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2017: Year of the North Korean Nuclear ICBM?



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The Obama Administration got mugged by reality (again), and today announced that it would reverse its 2011 decision to close Missile Field 1 in Alaska and put only 30 ballistic missile interceptors at the site, instead of the original 44 planned by the Bush Administration. Now, newly-minted Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel stated that threats from North Korea, along with its successful recent nuclear and missile tests, and from 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 to have been hasty, if not gratuitous. After all, no one doubted North Korea was getting closer to a reliable long-range missile capability back in 2011, and it had already conducted two nuclear tests. As for Iran, the charade of negotiations has been going on for years, punctuated only by revelations about how many more centrifuges the country is spinning. And, intelligence agencies have long known of the North Korean-Iranian tie, whereby Pyongyang is trying to sell missile technology to Tehran. So, in terms of realistically assessing threats, the Obama Administration was clearly wanting, to put it charitably. Today’s about-face also lays to rest any remaining pretensions that Barack Obama could somehow solve problems too tough for George Bush.

Second, in an age of austerity, today’s announcement reveals the wastefulness of rushed decisions like that back in 2011. Reopening the missile field will cost $200 million and take two years, according to news reports, while the total program will take until 2017, in order to have the full 44 interceptors. Billions of defense dollars are being cut, training and maintenance for all services is being reduced, exchanges and educational programs are being cancelled, and now another $200 million has to be found. It’s the right thing to do, but the Obama Administration needlessly wasted the money by closing the field in the first place. 

Third, the Administration needs to think more about how to protect our allies. Increasing missile defense for the U.S. obviously sends a signal that Washington takes North Korean threats seriously, and worries about Iran. That will deeply concern our allies, who are more in the cross-hairs than we are. Hagel did announce that the U.S. would add another radar tracking system in Japan; again, part of an original Bush Administration policy. But Japan will need more in order to feel secure against North Korea. Adding more Aegis-capable BMD destroyers in the region should also be considered. Europe will also feel the heat from Washington’s move, not only because of Iranian fears, but also because Russia is modernizing its nuclear forces and is threatening to move missiles closer to Poland, in part due to U.S. plans to put in defense sites in Poland and Romania. Clearly, the dream of nuclear zero is receding faster than the prospect of a balanced budget, but that is only putting American credibility more on the line, as states threatened by missile-capable adversaries will expect a more coherent U.S. response.

Finally, intelligence gurus must wonder about the timing. This is a sudden about-face, and the timelines are pretty clear: 2017 for the full missile defense capability in Alaska. Is that the timeframe in which the Obama Administration expects North Korea to have a 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 slim down missile defense expenditures (and cut research programs like the airborne laser and kinetic energy interceptor). Clearly, some new intelligence estimates have rattled the Administration enough to put $200 million back in play and very publicly reverse a decision many criticized by many at the time. 

All this may announce a new, more sober approach by the Obama Administration to growing threats. Maybe the fiction of useless negotiations will also be questioned, and the failed policy of North Korean denuclearization mercifully buried. Diplomatic gabfests can’t replace serious national defense, though all American administrations should get credit for trying. Now, it’s time to “grow up,” as President Obama intoned in his first inaugural address, and do the serious business of best preparing the future defense of the country and its allies. 



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