Missile Defense: More Allied Cheap Riding
Last month, the U.S. stood up a new ground-based missile defense system in Romania. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg declared, “The United States’ Aegis ashore system is declared certified for operations.” But why is the United States deploying missile defense in Romania? The original vision for missile defense as set forth by President Reagan in his March 1983 speech was to protect America from the Soviet strategic nuclear arsenal. Russia is critical of the deployment in Romania – claiming it is “an attempt to destroy the strategic balance” – but the U.S. insists it’s to defend Europe against the likes of Iran. At an estimated cost of $1 billion to put missile defense in Romania, why are U.S. taxpayers yet again subsidizing the security of our wealthy European allies?
To begin, it’s important to put the larger picture of missile defense in context. Currently, only two countries – Russia and China – possess long-range nuclear ballistic missiles that can reach the U.S. mainland. However, Russia is not the same strategic hegemon and superpower that the former Soviet Union was during the Cold War, and China is not a direct military peer competitor to the United States. And to the extent that either or both might represent a nuclear threat, the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal acts as a powerful deterrent (just as it did during the Cold War).
If there is a case to be made for missile defense, it is for the relatively unlikely possibility of unauthorized or accidental launch by either Russia or China. But this is less of a threat per se and more of a happenstance. And as such, it would only warrant a more limited missile-defense system to act as an insurance policy and mitigate the damage.
Moreover, the technical feasibility of missile defense is still a point of contention. Naturally, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) claims that that its various tests are successful and that missile defense is effective and works. Critics, however, claim that the tests are not realistic and do not simulate the technical and operational complexities of actual threats. The ground-based midcourse defense (GMD) designed to intercept intercontinental ballistic missile warheads in flight (the proverbial hitting a bullet with a bullet) is currently batting about .500 with 9 of 17 intercepts deemed successful.
Technical feasibility aside, the larger issue is that although missile defense is portrayed as needed to protect America, its purpose is much larger. While the National Missile Defense Act of 1999 (Public Law 106-38 signed by then President Clinton) states that “[i]t is the policy of the United States to deploy, as soon as is technologically possible, an effective National Missile Defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack,” the mission statement of MDA “is to develop, test, and field an integrated, layered, ballistic missile defense system (BMDS) to defend the United States, its deployed forces, allies, and friends.”
Indeed, the Obama administration has pursued what it calls a European Phased Adaptive Approach that emphasizes the medium-range ballistic missile threat to Europe. So the reality is that missile defense is not about protecting Americans who are defenseless against ballistic missile attacks, which is the emotional appeal for justifying the more than $150 billion that has spent on missile defense since President Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative 33 years ago (and it's important to remember that any missile defense, no matter how effective, will not protect Americans from terrorists using easier and cheaper means to inflict mass casualties).
If our European (and our east Asian) allies believe the ballistic missile threat warrants the need for missile defense, then they should foot the bill for it. The combined gross domestic product (GDP) of European NATO countries is over $13 trillion (compared to U.S. GDP of $16 trillion), so they have the economic wherewithal to pay for their own defense. Yet only five countries (including the U.S., which spends twice as much or more of its GDP compared to nearly every other NATO nation) out of 28 total NATO members are meeting the alliance’s goal of spending 2% of their GDP on defense. This is the very definition of cheap riding at U.S. taxpayer expense.