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The Prospects for Missile Defence in an Obama Administration

Commentary, 6 November 2008
Americas, Europe
There are unlikely to be early and major changes to US plans for Missile Defence under an Obama Administration. But as the Russians plan to install missiles in a possible response to the initiative, debates on the controversial European ‘Third Site’ segment of the US defensive shield could well intensify.

There are unlikely to be early and major changes to US plans for Missile Defence under an Obama Administration. But as the Russians plan to install missiles in a possible response to the initiative, debates on the controversial European ‘Third Site’ segment of the US defensive shield could well intensify.

By Dr Michael Rance, Associate Fellow, RUSI

An Obama Administration is likely to want to make significant budgetary changes, not least to the enormous defence expenditure. However, this will take time. A Defense Appropriations Act has already been agreed by both Houses of Congress and will define defence expenditure in the current financial year until October 2009. Including earlier approval of $66 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan, the total defence budget for the 2009 fiscal year will be $578.6 billion. The ‘base’ budget of the Department of Defense (DoD) – exclusive of war costs – is at its highest level ever. Whatever the new administration wants to do – and defence cuts are all but inevitable – any changes will not take effect for another year or so.

The appropriations procedure requires the President to offer a budget to Congress each year. This usually begins in the spring, and after much deliberation between the two, it generally gets enacted by Congress in September. Spending plans on all programmes will of course be constrained by the serious financial conditions, although pre-election pledges from Obama do not seem to have hit that hard on defence in general. The incoming administration will already be examining 2010 budget options in preparation for a mid-2009 budget request.

Both candidates gave supportive comments about the missile defence programme and there has apparently been bipartisan support. Congressional cuts to President Bush’s 2009 budget were not huge – the cut was $476 million out of a nearly $11 billion Presidential request. No individual programmes were lost. Two of the more significant cuts were $90 million from the European site (known hereafter as the ‘Third Site’) and $76 million from the Multiple Kill Vehicle (MKV). While disappointing to advocates of these programmes, the appropriated funding allows these programmes to proceed, albeit at a slower pace than the administration wanted.

To Europeans, the issue of most interest is the planned emplacement of a radar in the Czech Republic, and ten interceptor missiles in silos in Poland; together these are the ‘Third Site’. Its purpose is to provide a thin layer of defence against ballistic missiles, essentially from Iran, to the Eastern part of the USA and to most of Europe. It is provided by the US at no cost to Europe. Both the Polish and the Czech governments have signed agreements with the US on their respective hosting, but both nations require the approval of their parliaments, neither of which has so far given such approval. The issue is politically controversial in both the Czech Republic and Poland. The Third Site would become operational in around 2014. So there is time for substantial debate and change before then.

Coverage of Europe by the Third Site would not be complete. There are large so-called ’gaps’ in Southeastern Europe. These would need to be filled using shorter range defensive systems if complete European coverage is required, but no country has so far offered to pay for this. The command and control (C2) system that would knit these systems together with NATO’s theatre Ballistic Missile Defence C2 system has yet to be funded or designed, and is the topic of current classified studies within NATO. Optimists would like to see this issue – the linkage between the Third Site and NATO’s systems – resolved and agreed at the Sixtieth Anniversary NATO Summit in Strasbourg/Erle next April. But the current studies are unlikely to provide any definitive conclusions and the debate within NATO is likely to continue after Strasbourg. Realists expect yet more studies to be needed. This is compounded by the fact that it will take some time for an Obama defence policy to cohere on the issue.

Russia simply does not want the Third Site near its borders, and has sparked significant diplomatic concern across Europe. The most recent threat by President Medvedev is to install Iskander missiles near the border with Poland and threaten to jam the Polish and Czech installations. The announcement bore the hallmarks of provocation to a newly elected US President. Neither the outgoing nor the incoming President is likely to respond.

So what might an Obama Presidency mean for missile defence, especially in Europe? There is no evidence that the policies of the Bush administration on missile defence will be repudiated quickly. If Robert Gates continues as Secretary of Defense, as speculation suggests, the expectation is that many of the current defence policies will change only gradually. Obama does not give the impression of a man tempted by precipitate decision making.

There is an expectation that Congress will concentrate on acquiring already developed missile defence systems, such as Aegis and THAAD, perhaps at the expense of R&D and the development of advanced systems, such as MKV and the Air Borne Laser (ABL). Significant, but not swingeing missile defence budget cuts in the 2010 fiscal year would appear to be inevitable; perhaps of the order of $1 billion. This might be the start of a longer term downward trend, including the transformation of missile defence from a ‘special’ set of programmes, led by the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), into a mainstream, service-led activity, removed from Washington and entirely based in Huntsville, Alabama. Of course, this is all scuttlebutt and speculation.

The arguments on missile defence about the Third Site and in NATO are likely to continue for some years. The only action from an Obama government that would change all this would be if it decides to give up on the Third Site. That would give Europe something to think about, especially if Iran continues its determined progress towards acquiring nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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