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Obama’s missile defense plan has holes, but makes sense

President Barack Obama’s cancellation of U.S. plans to place anti-missile installations in Poland and the Czech Republic has brought the issue of ballistic missile defense back to the forefront of our consciousness. Complex national security issues like missile defense demand that we try to comprehend the full context in which these decisions are made before we render judgment upon them.

There is reason to doubt Obama’s claim that the cancellation was not an effort to appease a resurgent Russia. For instance, a Sept. 21 story in The Wall Street Journal noted that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev received a letter in February that proposed scrapping of those installations in exchange for greater Russian cooperation in dealing with Iran.

There is also reason to criticize the administration’s clumsiness in handling the announcement. The fact that nobody at the White House or State Department realized that Sept. 17 was the 70th anniversary of the Russian invasion of Poland in 1939, which was made possible by a secret agreement between Stalin and Hitler, certainly calls their diplomatic acumen into question.

Despite those blunders, there is some sense in Obama’s ideas. Based on a comprehensive review conducted by the Department of Defense and supported by both the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who was appointed by the previous administration, the logic underlying the new missile defense plans appears to be sound.

Most importantly, President Obama reinforced America’s commitment to ballistic missile defense even as he intends to shift emphasis and funding from land-based sites to sea-based systems. The Navy has a proven capability in its Aegis radar and Standard SM-3 missile systems, as seen in their successful shoot down of a damaged satellite last year, and these form the cornerstones of Obama’s proposal.

The danger of this reallocation of resources away from more advanced systems into those with longer track records is the fact that the older technologies are not effective against longer-ranged missiles, such as the ones under development by nations such as North Korea and Iran.

In particular, Iran is developing several nuclear capable missiles with ranges up to 2,000 km., placing targets in Israel, Turkey and Eastern Europe at risk. There have been reports regarding Iran’s work on longer-ranged models, with assistance from North Korea and perhaps even from Russia, but most experts believe that the Iranians won’t have a missile capable of striking Western Europe or the U.S. until perhaps 2015 or 2018.

As such, the decision to focus on systems to counter the threat from medium and short range missiles, while continuing development on technologies to address long-range threats, appears sensible. Since the administration is continuing funding for the deployment of the more capable interceptor missiles in Alaska and California, albeit at reduced levels, and intends to station anti-missile-equipped ships to defend Israel and Western Europe, they appear to have made some wise choices.

America must continue to develop new and better ways to counter the threat of ballistic missiles because it is our responsibility to do so. No matter what one thinks of the use of atomic weapons on Japan at the end of World War II, American science made the terrible promise of nuclear power a horrific reality. Due to that fact, America has a duty to devote its scientific resources and talent to finding ways to prevent any further use of nuclear weapons.

We cannot “un-invent” the bomb, so we must dedicate ourselves to minimizing the danger of its use. Obviously, there are unconventional ways of delivering nuclear weapons. We are all familiar, for example, with the nightmare scenario of terrorists smuggling a nuke into the country by cargo container or truck. However, the looming threat from rogue nations using missiles armed with nuclear weapons is also very real.

Clearly, just as it took years of trial and error in our own ballistic missile programs, it will take time for Iran or North Korea to develop the missiles and nukes needed to attack America directly. However, the same development time applies to the systems designed to defend against those weapons, which demonstrates why we cannot afford to fall behind our enemies.

This was made abundantly clear with the series of shocking stories over the past week regarding Iran’s new enrichment facility and their short and medium-range missile tests. Continued diplomacy is needed to address these provocations, but considering the ineffectiveness of U.N. efforts so far, I think it verges on insanity for anyone charged with the defense of this country to depend entirely upon them for our protection.

That leaves military force, either offensive or defensive. Considering the way Iran’s nuclear and missile facilities are spread across that country, any attack upon them is as likely to cause civilian casualties as it is unlikely to completely destroy their capabilities. The obvious alternative is to continue to invest in defensive systems to demonstrate to Iran’s tyrannical theocrats our determination to stop them from ever using those weapons.

As such, I applaud Obama’s confirmation of America’s continuing dedication to the development of more effective missile defense technologies. Unfortunately, his plan’s dependence on ships that can be recalled at a moment’s notice means that there is nothing to guarantee that those defenses will be in place should they ever be needed.

Only time will tell if President Obama is truly sincere in his Sept. 17 commitment “to protect the U.S. homeland against long-range ballistic missile threats.”

Ben Rudnick is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at brudnick@student.umass.edu.

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