The Obama administration recently announced plans to deploy ballistic-missile defenses in the state of Alaska. At the same time, though, it canceled a key component of its European-based missile-defense system.
The Obama plan calls for stationing 14 missile interceptors in Alaska to protect the U.S. West Coast from North Korea, which is seen as a threat due to its advances in nuclear and missile technology. It also calls for the deployment of a radar system in Japan.
On the European side, the U.S. administration has been involved since 2009 in a four-stage program that uses sea-based, as well as land-based, ballistic-missile interceptors. Experts said it is a much more flexible plan than the one advocated by former President George W. Bush.
Now the U.S. government has decided to forgo the last stage of the European missile defense project, known as “phase four.”
Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, an organization specializing in nuclear weapons policy, said “the controversial part of the program was the plan to put more advanced interceptors in phases three and four – this started to worry the Russians. They thought that the ‘phase four’ interceptor – a very large, very fast interceptor – might be able, if it worked at all, to intercept Russian long-range missiles. That’s what they objected to.”
For many years, a U.S.-led ballistic-missile defense system based in Europe has been a contentious issue between the United States and Russia.
Sean Kay, an arms control expert at Ohio Wesleyan University, said Moscow believes the U.S. plan is ultimately aimed at Russia — a view rejected by the United States and other Western nations.
“The Russians rely much more heavily today on their nuclear deterrence because their conventional capabilities are so dramatically downgraded since the end of the Cold War,” said Kay. “Countries that have nuclear weapons are concerned about other countries’ ability to sort of neutralize their offensive or defensive nuclear capacity because it would leave them vulnerable to surprise attack.”
In announcing the cancellation of phase four of the European missile defense system, the Obama administration cited budgetary constraints.
Kay said the underlying “reason why they are able to scrap that technology right now – or at least that part of the plan – is because the technology for it does not exist. It did not exist under the Bush plan, it did not exist under the Obama plan. It is sort of an assumed capacity that would be deployed in the future. So we are really giving up nothing to say we will scrap this for the time being.”
Cirincione said the system simply did not work.
“I have talked to a number of officials in town to see whether this was driven by diplomacy or program, and it was clearly program. The missile could not do what they wanted it to do,” he said. “It was still just a paper concept. But as they started to look at the requirements for the missile, they realized they could not get a missile as fast as they wanted in the size that they needed.”
Obama’s critics would argue that cancellation of phase four is linked to the flexibility the president promised in arms control issues to then Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in off-microphone remarks last year.
But Cirincione said, “If the president is going to be more flexible, it is going to be in a comprehensive package he is going to propose to the Russians, and we have not seen that yet.”
As for Moscow’s initial reaction to the U.S. move, several Russian government officials have said Russia’s position on missile defense remains unchanged.