Editorial | Push To Resurrect Bush Plan for European Missile Shield Makes No Sense

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Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine has brought calls from some quarters to reinstate former U.S. President George W. Bush’s missile defense plan for Europe, which entailed placing 10 two-stage versions of the U.S. Ground-based Midcourse Defense interceptor in Poland and a tracking radar in the Czech Republic.

U.S. President Barack Obama canceled that plan in 2009 in favor of the so-called European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), which initially relies on Standard Missile 3 interceptors aboard U.S. Navy ships deployed off Europe, to be followed by installation of more advanced versions of the interceptor in Poland and Romania. The initial phase is already active, and development of the land-based interceptors is well underway.

One can make a case that canceling the previous plan was intended in part to mollify Russia, which vehemently opposed U.S. interceptors in Poland — despite the fact that they were clearly intended to defend against a nascent Iranian threat. One can further argue — albeit less convincingly — that the move emboldened Russia, making it less concerned about a U.S. response as it contemplated taking Crimea.

But it does not in any way follow that reverting to Mr. Bush’s plan, which again — and like the EPAA — was aimed at a very limited Iranian threat, would encourage Russian President Vladimir Putin to reverse himself and relinquish Crimea. Nor is there a shred of logic to suggest that such a move would help deter Russia in the future. 

Implicit in these calls is the notion that the EPAA is somehow inferior to Mr. Bush’s plan. Robert Gates, who served as defense secretary under both presidents, has said otherwise, however. The EPAA is already active, whereas Mr. Bush’s planned system wouldn’t have been operational until 2018, and will be more effective against salvo attacks, according to Mr. Gates, who has a considerable ownership share of both. 

But effectiveness is almost beside the point given that the threat both schemes were designed to address — and the EPAA’s very existence, apparently — seems to be lost on the administration’s more strident critics. These include members of the Senate Armed Services Committee who ought to know better — even if their main purpose is to score a few political points.

There are legitimate criticisms to make of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy, and there are steps the administration should be taking to deter further Russian advances in Ukraine and elsewhere in the region. But reinstating the abandoned missile defense plan for Europe isn’t one of them. It’s not even worthy of discussion, particularly when there are serious issues and choices facing the U.S. defense and foreign policy establishment with respect to Russia.