Meanwhile, the Russians’ objections to U.S. missile defense plans have always centered on any proposed capability to defend North America (or Europe, for that matter) against missiles that might be launched from Russia, principally ICBMs. That was their objection to the Bush plan for GBIs in Poland, and it’s been their objection to the Phase IV concept of an ICBM defense in the Obama plan. They don’t want us to be able to defend ourselves against ICBMs, because their security concept is predicated on holding us (the U.S., along with NATO, but definitely the U.S.) at risk with global-strategic nuclear weapons.
Triangulating away from the Reagan vision
The Russians never came to terms with Reagan’s determination to end the “MAD” nuclear stand-off, or on Bush II’s announcement in 2001 that such risk-based deterrence was no longer our policy: we would base our national security instead on missile defense. Bush formally consigned MAD to the ash heap of history. But the Russians still don’t concur in that, because they insist on being able to hold the U.S. at risk with nuclear missiles as the basis for their security. They call this condition “stability.”
Now the Obama DOD has decided to cancel Phase IV of the EPAA, a move that tacitly abandons the Reagan-Bush missile-defense approach. With no new policy articulated, this move is effectively a reversion to the Cold War approach, circa 1965. But the reversion has a twist, because we now have missile-defense systems that work.
Apparently, the Obama administration sees missile defense as applicable to local or regional theaters – or, at most, to less-than-global missile problems, like that posed by North Korea – but not to global strategic stability. I say “apparently” because we can only derive the administration’s perspective from its actions. No guiding perspective has been articulated on these questions by the Obama administration.
Obama may be worried in general about the existence of “nuclear weapons,” but he has enunciated no posture on the power or security meaning of these weapons, mated to ICBMs, in the hands of Russia, China, Iran, etc. He is enthusiastic about missile defense as a tactical shield for Israel, and for U.S. troops and allies in the Middle East and Far East – all of which are uses of missile defense for contingent, tactical purposes in small areas. But he doesn’t make the logical connection Reagan did between missile defense as a game-changer in the power calculus of nations, and reductions in nuclear arms. To get those with nukes to give them up, we have to make it pointless to have nukes – for Russia and China as well as for anyone else.
That was a core principle of the Strategic Defense Initiative. Reagan’s executive direction on this approach lasted for 30 years, from his “Star Wars” speech in March 1983 to the demise of Phase IV of the EPAA in March 2013. It has now been terminated, not by an announced policy but by a series of actions contravening the original intent of missile defense.
So what about the U.S. East coast?
In practical terms, this transition means there is no longer even a pretense of planning for an “early-intercept” defense for the continental United States against missiles launched westward from western Asia or the Middle East – whether such missiles are launched by Iran other another nation.
Meanwhile, we have no GBIs positioned for an East coast intercept. Neither Patriot nor the Navy’s Aegis SM-3 missile is designed to intercept an ICBM, with its very high terminal velocity (e.g., 6-7 mach). The ICBM presents a problem the tactical systems aren’t designed for or tested against, as does a submarine-launched missile coming from the Barents Sea. In any case, however, we don’t have (and are not planning to have) a constantly-maintained ring of Patriot batteries or Navy Aegis warships deployed on missile-defense duty to protect the East coast. Nor could we maintain such a defensive ring while also keeping up our existing defense commitments.
Will there ever be GBI-type interceptors stationed on the eastern side of the United States? That’s a good question. Republicans in the House of Representatives want a GBI site on the East coast. In May 2012, the House Armed Services Committee approved $100 million in the 2013 Defense Authorization Act for developing a new GBI site on the East coast (the Democrats voted against it). The Democrat-held Senate didn’t buy off on the $100 million or the requirement to actually develop a site, but the final joint bill does require DOD to study potential new sites in the U.S.:
[T]he legislation … require[s] the Defense Department to conduct an environmental impact study on three sites for a possible additional ground-based interceptor site in the United States. Two of these sites must be on the East Coast, which could be a first step for the original House plan championed by [Howard P. “Buck”] McKeon [R-CA] and Mike Turner, R-Ohio. But [Democratic Senator Carl] Levin insisted, “There is no operational deployment plan.”
According to the 15 March defense briefing, DOD is fulfilling the requirement from Congress to study potential sites, with the emphasis apparently on environmental impact.