On the eve of NATO’s April 3 statement endorsing U.S. plans to deploy missile defenses in Europe, a trio of national security policy experts here expressed varying opinions on the necessity, effectiveness and political ramifications of the move.


The United States has been conducting negotiations since last spring to place a missile-tracking radar site in the Czech Republic and 10 ground-based interceptors
in Poland. The Czech Republic recently agreed to host the radar site, and U.S. government officials say
the agreement with Poland will soon be completed. Russia has
vehemently opposed
the plan from the start, saying it poses a threat to Russia’s national security.


Joseph Cirincione,
president of the Ploughshares Fund, a foundation that provides grants for peace and nonproliferation initiatives, opposed the plan during a March 31 panel
discussion at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ 6th annual U.S. Missile Defense Conference. Michael O’Hanlon, a national security policy expert at the Brookings Institution, and Baker Spring, a national security policy expert at the Heritage Foundation, advocated for the construction of the site during the discussion. Brookings and Heritage are Washington-based think tanks.


Cirincione argued that the ballistic missile threat is not what it was 10 or 20 years ago. There are fewer countries developing missiles
today, and
fewer hostile countries in the world, he said. The threat posed by
North Korea and Iran has been greatly exaggerated, as both are more than a decade away from an ICBM capability, he said.


“This is not a global ballistic missile threat; we have pockets of problems,” Cirincione said. “And there is every reason to believe they can be answered with measured military preparedness and diplomacy.”


Spring argued that the global ICBM threat is greater today than
ever before. In contrast with the
Cold War era, where peace between the
two superpowers rested on the concept of
mutually assured destruction, the world now has many more important players with new nations eager to obtain nuclear weapons.


“Now we’ve moved on to a damage limitation strategy that must draw on a mix of offensive and defensive forces,” Spring said.

The United States was right to move forward with the European missile site, O’Hanlon said, but it should have been a more internationally vetted plan that included NATO, rather than the bilateral negotiations that have taken place.


“My sense in meeting with our Czech and Polish counterparts is they are accepting this system as a favor for NATO admission and our general support for their countries over the years,” O’Hanlon said. “That’s fine in the sense that countries are always making trades, but I would have rather had this done out of a shared sense of threat reduction. And I think there was a way to get to that phase. If we got to a point where an Iranian threat was imminent, then you consider a bilateral arrangement as a last resort, but not as your starting point.”


NATO nonetheless endorsed the plan in a statement issued April 3 following a summit meeting of alliance heads of state in Bucharest, Hungary. “Ballistic missile proliferation poses an increasing threat to Allies’ forces, territory and populations,” the statement, part of a communique covering a wide range of alliance issues, said. “Missile defence forms part of a broader response to counter this threat. We therefore recognise the substantial contribution to the protection of Allies from long‑range ballistic missiles to be provided by the planned deployment of European‑based United States missile defence assets. We are exploring ways to link this capability with current NATO missile defence efforts as a way to ensure that it would be an integral part of any future NATO‑wide missile defence architecture.”


Cirincione said
not involving NATO in the discussions with Poland and the Czech Republic was an intentional strategy to try and get agreements in place to build
the sites before the end of U.S. President George W. Bush’s term in office. It is
unlikely that Bush’s successor, whomever that may be,
will continue on this course, he said.


Spring countered
that none of the current U.S. presidential candidates would be likely to stop the European site from being completed.


All three panelists agreed that U.S. missile defense spending is most likely heading for decline in coming years, but they disagreed on the extent of the decline.

Cirincione related missile defense to the housing and credit markets, saying the bubble is about to burst. The Defense Department spends around $12 billion a year on missile defense, including the U.S. Missile Defense Agency’s budget and various related satellite programs, he said.


“It’s the single largest weapons program in the budget,” he said. “You cannot sustain that. The next president,
Republican or
Democrat, is going to have to contract the budget in some areas. If the Joint Chiefs of Staff have any say in it, I think you will see them move money away from these long-range threats to the defense of short-range theater missiles.”


Cirincione argued that the
No. 1 threat to American security is not ballistic missiles, but a small-scale nuclear attack from a
terrorist organization. Thus, he said, a large portion of the money
currently being spent on ballistic missile defense would be better spent on nonproliferation programs and efforts to account for and control nuclear material worldwide.


Cirincione and O’Hanlon agreed that an annual U.S. budget of $6 billion to $7 billion for missile defense would be adequate.


Cirincione noted that
U.S.-Russian relations are at their lowest
point since before the collapse of the Soviet Union because of the European missile shield. If the shield is put into place, Russia is likely to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, which the United States and Soviet Union signed in 1987 to reduce the number of nuclear missiles held by each country, he said.


“We’re putting missile defenses on their border that will have some long-range capability against Russian ICBMs,” Cirincione said. “Therefore, any Russian military planner would be derelict not to begin to deploy countermeasures to these systems. Clearly countermeasures would include destroying the bases. You don’t have those missiles right now because of the INF treaty. From a military point of view, it’s hard to argue with that, so I expect they will withdraw from that treaty because of this.”


Russia’s threatening to abandon
that treaty or strike Czech and Polish targets is largely rhetoric, O’Hanlon said.


“In general, Russia’s opposition to the European site is entirely cynical and highly non-serious,” O’Hanlon said. “If there are Russian military planners focused only on capabilities and not intentions, they are living in the dark ages. I do not think Russia is legitimately concerned about 10 interceptors.

“I think they know enough from their intelligence that they would have some fair warning before the system became in any way meaningful, vis a vis, a deterrent. When they talk about threatening the Czech or Polish territories or backing out of the INF treaty, it’s cynical. But that doesn’t mean it’s not real, and
it must be taken seriously. We can try to mitigate it with a consultative process with our NATO allies and with Russia.”

Comments: tbrinton@space.com