For Democrats, this is part of a larger problem. "Defense Democrats" decided years ago to triangulate the missile defense problem. Knowing that the public expresses strong support for missile defense and tired of attacks from the right for failing to protect the country, they opted to embrace antimissile systems, increasing budgets and trying new schemes. They played along with the game. At $10 billion per year, missile defense is now the single largest weapons system in the Pentagon budget.
Fortunately, when it comes to North Korea, the threat animating last week's announcement, most officials and experts agree with Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), who said this Sunday, "I don't think the threat is imminent. I don't think they have the delivery mechanisms that are necessary to really harm us." The country would need several more years and many more tests to miniaturize a nuclear weapon so it could fit on a missile and survive the stresses of launch, and to develop and test a re-entry vehicle, advanced guidance systems, and missiles capable of flying much farther than their current ones. Iran is further behind in missile technology and does not have a nuclear weapon.
What's more, there are two major silver linings in the administration's missile defense decision. The first is a pledge by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel: "We certainly will not go forward with the additional 14 interceptors until we are sure that we have the complete confidence that we will need." This is a chance to introduce the missile defense program to reality. Rushed into deployment, the existing interceptors have never been tested against a target with ICBM range or realistic decoys, and the new "kill vehicle" that was supposed to fix problems with the previous model failed its first two tests, as arms expert Kingston Reif details on his blog, Nukes of Hazard.
The second positive move is the decision to cancel the planned Phase Four of the antimissile system being deployed in Europe. Instead of going ahead with the development of a new interceptor, the Standard Missile 3 IIB, the administration will shift funding to the Alaska site. The interceptor was still just a paper concept and eliminating it makes sense, writes Reif, noting that the Government Accountability Office had criticized the system and the NAS committee called it ineffective and unnecessary.
This appears to have been primarily a program decision by the Department of Defense, but it has significant ramifications for U.S. relations with Russia. Moscow had focused its objections to the European antimissile system on Phase Four, fearing that the SM 3 IIB would be able to intercept Russian missiles as well as Iranian ones. The dispute had blocked progress on a new agreement to further reduce the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. "In effect, by sticking with a plan that was neither likely to work in the last stage but was creating significant and needless diplomatic hurdles we gained nothing," says Eisenhower Institute scholar Sean Kay.
The cancellation, little noticed in most news accounts, may have the most real world impact of all. If the Russians react constructively, this could open the way for a new round of reductions and perhaps impact Russian plans to build a new ICBM. If so, canceling a missile defense program may end up destroying more missiles than the system itself ever could.