Obama Announces New Missile Defense Plan

Today, President Obama announced that his administration will not pursue the missile defense plan of the George W. Bush administration, but it will develop a different one.  The old plan was to base an advanced radar system in the Czech Republic and missile interceptors in Poland.  The new plan is to deploy S-3 interceptor missiles at sea and eventually on land, most likely in Turkey and Southern Europe.  The new system is designed to defend against medium-range ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear warheads.  The old one was designed to destroy intercontinental ballistic missiles that could potentially reach the US.  

The Bush system was intended to thwart a missile attack from Iran, and the new one has the same purpose.  Intelligence officials believe that Iran is much closer to developing medium-range missiles, and therefore those weapons currently pose the greatest threat.  Intelligence officials also believe that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, a charge which the Iranian government denies, and this assumption has created a sense of urgency among American policymakers to deploy a missile defense system as soon as possible.  The first deployment of the S-3s will likely be completed by the end of 2011, with additional deployments of more advanced technology to follow.  This first deployment will occur seven years before the Bush system was to become operational.

The new system was the brainchild of Dean Wilkening, a Stanford University physicist.  Mr. Wilkening argued that basing radars and interceptor missiles closer to the Middle East made more sense than placing them in Central Europe given the nature of the Iranian threat.

The alteration of the missile defense plan could have several positive consequences.  One is that it could help improve American relations with Russia, a country that had vehemently opposed the deployment of a missile defense system close to its borders.  It could also help dissuade Israel from launching a preemptive attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities, an act which could have devastating consequences for the region and the US, because the new system could at least theoretically defend Israel from a medium-range Iranian missile attack.  On a related note, the system could also potentially defend Arab countries, a fact that might convince them that they do not need to possess nuclear weapons to deter Iran.

A possible downside to the change is that Poland and the Czech Republic might feel like the US is less committed to their defense.  The administration has denied that that is the case, and reminded other nations that under the NATO charter the US is required to defend its alliance allies from any external attack. 

One way to alleviate Czech and Polish concerns would be to permanently station American troops in those countries.  Such a symbolic deployment would almost certainly convince America’s Central European allies that the US would defend them against an attack launched by Russia or another power, because any American administration would certainly not refrain from rushing to the defense of its military forces in response to an act of aggression that threatened them.

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