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.