Now We Know Why Obama Reversed Course on Missile Defense

Last month, the Obama administration abruptly backtracked on cutting continental missile defense, and decided to restore the full amount of interceptors in Alaska to an original Bush administration plan. Given the time and cost of the reversal (costing up to $200 million and taking at least two years), many wondered what could have spooked an administration not known for second-guessing itself. Well, this report may reveal the answer: Part of the U.S. intelligence community now believes North Korea has achieved at least a rudimentary capability to put nuclear weapons on long-range ballistic missiles. That, of course, is a game-changer, even if the North can’t yet depend on the accuracy of its missiles (or weapons, for that matter). 

The Obama administration deserves credit for bowing to reality, and taking seriously what may be a real threat in the future. That raises questions, however, about its initial judgments about other threats to the United States, as well as to allies. In particular, it highlights once again the fact that the administration is caught by surprise on timelines. It may have assumed the North wouldn’t perfect weaponization so quickly. Similarly, the administration’s rationale for killing the F-22 stealth fighter in 2009 was that no other stealth competitor was on the horizon; just months later, the Chinese rolled out not one, but two stealth prototypes, both of which appear to be proceeding much faster than expected. 

All of this raises questions about what else we don’t know. When Iran might have a bomb? Terrorists getting their hands on WMD? Cyber attacks on America’s infrastructure? It’s possible none of those things will happen, but if they do, we’ll need an immediate response, not one that takes years to prepare. Hence, putting back missile interceptors. There are other things we may find wanting, like having enough stealth fighters or cyber defense. Prudence isn’t always about saving money; it’s also about adequately understanding tomorrow’s threats and preparing today.

Michael Auslin — Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he specializes in Asian regional security and political issues.