Growing Up on Missile Defense
The Obama administration, by restoring interceptors to Alaska, seems to be more serious.


Michael Auslin

The Obama administration has been mugged by reality (again) — last week it announced that it would reverse its 2011 decision to close Missile Field 1 in Alaska, and would instead complete the project with 44 ballistic-missile interceptors, as originally planned by the Bush administration. Newly minted defense secretary Chuck Hagel explained that growing threats from North Korea and Iran mandate the reopening of the missile-defense site and the deployment of the full amount of interceptors.

That should be good news, and in one sense, it is. But let’s look at the downsides. First, it reveals the administration’s original missile-defense plans as the hasty mistakes they were. After all, in 2011, no one doubted North Korea was getting closer to a reliable long-range-missile capability it recently demonstrated, and it had already conducted two nuclear tests. As for Iran’s threat, the charade of negotiations has been going on for years, punctuated only by revelations about how many more nuclear centrifuges the country is spinning. Worse, intelligence agencies have long known of the North Korean–Iranian tie, whereby Pyongyang is trying to sell missile technology to Tehran. To put it charitably, the Obama administration’s risk assessment was seriously wanting. Further, the threats forcing last week’s about-face certainly lay to rest any remaining pretensions that Barack Obama could somehow solve proliferation problems that were too tough for George Bush.

Second, the announcement reminds of how wasteful rushed decisions can be, an important lesson for today’s age of austerity. Just reopening the missile field will cost $200 million and take two years, and deploying the full 44 interceptors will take until 2017. At a time when billions of defense dollars are being cut, training and maintenance for all services is being reduced, exchanges and educational programs are being cancelled, another $200 million has to be found. It’s still the right thing to do, but it’s more expensive because of the Obama administration’s ill-advised decision to close the field in the first place.

Third, the administration needs to think about other ways to protect our allies while we also protect ourselves. Increasing missile defense for the U.S. obviously sends a signal that Washington takes North Korean threats seriously, and that we are also worried about Iran. That will deeply concern those of our allies who are even more in the crosshairs than we are. Secretary Hagel did also announce that the U.S. would add another radar-tracking system in Japan (again, part of an original Bush-administration policy). But Japan needs more assistance, such as the presence of more U.S. Aegis missile-defense systems, in order to feel secure against North Korea’s threat. Meanwhile, as the U.S. moves to protect itself from Iran, Europe will be feeling the heat from Iran and Russia, which is modernizing its nuclear forces and threatening to move missiles closer to Poland. In part, that’s due to U.S. plans to put defense sites in Poland and Romania. As more states are threatened by missile-capable adversaries, they will expect a more coherent U.S. response, and American credibility is on the line.

Finally, close analysis suggests the timing could be quite worrisome. This is a sudden about-face, and the timelines are pretty clear, with full missile-defense capability in Alaska by 2017. Is that the timeframe by which the Obama administration expects North Korea to have nuclear-missile capability, i.e., a nuclear warhead on top of a reliable ICBM? If not, why rush now, given the president’s repeated desire to trim missile-defense expenditures? (They’ve also cut research programs such as the airborne laser and kinetic energy interceptor.) Clearly, some new intelligence estimates must have rattled the administration enough to put $200 million back in play and dramatically reverse a decision for which they received much criticism.

All this may announce a new, more sober approach by the Obama administration to growing threats. Maybe they will also come to question their steadfast commitment to negotiations and decide to bury their failed policy of North Korean denuclearization. Diplomatic gabfests can’t replace serious national defense. Now, it’s time to “grow up,” as President Obama intoned in his first inaugural address, and do the serious business of preparing the future defense of our country and its allies.

 — Michael Auslin is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @michaelauslin.