The Elephants of Missile Defense

In Albania, nearing the end of his six-nation tour of Europe, President George W. Bush hopped out of his limo to have his head rubbed and his cheeks kissed by an adoring crowd in what The New York Times called a “virtual mosh pit” of enthusiasm.

Surely, he was delighted and relieved to be warmly welcomed in the mostly Muslim nation. It was a tough week in Europe: the president endured long meetings, pointed criticisms, huge protests, and an upset stomach that took him out of some of the Group of Eight Summit meetings.

Toughest of all perhaps was the sharp war of words with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the weeks leading up to the G8 Summit. At issue: the Bush administration’s plan to put nuclear missile interceptors in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic. President Putin had repeatedly expressed his dissatisfaction with encroachment into his territory. At one point he accused the United States of “filling eastern Europe with new weapons.” In a risky but very clear show of force, Russia also tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile at the end of May. Of Bush’s plans to use European territory to detect and intercept Iranian long-range missiles, Putin said: “we are being told the anti missile system is targeted against something that doesn’t exist. Doesn’t it seem funny to you?… It would be funny if it was not so sad.”

Meanwhile, President Bush sought to quell this rhetoric with a one-two punch of reassurance and criticism. He insisted that the proposed system was a “purely defensive measure, aimed not at Russia but at true threats.” In Prague, flanked by Czech Republic officials, Bush said: “My message will be ‘Vladimir’—I call him Vladimir—‘you shouldn’t fear missile defense system. As a matter of fact, why don’t you cooperate with us on a missile defense system? Why don’t you participate with the United States?’” Later that same day, at a conference on democracy, Bush took on Putin’s record. “In Russia, reforms that were once promised to empower citizens have been derailed, with troubling implications for democratic development.”

After all that hot rhetoric, Putin was armed with a smile and a new proposal when he arrived at his private meeting with Bush. There the Russian president offered the U.S. access to the Gabala radar site in Azerbaijan to detect and intercept incoming missiles. He also opened the door to cooperation with the Bush administration, suggesting that the two nations could assess emerging missile threats together, with other European nations weighing in. Finally, in a separate address, he expressed support for U.S. missile interceptor deployment in Iraq, Turkey, and on sea platforms. These judo moves came easily to the Russian president, a sixth degree black belt. A clearly surprised Bush administration promised to follow up with discussions in July.

Many of the discussions since Putin’s announcement have focused on the Russian president’s diplomatic finesse, his possible reasons for offering the Azerbaijan site, and the feasibility of the proposal—either as an alternative or companion to the Czech and Polish systems. While these questions are important, they cannot be meaningfully discussed without first dealing with at least two of the elephants that crowded the room where Presidents Putin and Bush made nice nice.

Elephant Number One

The U.S. missile defense system continues to present large technological hurdles that the engineers and physicists at Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and the Missile Defense Agency have been unable to vault despite $53.9 billion invested since 2001.

In April, Henry Obering, the head of the Missile Defense Agency and a retired Air Force Lt. General, boasted to Congress that “since 2001, we have built a record of 26 successful hit-to-kill engagements in 34 attempts.” If the Missile Defense Agency were a high school junior, this score of 76% or a C-plus would not be boast-worthy. But MDA has some advantages over the average high school junior. Not only does the agency write and self-administer the exam, but it gets to see the answers and calculate the grade.

Philip Coyle, who served as the director of Operational Test and Evaluation in the Clinton Defense Department and is now a senior advisor to the Center for Defense Information, makes the point that the MDA has “done these tests under scripted conditions, where you have information in advance that no enemy would give you.” In addition, the tests do not include the low-cost decoys and other counter-measures that a true attacker would use to fool or overwhelm the system.

Thus far, a handful of long-range missile interceptors have been erected at Ft. Greeley, Alaska and Vandenberg Airbase in California. Deployed to counter a North Korean missile attack, these systems remain under development. Amid tight war-time budgets and record deficits, Congress is growing increasingly skeptical of missile defense’s promises and alarmed by its costs. Congress has cut funding for the proposed interceptors on Poland and the Czech Republic in legislation up for debate in both the House and Senate.

Elephant Number Two

Even if the technology could work, is missile defense worth the financial or political cost?

There are many ways to counter and dissuade an emerging threat. And missile defense—designed to detect and then intercept a launched long range missile—is the most expensive and the most last minute. U.S. intelligence agencies estimate that Iran could develop a ballistic missile capable of reaching Europe, but it would take them another eight years. That is sufficient time for diplomacy and constructive engagement to bear fruit. The Polish interceptors won’t be operational (if they work and if their construction does not spark a new war with Russia) until 2013 at the earliest and will cost an estimated $4 billion.

Why devote so much money to a system that is guaranteed to do two things: alienate and threaten European allies, enrage and provoke Russia, and encourage Iran to accelerate its progress by any means necessary.

It is unlikely that the Bush administration will wholly and heartily embrace Putin’s Gabala offer when they meet again in Maine next month. But the Azeri base option opens the door to further discussion about why the Kremlin sees Washington’s plans for missile defense systems in Eastern Europe as such a threat. Russia views the systems as having less to do with countering nuclear proliferation in Tehran and more to do with sidelining Russia as a major power. It’s a good thing the Bush compound in Kennebunkport is extensive, because that is a third elephant they’ll have to accommodate.

Joseph Nye, a professor of international relations at Harvard, outlines a different path in a recent Boston Globe op-ed. He envisions a sensible deal where “we would delay our plans for missile defense in Eastern Europe while the Russians would agree to back stronger sanctions against Iran,” which he says would be “our best shot at blocking Iran’s nuclear ambitions without compromising our immediate security.”

The $60 billion that the world’s richest industrialized nations just pledged to fight AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria in Africa is only a bit more than the $53 billion the United States has devoted to the techno-dream of missile defense in the past six years. It would require a radical reversal of Washington’s priorities to ensure that the warm welcome President Bush enjoyed in Albania would be replicated in Angola or Zambia.

FPIF columnist Frida Berrigan is a senior research associate at the New School’s World Policy Institute.