IMAGINE A TOOL exists that would weaken potential Iranian nukes without waiting for resolution of the debate over sanctions, force, and diplomacy. If we found such a device, shouldn't we fund it immediately rather than waiting for Iran's nuclear program to come online?
One would think so. But last Tuesday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates stepped on the brakes in Prague: he suggested in a proposal to the Russians that "activation" of Central European missile defense should wait until the Iranians test missiles.
And, in September, Congress cut funding for the program, which would install a radar system in the Czech Republic and ten interceptors in Poland. Claiming a desire to stall construction, legislators allotted $85 million less in the Senate and $139 less in the House than the $206 million requested by the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) for FY2008.
Waiting for the mushroom cloud of a missile test or further Congressional deliberation will strengthen Iranian nuclear power. Postponement would let Tehran intimidate the region with a weapon system whose counter would remain years away from completion.
Next year, the 2008 presidential campaign will push budget requests into a new administration, which would then solicit missile defense funding in late 2009 at the earliest. The MDA estimates that it could complete the Central European anti-missile "shield" in five years, but inevitable bureaucratic logjams and negotiations with NATO partners will surely slow the pace.
Construction begun in 2010, therefore, would likely not finish until after 2015. That happens to be the year by which the Defense Intelligence Agency predicts Iran could have intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
The Central European program would protect U.S. allies that have sacrificed on our behalf. While preliminary ground-based missile defense safeguards the American homeland, Britain and Poland have no such protection.
Some critics claim the program will not work--even though the military has successfully used interceptors to shoot down offensive missiles in 28 of 36 tests since 2001 and has conducted 18 successful flight tests out of 19 tries since September 2005. According to Lieutenant General Henry Obering, head of the Missile Defense Agency, unsuccessful tests occurred because of faulty components, not design flaws in the missile defense concept. This means that the success rate--highly respectable for a program that began in experimental stages--will likely improve as the military irons out auxiliary errors.
Rep. Ellen Tauscher believes we should consider employing technologies such as the Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system or the ship-based Aegis system instead of a ground-based program. The armed forces built these systems for use in military theaters, not entire regions. They could not protect an area as wide as Europe nor could they, in their current versions, intercept ICBMs. Such technologies could, however, supplement ground-based defenses by extending coverage to southeastern Europe, which lies too close to Iran to enjoy protection from interceptors in Poland.
Russian President Vladimir Putin proposes that America use a radar station in Qabala, Azerbaijan, complemented by interceptors instead based at sea, in Iraq, or in Turkey. But the Soviets built the Qabala radar more than 20 years ago. The facility needs drastic updating or outright replacement: the deputy Azeri foreign minister stated in 2006 that the facility was so antiquated it would cease functioning within five years.
The radar's location goes further in making it a useless replacement. A missile defense system requires an early warning radar. In the case of the proposed Central European system, a satellite would detect a missile launch and activate the Czech-based radar, which would then guide interceptors to target the offensive missiles. The time delay between missile detection and interceptor initiation demonstrates the need for significant distance between a defense system and the territory from which a missile might originate. Interceptors based in Azerbaijan, which lies on Iran's northern border, would launch well after Iranian missiles were already headed to Europe.
Iraq, Turkey, and sea-based interceptors would make poor substitutes. Not enough space exists between those two countries and Iran, while sea-based interceptors like AEGIS cannot climb high enough to meet ICBMs, which travel in suborbital spaceflight.
Also, Qabala represents the last remnant of the Russian military in Azerbaijan. On August 6, Russian planes threateningly dropped a missile in Georgia, Azerbaijan's western neighbor and a close U.S. ally. If we agreed to share the radar, we would expand Moscow's influence in an anti-Russian region at little military benefit to ourselves.
While locals in the Caucasus may dislike missile defense, some in Central Europe feel differently. A mid-August poll conducted by the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance and the Opinion Research Corporation showed that a majority of Poles--58 percent--want missile defense in their country. We can expect continued Polish backing after the October 21 election, as 67 percent of respondents belonging to the victorious Civic Platform supported the program.
In the Czech Republic, only 38 percent support the program. However, nearly half--49 percent--of those Czechs either extremely or very familiar with missile defense plans favor them. The U.S. must help educate Czechs further, explaining that the radar will not adversely affect residents near Misov, the proposed site in the south of the country.
Contrary to one critique, this program will not start a new arm race. Russian missiles intended to strike the United States would cross the North Pole, not Europe, and thus would not face interdiction from a Polish site. Russia's thousands of ICBMs would also easily overwhelm the planned interceptors, which number just ten.
Some critics have argued that NATO should participate more in the program, while others have said the construction should wait until a more favorable diplomatic climate emerges with a new U.S. president. Both points contain some validity. We should coordinate more with NATO. Missile defense would involve new NATO members in the active defense of Europe. But we should not let greater participation cancel or delay the program's progress.
A more attractive diplomatic milieu may indeed arrive with a new administration that boasts a better reputation among Europeans. But delaying now would put us in jeopardy of facing an Iranian nuclear program without an adequate defense. We cannot afford to procrastinate while Tehran's rapid nuclear development continues apace.
Charlie Szrom works as a research assistant in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.