To date, President Obama's nominations to key defense postings have been mostly pragmatic, starting at the top with the retention of Secretary Gates. However, in the instance of Philip Coyle -- nominated to fill the associate director of national security and international affairs spot in the Office of Science and Technology Policy-- the administration whiffed. Coyle, a long time opponent of ballistic missile defense (dating back to Reagan's SDI days), is an ideologue whose appointment could prove harmful to U.S. security.
Coyle claims that missile defense is a "theology, not a technology." He's argued, steadily, that BMD systems are useless against countermeasures like chaff and maneuverable warheads, and that testing failures in certain systems renders the technology obsolete. In 2006, just prior to North Korea test firing a volley of ballistic missiles, Coyle wrote:
The ground-based system hasn't had a successful flight intercept test in four years. In the two most recent attempts, the interceptor never got off the ground and failed to leave its silo. And in the only other recent attempt, the kill vehicle - the pointy-end of the interceptor - failed to separate from its booster and missed its target.
A question the press might ask President Bush is, "So long as you resist face-to-face meetings with North Korea, aren't you just giving them more time to develop a missile that can reach the U.S.?"
Or to put it differently, "Mr. President, which do you think will take longer: North Korea to develop a missile that can reach the U.S.? Or the U.S. to develop a missile defense we can rely on?"
A fair question. Despite an aggressive long range missile program, North Korea has yet to launch a missile that can reach Hawaii, much less the continental United States. Meanwhile, there have been successful tests of the RIM-161 SM-3 interceptor, the airborne laser, the ground-based mid course interceptor, and the theater high-altitude area defense system. But instead of retracting after completely misreading North Korean v. U.S. development capabilities, he switched tactics, claiming in House testimony that deterrence assures us that North Korea would never attack the south, Japan, or the United States. In the same testimony, Coyle -- despite a series of successful tests -- clung to the very same talking point he used almost a decade earlier -- that BMD is questionable technology which isn't worth the money or resources.
If theology has crept into the missile defense debate, Coyle is the high priest of nay saying. There's an inherent danger in placing ideologues, particularly those in favor of treaties which negotiate away U.S. security, in high level defense posts. Ballistic missile defense, whether it is Obama's clumsily handled "phased, adaptive" approach or the robust system originally conceived by the Bush administration, will be our first, second, and third lines of defense as more nations develop long range missiles. Coyle's long, steadfast opposition to badly needed defensive systems, and his refusal to bend even when geo-political events dictate, make him a highly dubious candidate for such a critical White House position.