National Security

Phasing Out

Time for Obama to scuttle the plan to shoot down non-existent Iranian ICBMs.

On March 12, Pentagon policy chief Jim Miller gave a speech on the Obama administration's plans for missile defense in Europe, saying that the first three phases of the system are on track. But, significantly, he did not mention the fourth phase, intended to defend against Iranian ICBMs, which do not yet exist. Then, in response to a question, Miller said, "We are continuing to look very hard at" whether to move forward with phase four or to pursue other options, given budget setbacks and technical issues.

This is welcome news. Until now, the administration has insisted that it would deploy all four phases of what is formally called the European Phased Adaptive Approach; in December 2010, in order to secure approval of the New START treaty, President Obama explicitly promised the Senate he would proceed with the full plan, assuming the Iranian missile threat continued to develop and the interceptor technology proved effective against it. But the United States does not need phase four, and it has become a significant roadblock to Obama's plans to seek another round of nuclear arms reductions with Russia. It is time to shift gears.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama announced that he would renew efforts to seek a second round of nuclear arms reduction talks with Russia, reportedly aiming to cut U.S. strategic forces by about one-third. According to diplomatic sources, Russia wants the United States to cancel phase four in Europe as a condition for arms reduction talks to proceed because it fears that the final phase of the missile defense system could threaten its nuclear deterrent.

The United States should not cancel phase four to appease Russia. The simpler reason is that the United States does not need phase four. Not only does the interceptor missile in question, the SM-3 IIB, have major unresolved technical issues, but the United States has other options to defend itself against future Iranian long-range missiles, should they appear, that are less objectionable to Russia. For example, Washington has an existing, albeit limited, missile defense system in Alaska and California, and Republicans in Congress are calling for a new missile defense deployment site on the East Coast.

Each phase of the administration's European missile defense plan comes with more capable interceptor missiles to keep pace with an evolving Iranian missile program. Phase one, with SM-3 IA short-range interceptors based on U.S. Navy ships and a radar in Turkey, is already deployed in the Mediterranean. Phases two and three, with more-advanced SM-3 interceptors based in Romania (2015) and Poland (2018), are planned to handle medium- and intermediate-range missile threats to Europe.

Phase four, however, is in a different league. The SM-3 IIB interceptor, planned for Poland, is intended to defend the United States -- not Europe -- from an Iranian long-range missile threat that does not yet exist, and is progressing more slowly than many had feared. The SM-3 IIB is planned to be bigger and faster than its predecessors, a SM-3 missile on steroids. But it's already behind schedule. Originally planned for 2020, phase four has been pushed back to 2022 at the earliest due to budget cutbacks imposed by Congress. It exists only on paper, and no ones knows how big it will be, how fast it will go, or where, ultimately, it will be based.

Last month, a congressionally-sponsored study based on classified technical reports found that this system may not be effective and that "modifications are needed" to its operational plan and where it would be fielded. Those changes could lead to significant safety risks, cost increases, and schedule delays.

Conducted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, the Feb. 11 study revealed that the Missile Defense Agency's own technical analysis found that forward deploying SM-3 IIBs in Poland "may require the development of the ability to launch the interceptor earlier," while the attacking missile's engines are still firing, "to be useful for U.S. homeland defense."

This may sound simple, but it's not. Attempting to intercept a missile just after "boost phase," known as "early intercept," is controversial even within MDA, which found in 2010 that it "was not a desirable capability" because it reduces the effective range of the missile. A 2012 MDA assessment found this concept was "feasible," but would require modifying the SM-3 IIB interceptor, command-and-control systems, and space-based sensors. 

Outside of MDA, early intercept is seen as impractical. In a Sept. 2011 report, the Defense Science Board, an advisory group to the Pentagon, concluded that early intercept "is not a useful objective for missile defense in general or for any particular missile defense system" because interceptors would not be able to reach the target quickly enough. Similarly, a September 2012 report by the National Academy of Sciences found that "even in the best of cases" early intercept does not happen early enough to prevent warheads and decoys from being deployed.

To avoid basing in Poland and the need for early intercept, MDA analysis suggests putting the interceptors on ships in the North Sea. However, GAO found this option could have "significant safety risks" and "unknown, but likely substantial, cost implications."

As for safety, the SM-3 IIB may use a hazardous liquid propellant, which would increase speed and agility. The Navy, however, which would deploy the missiles on its Aegis-equipped ships, banned missiles with liquid fuel in 1988 due to fire hazard concerns. The Navy has not overturned this ban.

As for cost, the SM-3 IIB may need a 27-inch diameter booster, as opposed to the 21-inch diameter of other, slower SM-3 versions. This would be a significant cost issue for the Navy, which would have to outfit its ships with wider launchers. Moreover, a dedicated North Sea deployment would also require the Navy to commit more ships to the program than planned.

In addition, the NAS study found that interceptors based in Europe would require a velocity greater than 5 kilometers per second "to avoid being overflown by modestly lofted threats to the U.S. East Coast," and that such a high speed could not be achieved with a 21-inch diameter missile. But the Academy recommended against fielding such speedy interceptors in Europe as they would also be able to intercept Russian western-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and would "clearly exacerbate political tensions in the region."

Cancelling plans for the SM-3 IIB in Europe would have tremendous benefits for the United States and NATO. Both would benefit from U.S.-Russian nuclear arsenal reductions, in terms of increasing their security, saving money, and gaining more political support against the spread of nuclear weapons to terrorists and additional nations. The United States has other options to counter long-range missiles. And, as GAO has shown, the SM-3 IIB's technology, cost, and schedule are dubious in any case. It is time to weed out phase four and let the prospects for U.S.-Russian arms reductions grow.



Pakistan’s Wildcard

The mysterious Pakistani-Canadian cleric is back, and he’s shaking up the country’s politics.

On March 17, Tahir-ul-Qadri -- the Pakistani cleric who led popular demonstrations that brought Islamabad to a standstill for four days in January -- plans to announce his intentions for the upcoming national elections at another major rally in Rawalpindi. Most American observers have written Qadri off as a flash in the Pakistani pan. They may need to think again. Qadri can still shake up Pakistani politics. In the near term, he remains a wildcard, disruptive in ways that might even tip the balance of power in Pakistan's next government. Over the long run, however, Qadri has the potential to play a far more constructive role in Pakistan's political development. Either way, Washington would do well to pay him closer attention.

It is possible that Qadri will decide to send his party, the Pakistan Awami Tehreek, into the fray of national elections in May. Building a Pakistani party machine with credible, popular candidates is the work of years, not weeks, so there is a very good chance he wouldn't win any seats. Even so, Qadri-backed politicians might steal just enough votes to spoil the plans of the front-running party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (PML-N) and shift the makeup of Islamabad's next ruling coalition.

Qadri might play an even more significant and constructive role over the long run by choosing not to contest elections. As an outside voice favoring reform, religious moderation, and better governance, Qadri would offer a glimmer of hope for a future in which Pakistani opposition figures hold their nation's leaders accountable to the nation's constitution and laws. That would represent a genuine, farsighted contribution to the maturation of democracy in Pakistan, the best hope for long-term economic development and stability of the sort that would render Pakistan a far less dangerous and fragile state.

Qadri, a former law professor and acclaimed Islamic scholar, stormed out of his unlikely home base in Toronto, Canada, this past December after having disappeared from the scene for eight years. The media portrayed his out-of-the-blue return to Pakistan and rapid ascendance as mysterious. Who had backed Qadri's massive media blitz? Rumor swirled. Some said it was Washington, again out to influence Pakistani politics. Others saw the hand of the Pakistani military looking to derail the electoral process.

Contrary to many press reports that depicted him as a detached Islamic scholar with little in the way of a political background, Qadri has a decades-long history of dealing with all of Pakistan's top leaders since the 1980s, from Generals Zia and Musharraf to Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. Today, Qadri's politics are motivated by deep disillusionment with all of them, military and civilian alike. Such sentiments place him squarely in the mainstream of Pakistani public opinion.

Qadri's movement has found is greatest strength -- and probably most of the cash that fed his impressive media machine -- in the well of popular disgust with Pakistan's status quo of corruption, power outages, and terrible violence. Among Pakistanis there is little stomach for another round of military rule, and none for political intrusion by outside forces like the United States. But everyone, including Pakistan's most powerful civilian and military leaders, admits the state needs to do a far better job at governing. Qadri, like the reform-minded cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, taps into this sentiment.

That said, Qadri too often invokes the need for a democratic revolution to "save the state, not politics." These rants sound a lot like the sort of arguments Pakistan's military has used to justify interference in the political process. For this, Qadri is justly criticized for veering into authoritarian, or at least technocratic, territory. By this point it should be clear that Pakistan has no legitimate alternative to electoral democracy, by way of a messianic cleric or otherwise.

Stripped of the fiery rhetoric, however, the rest of Qadri's argument boils down to the idea that Pakistan should adhere to its own constitutional rules during the upcoming elections. Here the cleric stands on firmer ground. In January, before he left the stage in Islamabad and sent his loyal followers home, he achieved signed promises along those lines from the country's ruling coalition.

Qadri, of course, is not alone in pushing to improve the quality of Pakistan's electoral process. A powerful election commission, headed by the fiercely independent jurist Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim, is backed by a team of civil servants who have been toiling away for several years to improve the quality of the nation's voter lists and to implement a process of collecting and counting votes that is immune -- or nearly so -- from the rigging practices that have plagued Pakistan's history. Within the parameters set by their political masters, they appear to have done an impressive job.

Yet major obstacles remain. In February, Qadri raised a legitimate legal challenge against the manner in which some members of the election commission were selected. Rather than ruling on the merits of Qadri's complaint, Pakistan's Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry tossed it out on the flimsiest of all grounds that Qadri -- who holds dual citizenship in Canada -- has no standing to plead before Pakistan's courts. Pakistan's political parties accepted that farce of a ruling for fear that reconstituting the election commission would delay national elections, something they say the country's fragile democracy cannot afford.

Qadri's critiques of the corrupt status quo are more credible than the politicians' rebuttals. Pakistan's leaders seem more eager to perpetuate a failing system than to reform it. Recent moves by President Asif Ali Zardari to cut a deal with Tehran on a gas pipeline project are but the latest examples of fecklessness and time-wasting so pervasive in Pakistan's corridors of power. Even under the best of circumstances, a pipeline would take years to complete, so it will do nothing to solve Pakistan's immediate energy crisis. Still, the president's diplomatic charade permits his ruling party to claim it is taking action, even fighting back against American pressure. Today's pipeline deals will only saddle the next government, likely a weak coalition of parties from today's opposition benches, with fantastic promises that can only distract from Pakistan's real economic and security problems.

Had Qadri returned to Pakistan several years ago, he might have had a realistic chance of turning his own political party into a legitimate contender. And it is all to the good that his demonstrations have neither delayed the national electoral process nor provided any serious opening for the military to reassert a direct role in Pakistan's politics. But Pakistani politics do not end after the election; they merely begin a new round. In that context, Qadri -- along with a variety of other reform-minded Pakistanis -- has the potential to play an increasingly important role. If they can hold their leaders' feet to the fire and use the media megaphone to fight for improved governance no matter who holds the majority, Pakistan will benefit. Along the way, reformers would also build the credibility of their own parties so that Pakistani voters will have better options when they go to the polls the next time around.

For its part, the United States should also lend its voice to constitutional rule in Pakistan without picking sides. Washington has a major stake in Pakistani stability, and at this point the best U.S. officials can hope is that Pakistan makes its way through 2013's leadership transitions without major mishap. After that, if opposition figures such as Qadri can build their movements into permanent features of the Pakistani political process, there may be greater reason for optimism over the long run.

ARIF ALI/AFP/Getty Images