April 27, 2010 | The Washington Times

Countering the Growing Airborne Threat

Co-Authored with Henry A. Obering III

President Obama has made it clear that “resetting” relations with Russia and eliminating the planet’s nuclear weapons are two of his top national security priorities. Toward these ends, the president this month hosted an international nuclear summit, signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and went public with the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). Now Congress is carefully considering the results.

All of this commotion about nuclear weapons should prompt a renewed commitment to international cooperation on missile defense. This is especially true in light of the just-released Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report highlighting that Iran has cultivated a network of terrorist surrogates capable of conducting attacks on the United States and may have a missile able to hit the U.S. by 2015. The threat to free countries is getting worse, not better.

Strangely, New START may actually rest on what Russia permits the United States to do to defend Americans and our allies from such a missile attack. This equation is both bizarre and unsafe.

Although administration officials continue to insist that the treaty does not constrain U.S. missile defense, the Russians have unilaterally declared that they would withdraw if they thought American missile-defense capabilities threatened their strategic nuclear force. U.S. missile defense is not designed to defend against Russian missiles. Its purpose is to defend America and our allies against rogue states and terrorist proxies – the threats outlined in the DIA report.

But even if we know this to be true, it doesn’t mean the Russians will agree. The ground-based European site posed no threat to Russia, but in spite of the preponderance of evidence, the Russians disagreed. This contributed to the Obama administration’s scrapping the plan and shifting to what is called the Phased Adaptive Approach. We have yet to see how the Russians will react to this plan – a plan that requires the deployment of sea- and land-based assets on or near land occupied by the former Soviet Union.

Moreover, New START explicitly prohibits certain missile-defense options, such as placing interceptors on submarines. Even if the U.S. does not currently have plans to pursue various initiatives, it is unwise to limit the options of future administrations.

Regardless of what the United States and Russia agree to do with their strategic offensive and defensive weapons, we can count on North Korea and Iran to continue to improve their missiles – missiles that can serve as the delivery systems for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

Does this conundrum sound familiar? It should. The Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which was designed to ease tensions during the Cold War, tied the hands of the U.S. for years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. While the nation could conduct research and development, the effective deployment of integrated missile defenses was prohibited under the treaty. Meanwhile, other countries continued to build, sell and use ballistic missiles, undermining the security of the United States and its allies.

President George W. Bush finally unshackled the U.S. from the ABM Treaty in 2002 and began the process of deploying our missile-defense system. In his efforts to reset relations with Russia, Mr. Obama should not return America to where it was during the days of the ABM.

Based on the recently released NPR, it seems this is the last thing the administration needs. The report rightly acknowledges that “major improvements in missile defenses and counter-weapons-of-mass-destruction (WMD) capabilities have strengthened deterrence and defense against (CBW) chemical and biological weapons attack.”

It’s encouraging that the administration acknowledges the importance of our missile defenses, and the best way to prove that it supports it is to fund it.

While our missile-defense system has made great improvements, it still has vulnerabilities. We must continue to improve it and deploy more assets, especially as hostile countries increase the number and sophistication of their missiles. We can do this – but only if we make this a national security priority and fund it accordingly.

Americans would overwhelmingly back a plan to invest more heavily in missile defense because they understand its goal – to intercept enemy missiles before they reach an unsuspecting city. It’s not a goal we should trade away in the pursuit of more cordial relations with Moscow, especially as we limit our nuclear deterrent in our quest to see a world without nuclear weapons.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry A. Obering is the former director of the Missile Defense Agency. Rebeccah Heinrichs is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.