Obama's "Hot Mic" and America's Pointless European Missile Defense System

By now the GOP national security establishment is sufficiently apoplectic over President Obama’s off-the-cuff statement at the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul to outgoing Russian President Dimitry Medvedev that he’d have more “flexibility” on missile defense after November’s election.  There have been the usual accusations of Obama’s appeasement of Moscow and his selling out of American national security.  Fortunately Jacob Heilbrunn at the National Interest responds to the wailing with a cold dose of reality:

The good news would be if Obama really was prevaricating—if he was secretly prepared to jettison an expensive and worthless missile-defense program that is redolent of the Cold War but has little to do with current threats. The administration claims that it is aimed at preparing to halt potential strikes from Iran against Europe. But isn't that Europe's problem?

I don’t think Heilbrunn’s later claim that the administration’s phased adaptive approach (PAA) to missile defense in Europe is quite right—if so, then it is an even more colossal waste of time, money, and diplomatic capital than if it was actually deployed against Iran.  As has been noted by the Carnegie Endowment’s James Acton [PDF] and the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board [PDF] the SM-3 interceptor is unlikely to be able to effectively counter Russian ICBMs in their ascent phase based on the planned deployments in the Mediterranean and North Seas.  Also, there won’t be nearly enough interceptors available to account for Russia’s large and diverse missile force.  But the overall point that America is once again stuck paying for European security—and with unproven and expensive technology—is the one that matters.

The planned NATO missile defense architecture is just the latest manifestation of the continued policy of allowing Europe to free ride off American taxpayers instead of investing in their own defense.  While the Iranian missile force is still developing, the proximity of the Middle East to Southern Europe could provoke justifiable anxiety—particularly considering ongoing concerns over Iran’s nuclear program.  It is unlikely that Iran would undertake a first-strike against Europe given the massive retaliatory attack it would surely face, but there are scenarios under which a missile defense system could improve European freedom of action or protect European civilians in the event of a Middle Eastern conflict that Europe later finds itself drawn into.  But it shouldn’t follow that the United States should foot the bill for Europe’s missile defense needs—whatever they may be.

The Ballistic Missile Defense Review report from February 2010 pays lip service to the idea of cost sharing for the PAA, but there is scant evidence that this will take place.  In fact, a January story from Defense News highlights the worries of one European defense contractor about Europe’s ability to contribute to the system because of “the financial thing”—which is, of course, a pretty big thing.  That’s especially true in light of Europe’s falling defense spending.  As the Washington Post reported in January,

Britain announced troop cuts this month that will eventually shrink the size of its army by nearly one-fifth; it already has mothballed its only aircraft carrier.  Germany is trimming the size of its armed forces by a similar amount and canceling orders for fighter jets, helicopters and other weapons systems. Italy, which imposed deep defense cuts two years ago, is confronting another round that could include steep reductions in the number of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters — a U.S.-made plane — that it had planned to buy.

And last month, Defense News noted that much of the upcoming NATO summit in Chicago will focus on dealing with Europe’s falling defense budgets with the concept of the alliance’s new “Smart Defense” plan.  If Washington’s European allies can’t afford to contribute to the missile defense architecture, it will once again be up to American taxpayers to step up and pay for weapons designed to protect someone else.

Heilbrunn is right: the problem is not that Obama is selling out America’s missile defense plans in Europe.  The problem is that he made the plans in the first place.  Ending the PAA is a good place to start if the administration is truly interested in finding savings in the Pentagon budget and to begin unwinding the notion that European security will be the perpetual responsibility of the American taxpayer.

Instead it seems the Obama administration is looking to double-down by pursuing its plans to implement something akin to the PAA in both the Middle East and Asia.  It’s most likely not coincidental that the prospect of Middle Eastern and East Asian missile defense architectures were raised in the wake of Obama’s supposed gaffe.  It seems to be a fairly transparent way to tamp down criticism of the president by demonstrating that he’s not an appeaser on missile defense.  What the Obama administration should be doing is making plans to take advantage of any second term “flexibility” by ending the phased adaptive approach in Europe and rethinking the decisions to begin them elsewhere.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem likely.

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