Thursday, September 17, 2009

Missile defense: SECDEF told us this was coming five months ago!

This morning I woke to a "breaking news alert" from the Washington Post, headlined as follows: "Czech Premier: Obama Scrapping Missile Shield" (here's the updated story). Within half an hour of getting to the office, I'd had three people ask me "so what do you think of Obama cancelling the missile defense program?" There's probably a rant to be had here about sensationalist media and misleading headlines, but I'll leave that alone.

So as you probably know by now, the administration has decided to abandon plans to continue the Bush-era European-based missile defense system that would have become operational around 2017 or 2018. Ballistic missile defense is not being abandoned, though, despite what the headlines might've suggested. Here's what the President had to say, and here's the transcript of Secretary Gates and General Cartwright's Pentagon press conference on the subject.

The new program will be based around the Army's forthcoming Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile and Navy SM-3s, building off the sea service's success with Aegis-equipped ships performing the theater missile defense (TMD) mission. Secretary Gates insists that our international partners are still being encouraged to participate in this system, and that the changes from the old system are intended in large part to protect European allies against short- and medium-range Iranian missiles (which are much more likely threat than an imagined Iranian ICMB capability). Over time the system will include land-based missiles and radars (unidirectional X-band), also, and the Czechs and Poles will be encouraged to host those sites (well, the missiles, at least -- the radars are likely to be based in the Caucasus).

I don't really want to get bogged down on technical details and all that nonsense, because if you care about that stuff you can find it yourself. The point of this is to bring to your attention the fact that THIS STUFF IS NOT NEW. Everyone's running around like there was no sign of this announcement, as if it's a dramatic change that came without any warning. But remember Secretary Gates' April 6th news briefing, the one where he came out and announced some key points in his budget recommendation? You know, when we all focused on the cancellation of FCS ground vehicles, the presidential helicopter, the 187 cap on F-22, "a fundamental overhaul of our approach to procurement, acquisition, and contracting," and the "rare chance to match virtue to necessity, to critically and ruthlessly separate appetites from real requirements, those things that are desirable in a perfect world from those things that are truly needed in light of the threats America faces and the missions we are likely to undertake in the years ahead; an opportunity to truly reform the way we do business"?

Yeah, me too. But here's the bits I didn't remember until I reread it this afternoon (this first part coming in listing of "new or additional investments and shifts in several key areas," on the lines immediately below the one about F-22):

Fourth, to better protect our forces and those of our allies in theater from ballistic missile attack, we will add $700 million to field more of our most capable theater missile defense systems; specifically, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, THAAD, and the Standard Missile 3 programs.

Fifth, we will add $200 million to fund the conversion of six additional Aegis ships to provide ballistic-missile-defense capabilities.
And then later, when discussing acquisition and contracting reform, and more specifically program cancellations:

[...] in the area of missile defense, we will restructure the program to focus on the rogue state and theater missile threat. We will not increase the number of current ground-based interceptors in Alaska, as had been planned, but we will continue to robustly fund continued research and development to improve the capability we already have to defend against long-range rogue missile threats, a threat North Korea's missile launch this past weekend reminds us is real.
There it is in black and white: the Defense Department has been planning for six months to shift to a more theater-oriented BMD network, rather than a continental defense. How did so many people (including me) miss it?

Oh yeah, and something else that I forgot to mention the first time through -- here's GEN Cartwright on where this all came from: "Most of this work has emanated from the congressionally directed Ballistic Missile Defense Review that is a part of our QDR analysis." In light of the fact that Secretary Gates' April speech came before most of the QDR work was done, that seems dubious. Congress does mandate, of course, that DoD perform a BMD review as part of the QDR. Congress mandates the entire QDR, but it would be silly to suggest that the strategic realignment that's going on Department-wide was something that "emanated from the QDR;" it's more accurate to say that the QDR is shaking out along the lines of the changing conventional wisdom about these issues.


  1. There it is in black and white: the Defense Department has been planning for six months to shift to a more theater-oriented BMD network, rather than a continental defense. How did so many people (including me) miss it?

    Uh, because it was buried in wonkery and not so black and white? :)

  2. It's been a While since I've paid attention to this issue. Doing rudimentary analysis on the threats this system was supposed to counter it didn't make much sense to do at all. Except get something out of cancelling the program. Did we get anything out of this??

  3. I don't know whether I misunderstand the last 2 sentences of Gunslinger's comment above. Anyway I'd comment with my understanding of these 2 sentences... I thought President Obama got the "something" from the Russians on his Moscow trip: access to russian airspace as an alternative route to Afghanistan!... Big loosers in this cancellation are those Eastern European countries who were expecting monetary and jobs windfalls from the deal...

  4. The rationale for the system was absurd. It was first described as a defense against missles coming out of the Middle East. However, the Shahab 3 - Iran's next generation missle that hasn't been developed fully yet - (IF North Korea gives them whatever technology that's worthwhile out of the Taepodong 2) would still have a hard time reaching most of Europe. If the defensive missiles are fully ensconced in Europe, they have almost zero intercept probability. Or they really were to deter Russia.

    In other words, they were useless against any probable threat for the next 20 or so years. So why bother in the first place? Unless the U.S. wanted something in return for eventually (and inevitably) being cancelled. So, did the U.S. get anything out of Russia for cancelling the system?

  5. Kudos for Gates and his artful way of hiding things in plain sight. Never thought that those lines meant pulling out of the Poland/Czech deal.

    Re: US-Russia deals, yes, Russia agrees to cooperate on negotiating a new START deal by the end of the year (when the current START ends). That was the deal.