Why is Obama Playing Missile Defense Whack-a-Mole?

There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the administration’s choices.

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FILE - In this Monday, Jan. 2, 2012 file photo released by Iranian Students News Agency, ISNA, on Monday, Jan. 2, 2012, a Ghader missile is launched at the shore of sea of Oman during Iran's navy drill. The missile, called Ghader, or Capable in Farsi, was described as an upgraded version of a missile that has been in service before. During a graduation at Iran's main army academy, the country's leader effectively sketched out the Islamic Republic's tougher military posture. Iran's must never hesitate to display its power in a hard-edged world where the weak pay the price, he told the newly minted officers. Less than two months later, Khamenei's words were echoed by commanders who warned that Iran could block oil tanker shipping lanes in the Gulf in retaliation for sanctions and described foreign forces _ including a recent visit by an U.S. aircraft carrier _ as unwelcome interlopers in the region.

After considerable debate in Congress, it appears as though the long-discussed east coast missile defense site is finally going to become a reality. Earlier this month, during its deliberations over the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, the House Armed Services Committee voted to give the Pentagon the authority to begin construction on the project next year, and to have it operational by 2018.

But lost in the debate over the virtues of placing ground-based interceptors in the northeast United States is the larger question of what American missile defense policy is as a whole. The answer is troubling: simply put, we don't have one.

Shortly after taking office, President Obama declared that he would not follow through with his predecessor's plans to deploy 14 more missile interceptors. That system, known as Ground-based Midcourse Defense, is the main U.S. protection against medium- and long-range ballistic missiles, including intercontinental ballistic missiles that can carry nuclear warheads.

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But the administration determined that adding these interceptors was not imperative, even though Iran and North Korea had made clear their intentions to develop and deploy missiles capable of reaching the U.S. This represents a significant mistake, and one underpinned by faulty logic. The White House appeared to be saying that, since hostile nations don't currently have the capability to attack us, we can put off building defenses until they do.

Tellingly, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel articulated what amounted to an about-face on the part of the administration when he announced back in March that the U.S. would, in fact, deploy the ground-based interceptors on the west coast. But the damage has already been done; the U.S. gave Tehran and Pyongyang a four-year head start in developing the weapons necessary to defeat our defenses. Moreover, there is growing evidence that North Korea in particular may have done just that.

Creating an effective missile defense framework requires preparing ourselves to defeat threats that have not yet fully developed. A conservative estimate of North Korean capabilities, for example, would assume that Pyongyang will be able to field a moderately reliable, nuclear tipped ICBM by 2015 (although this may happen considerably sooner, if intelligence community reports are to be believed). Considering that it takes at least five years to bring a ground-based interceptor site online, construction on the 14 interceptors finally green-lighted by the White House this spring should have begun in 2010, if not earlier.

Missile defense policy requires strategic thinking, not tactical maneuvers. Anything less will result in a missile shield that is at best flawed and at worst useless. For these reasons, the U.S. must be proactive in focusing on new technologies capable of protecting American citizens and the U.S. homeland from ballistic missile attack.

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Which brings us back to the east coast site. The justification often used for its construction is a favorable 2012 report released by the National Academy of Sciences. While it's true that the study did recommend the project, it also said that "an additional interceptor site with the new evolved GBI" was needed for optimum coverage of the U.S. That job, however, hasn't yet been done. As a result, Congress is rushing to build the new interceptor site without upgrading the interceptors themselves.

Nor is it yet taking real measures to minimize the damage to U.S. critical infrastructure that would take place were our missile defenses to fail and a nuclear device detonate. Such an explosion would release an electromagnetic pulse blast that would devastate our increasingly wired country. Moreover, it could be created using a fairly unsophisticated bomb. (At least one piece of legislation aimed at hardening U.S. infrastructure against EMP attack – the SHIELD Act – is currently under consideration by Congress. Its passage, however, has been held up by partisan political bickering.)

All this underscores the sad reality that the U.S. government has grown content with playing whack-a-mole, responding to threats as they pop up. Instead, we need to be playing chess, thinking five moves ahead of our adversaries and investing in the technologies that can counter future missile threats. Only then will the U.S. focus on defenses capable of defeating both the threats of today and of tomorrow. 

Jacob Goldstein is a researcher at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.

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  • Corrected on 6/25/13: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified when the East Coast missile defense site is supposed to be operational. It’s 2018.