Analysis: Obama abandons view of Iran, not Europe
The old idea was that Iran was focused on building long-range ballistic missiles capable of hitting Europe and the U.S., although it so far has none in its arsenal. So the defense plan inherited by President Barack Obama was based on interceptors and radar primed to shoot down a long-range missile.
The new view is that Iran has made slower progress on long-range missiles than previously estimated and is going faster on missiles of shorter range — the types that mainly threaten Europe and parts of Asia.
So Obama has torn up the old defense plan and replaced it with one the Pentagon says will be more effective.
It's a gamble, but so was the Bush approach.
Pentagon chief Robert Gates offered sound technical reasons Thursday for Obama's decision to scrap his predecessor's approach, which was unfolding slowly and causing diplomatic headaches for Washington.
If the assertions laid out by Gates prove correct — if, in particular, Iran is not developing a long-range missile as quickly as previously assumed — then the revised missile defense system in Europe makes military sense. Gates says it could be adapted later to meet a long-range missile threat if that emerges.
Gates' explanation did little to shield the administration from a barrage of political strikes by Republicans who portrayed Obama's shift as a weak-kneed capitulation to Russia and an abandonment of U.S. allies.
Before Gates had even finished his news conference, House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio issued a statement accusing Obama of a "willful determination to continue ignoring the threat posed by some of the most dangerous regimes in the world." He said Obama had sold out the allies and empowered Iran.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., called the decision misguided and dangerous. She likened it to appeasement.
Those reactions, and other similar expressions of disappointment by missile defense advocates, say much about the ideological divide between supporters and skeptics of the missile defense push that began in earnest with former President Ronald Reagan's famous "Star Wars" speech in March 1983.
The Clinton administration quickly deep-sixed the Reagan program, but a scaled-down version was revived by President George W. Bush, leading to a decision in 2007 to go ahead with the system in Europe.
Bush also gave the go-ahead in 2004 for a U.S.-based system to defend against a long-range missile threat from North Korea.
As it happened, Gates was in charge at the Pentagon when Bush made the 2007 decision. Gates backed Bush's move in 2007, but now the holdover defense secretary is singing a different tune, telling reporters Thursday that two big changes since 2007 led him to conclude that the Bush approach is outdated.
The first change was the U.S. assessment of Iranian missile developments. The second was advances in U.S. missile interceptor and missile-tracking sensor technologies — improvements that Gates said allow the U.S. to pursue defensive capabilities in Europe six or seven years earlier than the Bush approach's timetable.
In place of the Bush blueprint, he said, is a less costly system that would provide defenses more compatible with NATO plans, while preserving flexibility to expand and improve as technology allows and the missile threat requires.
It would consist initially of anti-missile weapons based on U.S. Navy ships in the Mediterranean and the waters of northern Europe, plus land-based Patriot missile interceptors and a more advanced land-based interceptor known as the Theater High-Altitude Area Defense missile that has been largely successful in tests.
The ship-borne missile, known as an SM-3, gained international acclaim in February 2008 when a souped-up version was launched from a Navy cruiser in the Pacific and shot down a failing U.S. satellite in space.
By about 2015, a newer version of the SM-3 interceptor is to be available for basing on land in Europe, Gates said.
Still further improvements to the interceptor would allow more upgrading of the system by about 2018, and two years after that the U.S. could field a version of the SM-3 that would have "a substantial capability" to intercept not only missiles headed for Europe but also those targeting the U.S., according to Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Compared with the interceptor that Bush had planned for use in Europe, known generically as the ground-based interceptor, the smaller SM-3 is believed to be "the more effective killer," Cartwright said.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Robert Burns has covered national security and military affairs for The Associated Press since 1990.