In response to growing concerns that North Korea would launch an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) at the U.S., President Donald Trump retweeted former ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, who argued that the Obama administration’s skepticism of missile-defense systems is why we are vulnerable today.
But is it true that President Obama was skeptical of missile-defense systems and left the U.S in a vulnerable position? His defenders don’t seem to think so. In a Los Angeles Times interview, Obama’s first Missile Defense Agency director, Patrick J. O’Reilly, suggested that the administration focused on the financial and practical issues and didn’t lack confidence in the technology per se: “These things really didn’t have a lot of merit,” O’Reilly said. “It was just how they were packaged and sold in Washington.” In January, Abel Romero, then a director of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, declared unequivocally that “President Obama leaves behind a significant missile defense legacy.”
It is true that Barack Obama left behind a significant missile-defense legacy: By cutting programs before they were complete, slashing defense funding, and embracing a risky and unproven strategy, he left the United States vulnerable to ICBM attacks from hostile nations such as North Korea and Iran.
The story begins with President Bill Clinton, who in 1993 cancelled the Ground-Based Interceptors (GBI) program — a component of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, which can protect against ICBMs and is located at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. By 2008, President George W. Bush had asked for 44 GBIs, but Obama cut the program back to 30 within weeks of his inauguration. Ten of these GBIs were slated to be based in Poland, but they were cut along with a Ground-Based Radar in the Czech Republic, which not only made the U.S. more vulnerable to threats from Iran, but appeased Russia. Moscow celebrated the European GBI cancellation as a diplomatic victory.
Obama, however, didn’t leave Europe completely undefended. In 2009, he announced the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) program, which was designed to protect the U.S. from missile attacks originating in Iran. But of EPAA’s four phases, only the last — the SM-3 Block IIB program — delivered on this promise, and it was the only phase of the EPAA Obama cut, making the program only useful as a deterrent to missile attacks on Europe.
That said, no boost-phase anti-missile programs survived the Obama administration. These technologies target a missile while it’s still launching — the heat signature from the booster makes tracking the missile much easier. The Airborne Laser (ABL) and Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI) programs are especially important, because they would be effective against North Korean ICBMs. Japan even wanted to join the ABL program, which was testing well before cancellation. The boost-phase programs, however, drew most of Director O’Reilly’s skepticism; he argued they were too expensive and too complicated.
But “hitting a bullet with another bullet” — as missile-defense programs have often been described — is never inexpensive or simple, especially when the president is stripping the program’s funding through aggressive budgetary reductions. By the Fiscal Year 2016, Obama had cut at least $1 billion per year from Bush’s FY 2009 budget, slashing $3.7 billion between FY 2010 and FY 2012. Most of the cuts hurt the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, our primary defense against North Korean ICBMs, and the boost-phase interceptors, which O’Reilly eventually killed due to financial burdens.
The most curious aspect of Obama’s missile-defense strategy takes us back to the GMD program. In 2014, when North Korea was making progress on its KNO-8 missiles, then–defense secretary Chuck Hagel decided to place 14 interceptors at Fort Greely in Alaska. Today, that announcement is heralded by Democrats as indicative of Obama’s faith in missile defense, but those interceptors are the same ones Obama cut in 2009. Had he followed Bush’s policy recommendation, they would have already been in place.
Technological advances over the past 15 years have made the Ground-Based Interceptors in Alaska and California effective five out of every six times.
Of course, this supports the suggestion that Obama didn’t really believe that missile-defense systems would fail per se; he responded to a threat of an ICBM attack with technology designed to stop it. In the Q&A session after his statement to the press, Secretary Hagel, in response to a question about whether the GMD system was effective, said: “We have confidence in our system, and we certainly will not go forward with the additional 14 interceptors until we are sure that we have the complete confidence that we will need. But the American people should be assured that our interceptors are effective.”
It’s important to note that while many opponents of missile-defense systems argue the programs are only about 50 percent effective, they include data covering the span of the program’s history since 2002. In reality, technological advances over the past 15 years have made the Ground-Based Interceptors in Alaska and California effective five out of every six times.
So why did Obama, and Clinton before him, in the end have such an aversion to missile defense — which, on the surface, seems like something that would attract bipartisan support? Democrats such as Obama believe in the counterintuitive strategic position that missile-defense systems actually make America more vulnerable to a missile attack. Matthew Kroenig, a professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, explained that this concept of “strategic stability” holds that a nation with strong defensive capability suggests to foreign nations that it has a greater propensity to strike first. This, in turn, escalates fear of an American “first strike” and incentivizes a first strike from abroad. Essentially, invulnerability begets vulnerability.
Kroenig, whose book on nuclear strategy will be published in January, does not believe in strategic stability’s advertised deterring power. In his view, there is scant evidence of countries’ striking first because they were afraid of an enemy’s defenses, and it’s far smarter and far more effective strategy to have protections in place in case of an attack.
Where strategic stability may have merit is in dealing with powers such as Russia or China. But when considering the clear and present threats to the United States, North Korea, and Iran, it is a dangerous and risky strategy. Obama did recognize this, of course, which is why he reinstalled the GBIs in Alaska.
Barack Obama’s legacy on missile defense is certainly, as Romero declared, “significant.” His faith in strategic stability until the eleventh hour with North Korea and his role in stripping money from the missile-defense budget is why we can’t have more confidence in our missile-defense systems today. Had Obama invested more time and money in developing boost-phase interceptors, installed more GBIs in Alaska and California, or established an East Coast missile-defense site, the U.S. would be much more prepared to deal with these threats as they arise instead of playing catch-up. It’s hard and complicated work, but hitting a bullet with a bullet wouldn’t be the most amazing thing the United States has done.
— Philip H. DeVoe is a Collegiate Network fellow with National Review.