United States.

As more Gulf states buy U.S. missile interceptor systems, the United States will "work to promote interoperability and information sharing" among those states, according to the State Department. This aspect of the plan is similar to the one for Europe, where NATO is integrating the new, U.S.-supplied interceptor systems with existing NATO short-range interceptors and sensors.

In the future, as the United States deploys additional Navy ships with SM-3 interceptors, it could assign some of those ships to the Gulf, Asia, or NATO. U.S. mobile systems "can be relocated to adapt to changing regional threats and provide surge defense capabilities where they are most needed," Frank A. Rose, the deputy assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification and compliance, said Sept. 10 at a missile defense symposium in Berlin.

Neither Iran nor North Korea has successfully tested a long-range missile that could reach the United States. Moreover, if they did, it is not at all clear that the technologies being deployed would be effective.

For example, the SM-3 missile being deployed in Europe would seek to intercept incoming warheads while in space, or in the "midcourse" of their trajectory, where decoys or "countermeasures" must be dealt with. A September report by the National Research Council found that "there is no static answer to the question of whether a missile defense can work against countermeasures." The answer "depends on the resources expended by the offense and the defense and the knowledge each has of the other's system."

After the November elections, the next president will have a choice to make. Will the United States continue to chase potential future threats with inherently unreliable defenses, or will it instead prioritize working with Russia and China to reduce the real threats we face today? Let's hope the new administration brings a more balanced approach to U.S. missile defense policy. 

SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images

Comments

Load More Comments