As was widely anticipated, President Obama has decided not to build the missile defense installations that President Bush had promised to Poland and the Czech Republic. The reason for that, Secretary Robert Gates said today, was a changed intelligence assessment and improved technology.
The intelligence assessment has upped the likely numbers of missiles in Iran and North Korea. The improved technology involves both radar and missiles. The alternative to the radar in the Czech Republic and missiles in Poland will be Aegis ships equipped with x-band radar and anti-missile missiles. This will be a more immediate solution to whatever problem exists; the land-based installations probably wouldn’t have been effective until 2017. It will also be more able to respond to changing threats. And it will be much less expensive: $13-15 million per missile as against $70 million per missile.
And it will be able to incorporate various national systems. Gates and his general said that the US is currently working with Israel to incorporate their system. He said that the radar in Azerbaijan offered early on by the Russians might be incorporated. There was also something about burden-sharing and how the Japanese are paying for part of their missile defense.
Saying that the change is because of changing intelligence and technology is a face-saver all around. Plus it has some truth in it.
But Gates is being less than totally clear, although he did mention the areas that would be protected by the various options. The difference is one that my friend the Armchair Generalist pointed out to me when I got a bit overexcited last week.
What the Aegis will provide is theater defense. With a lot more research and development, Gates and his general said, we can extend that area with new, to-be-developed missiles. As many of us have been saying all along, national missile defense still doesn’t work.
Theater defense may well be enough for Europe. But it’s not the enormous boondoggle that national missile defense represents.
Obama and Gates are playing a careful game. They are talking about missile defense without making the distinction between theater missile defense, which works, and national missile defense, which doesn’t. Let’s see if that shields them from the neoconservative incoming.