Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Ballistic Missile Defense: An Update

The last few weeks have witnessed some important developments in the arena of ballistic missile defense.

Significantly, during his recent visit to the United States, Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek announced that U.S. and Czech negotiators are nearing an agreement on placing an early warning radar base in the Czech Republic.

Recall that in January 2007, the Bush administration asked that formal negotiations begin on the proposed deployment of a ground-based mid-course defense (GMD) element of the larger Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS) in Europe to defend against an Iranian missile threat. In addition to the radar base in the Czech Republic, the system would include 10 interceptors in Poland, all of which would be completed by 2013 at a cost of $4.04 billion. The FY2008 Defense Appropriations Bill (H.R. 3222; P.L. 110-114) eliminated the Bush administration’s request for $85 million for the European site construction, but permits $225 million for further study of the proposed European GMD element.

While negotiations between Washington and Prague appear to be coming to a successful conclusion, Poland continues to tie acceptance of the U.S. plan to support from Washington for modernizing the Polish armed forces and providing Poland with U.S. air defense systems. Missile defense promises to figure prominently in talks between Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and President Bush scheduled for later this week. No final deal can be reached until both the Czech Republic and Poland agree to the U.S. proposal.

In related news, on February 26, the GAO released a study entitled “Assessment of DOD Efforts to Enhance Missile Defense Capabilities and Oversight” (GAO’s annual report on missile defense is in draft and is slated to be issued in final by March 15). The study took a broad look at BMDS over the course of the past year, and made the following conclusions:

  • MDA has fielded additional new assets, enhanced capability of some existing assets, and achieved most test objectives
  • However, the goals originally set by MDA for Block 2006 were not met, as it ultimately fielded fewer assets, increased costs by about $1 billion, and conducted fewer tests
  • GAO was unable to assess whether MDA met its overall performance goal because (1) there have not been enough flight tests to validate the models and simulations that are used to predict system-level performance, (2) some interceptors may not be reliable, and (3) tests done to date have been developmental in nature
What do these new developments tell us about the recent and future trajectory of an integrated BMDS? First, on the issue of U.S.-Poland negotiations, it seems clear that the new government of Prime Minister Tusk has been a tougher negotiator (in demanding more for Poland) than the coalition of his predecessor, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Given that any agreement to base interceptors in Poland is subject to the approval of the Polish parliament, Tusk’s harder line, coupled with the fact that the majority of Poles disagree with the U.S. proposal to place interceptors in their country, suggests that interceptors will not be put in Poland anytime soon.

A similar dynamic is at work in the Czech Republic, despite the fact that Washington and Prague are nearing an agreement on the radar base. Many Czechs are hostile to the U.S. proposal, and any agreement will have to be ratified by the Czech parliament (and perhaps even survive a public referendum). Consequently, as a recent CRS report puts it, “approval is not a foregone conclusion.”

Second, the GAO study does nothing to ally the doubts of critics (see here and here for examples) who question the technical feasibility and cost-effectives of GMD both in Europe and on the American west coast. Since the 1980s, DOD has spent more than $100 billion on missile defense, and it estimates that another $50 billion will need to be spent between FY2008 and FY2013. Were GMD likely to result in a net increase in U.S. security, perhaps such enormous costs could be justified. That most of the available evidence points in the opposite direction suggests that America should stop further deployment of GBD.

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