Thanks, Obama: Tracking the President's Missile Defense Embrace

Thanks, Obama: Tracking the President's Missile Defense Embrace
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As a candidate seeking Democratic nomination in 2008, Barack Obama appeared poised to continue following his party’s proclivity toward curtailing missile defense as part of national security policy. An early campaign talking point called for cutting “tens of billions of dollars of wasteful spending” including “investments in unproven missile defense systems.” However, despite his initial apprehension, President Obama leaves behind a significant missile defense legacy, having spurred the development and deployment of missile defense systems in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East during his presidency. Obama’s embrace of missile defense as a component of foreign policy has led to bipartisan support of an issue that had largely been championed by the Republican Party for decades. This paradigm reversal can likely be attributed to the President’s confidence in today’s missile defense capabilities as a tool to reassure and defend allies and the American homeland from an increasing ballistic missile threat.

True to his word, President Obama took measures to cut many missile defense programs early in his presidency. In April of 2009, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced a $1.4 billion reduction of the Missile Defense Agency’s budget. This included the cancellation of additional Ground-based Interceptors (GBI) in Alaska, a second Airborne Laser, and the Multiple Kill Vehicle program. In September, the Administration indicated that it no longer intended to move forward with plans proposed by President George W. Bush to deploy a radar in the Czech Republic and 10 GBIs in Poland; a plan which would have provided additional protection for the U.S. homeland from intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) threats. These actions opened the White House up to criticism of its handling of the missile defense system as its priority shifted from homeland to regional capabilities.

In place of the Bush plan, Obama outlined his own vision of a missile shield in Europe, which has proven to be the United States’ most robust foreign deployment of ballistic missile defense to date. The European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), which originally would have been deployed in four phases, was touted as being built on “capabilities that are proven and cost-effective.” The backbone of EPAA was based on Aegis technology. The first phase called for Aegis ballistic missile defense ships to be permanently deployed to Rota, Spain and a TPY-2 Radar to Turkey. Phases two and three were to be deployments of the land-based variant of the ship based technology, Aegis Ashore in Poland and Romania. A planned fourth phase, designed to protect against limited ICBM threats, was ultimately cancelled prompting speculation that the move was meant to appease Russian objections to the system. Nonetheless, the first three phases promised to stay ahead of the developing Iranian missile threat.

Following a series of North Korean missile tests, including a long-range rocket test in December of 2012, the Obama administration ordered a series of actions to increase homeland and regional missile defenses. On March 15, 2013, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced an increase to the number of Ground Based Interceptors from 30 to 44 and the deployment of an additional TPY-2 radar in Japan. The following month, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system was deployed for the first time to the island of Guam. The decision was subsequently made to make the THAAD deployment permanent in 2015. 

Missile defense again became an important component of the administration’s foreign policy following the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. In May of 2015, President Obama met with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) at Camp David to discuss political and security issues in the region. During the meeting, GCC member states committed to develop a region-wide ballistic missile defense capability, including a ballistic missile early warning system. GCC countries individually possess significant BMD capabilities that, if combined, could form a formidable missile shield.

This ambitious move from the Obama administration laid the groundwork for cooperation among U.S. partners in a critical region at a critical time.

Two moves in the final months of President Obama’s term represent the capstone of his missile defense legacy. In July 2016, NATO leaders gathered at the Warsaw Summit to officially declare an Initial Operational Capability of NATO’s Ballistic Missile Defense system. This meant that elements included in the first two phases of the EPAA were able to work together under NATO command and NATO control. On the same day, the Republic of Korea and the United States agreed to deploy the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea to defend against the North’s missile arsenal. Notably, these two actions moved forward despite persistent objection from Russia and China and represented a U.S. departure from archaic Cold War doctrine that characterized missile defense strictly as a liability within foreign policy. Instead, President Obama’s actions demonstrate a new outlook on missile defense in which missile defense is an asset utilized to defend and reassure allies while also deterring hostile actors such as North Korea and Iran.

While President Obama achieved several significant milestones while in office, his record on missile defense is not entirely unblemished. In addition to the early missteps on homeland and European deployments discussed earlier, funding for the development of next generation BMD technology did not increase during Obama’s tenure. Budget requests for the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) also remained below $10 billion during his administration. The pain of increasingly scarce defense dollars was pain felt throughout the Pentagon, however for MDA, the budget squeeze has had the effect of reducing research and development funding in favor of increased procurement. It’s critical that research and development remain MDA’s top priority as the agency seeks to develop next generation technology to defeat the increasing ballistic missile threat. 

The next administration should learn from these mistakes and fully support the missile defense program, both regional and homeland. Indeed, shortly after the 58th Presidential Inauguration, the White House website was updated with a pledged to develop a state of the art missile defense system to protect against attacks from Iran and North Korea. The Trump administration should continue to build on the advancements made by President Obama while increasing MDA’s topline to pursue the next generation of ballistic missile defense technology.

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