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Missile Defense Controversy Remains After START Accord

US President Barack Obama discusses the START treaty, during a phone call with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev in the Oval Office , 26 Mar 2010
US President Barack Obama discusses the START treaty, during a phone call with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev in the Oval Office , 26 Mar 2010

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Friday's announcement of a new U.S.-Russia strategic arms reduction treaty was achieved partly because the negotiators agreed to separate the issue from the controversy over the U.S. missile defense program.  Russia has strongly opposed the program, but U.S. officials say missile defense has become an integral part of security for the United States and its allies, and they predict significant advances during the next two years.

After President Barack Obama announced the agreement at the White House Friday morning, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates made this simple declaration. "Missile defense is not constrained by this treaty," he said.

That was good news for the large and growing segment of the U.S. defense establishment and defense industry devoted to missile defense.  At an annual conference for such people this week, Gates' deputy, William Lynn, made this almost triumphant statement to several hundred government workers and industry executives.

"The high-pitched partisan debate over whether to invest in missile defense is no longer with us," he said. "Ballistic missile defense is without question an important part of our current and future strategy.  We are committed to developing new missile technologies to their fullest."

Controversy is not over yet

Lynn was referring to decades of controversy over whether it was possible to develop a missile that could hit and destroy an incoming missile in flight, and to do so at a reasonable and sustainable cost.  The controversy is not completely over, but the Obama Administration's ballistic missile defense review, released in February, endorsed what had largely been a program supported by Republican Party presidents and members of Congress.

Now that the decision has been made to move forward with what the review called an "integral" part of U.S. defenses, the second ranking U.S. military officer, General James Cartwright, says the American military commands will spend some time figuring out how to use the various aspects of the system in their regions.

"What makes sense for the Gulf region, what makes sense for Europe, what makes sense for the Pacific, they're not going to be the same.  And how we figure that out and how we move in a direction that's both effective and affordable is the work that has to be done over the next two years," he said.

The $10-billion U.S. missile defense program involves a combination of systems designed to detect and intercept missiles coming from short, medium and long distances.  There are only minutes - sometimes seconds - to react, and the incoming weapons are traveling faster than the speed of sound. 

Russian deterrent

As a result, the United States needs radar installations and anti-missile launch sites in key regions, particularly in Central Europe to counter the growing missile threat from Iran.  And Russia, the U.S. partner on strategic arms reduction and in the effort to convince Iran not to develop nuclear weapons, has not been at all happy about that.

Russia says the European missile defense system changes the balance of power and threatens its nuclear arsenal.  But Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says that's not the real reason for Russian opposition.

"They understand that these systems don't have the capability to compromise the Russian strategic deterrent.  What they want to do, I think, is try to block the development of missile defense capabilities in general so as to make it more costly for the United States to deploy conventional forces into the [European] theater," he said.

"Conventional superiority"

But Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn says the ability to project conventional power without the threat of missile attacks is crucial to the U.S. global security strategy, and its treaty obligations.  

"This risk could push our forces further from the battle space, compromising our ability to bring our conventional superiority to bear.  The credibility of our security guarantees to allies and to partners especially in the Middle East and East Asia depends on our ability to project power despite these threats," he said.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton indicated Friday she wants to talk more with the Russians about missile defense.  "We continue to look for ways to engage with Russia on missile defense in a way that is mutually beneficial and protective of countries' security against these new threats we face in the world," she said.

Russia has offered some cooperation on missile defense in the past, but has resisted the kind of system U.S. officials have proposed.  Still, the Obama Administration is determined to move forward with plans to put missile defense installations in Poland and Romania.

Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, James Miller, says there will be major developments during the next few years.  "I think we're on a very good path to making a sea-change in our missile defense posture within the coming three-to-five years," he said.

Miller says U.S. missile defense capability is not as good as it should be in some areas, particularly the Middle East, but he expects that to change significantly, and soon.

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