Scrapping the Missile Shield: Militarily Sound

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U.S. Navy / Getty

Obama's new proposal for a missile shield could involve deploying Aegis warships outfitted with SM-3s

Plenty of political concerns have been raised over President Barack Obama's decision to scrap plans to deploy a missile-intercept system in Poland and the Czech Republic. "It's better these days to be a U.S. adversary than its friend," lamented the Wall Street Journal in a Friday, Sept. 18, editorial, implying that the U.S. caved in to Russia in abandoning the missile system. But just because Russia had furiously opposed the missile shield on its doorstep doesn't necessarily mean building it would have been a good idea. The military rationale for Obama's move is hard to argue with.

Viewed from the perspective of defense priorities, what the Administration has done is shift resources away from building a costly, immovable and as yet unproven shield in central Europe to counter the potential threat of Iran's developing intercontinental ballistic missiles, instead allocating them to deploying ships carrying proven interceptor systems nearer to Iran to counter the current threat of its medium-range-missile arsenal.

Among other advantages, the ships can sail freely in international waters to meet evolving threats without obtaining consent from host countries (the Czech parliament, for example, had yet to approve the deployment of the now canceled system). What's more, they can perform missions other than missile defense, and they are considerably cheaper. "This system gives us a much more significant and robust capability to adapt to the threat as it actually emerges," Marine General James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday, Sept. 17.

Part of the furor over Obama's decision results from the fact that ever since President Ronald Reagan launched his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, a.k.a. Star Wars) 26 years ago, the notion of a global missile shield has become an obsession for many of his ideological acolytes. They tend to view any retreat as surrendering to the forces of evil, even though Obama's decision was blessed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates — who had originally recommended the European scheme in 2006 while serving as Defense Secretary to President George W. Bush. In justifying the move, Gates and others cite intelligence reports that Iran — ostensibly the key target of the European shield — is emphasizing shorter-range missiles that couldn't be shot down from Poland.

Even the New York Times proclaimed in a front-page headline Friday that Obama's decision "Scales Back Reagan's Vision," although, as the Times reported in 1991, that was done by the first President Bush. "President Bush's decision to reduce the goals of the 'Star Wars' program from an impenetrable shield to a limited defense against missile attacks is a milestone in the government's slow rejection of Ronald Reagan's grandiose aims," the paper reported 18 years ago. That was back when SDI morphed into a scaled-down version dubbed Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS).

The U.S. has spent well north of $100 billion in the effort to create a technological shield to protect its mainland from incoming missiles — much of it on long-forgotten and never used systems such as Nike, Nike Zeus, Nike-X, Sentinel and Safeguard. The grandest of these, the Safeguard system, was built nearly 40 years ago in Nekoma, N.D. Huge earth-moving machines dug up 1.75 million cu. yd. of rich, black loam from the 470-acre site. Contractors built the base with 160,000 cu. yd. of concrete and 12,000 tons of steel. They crowned their work with a partly buried, 123-ft.-tall pyramid containing the system's key radar. Each of its four "eyes" had sprinklers to wash away any potential radioactive debris from collisions between the nearby nuclear-tipped interceptors and incoming Soviet missiles.

The government shut the system down after just four months in service, because of its high cost and doubts about its utility. At least when sea-launched interceptor systems are stood down, they can sail away to new assignments.