Is Obama Throwing Eastern Europe Under the Bus?

Two recent editorials from Heritage fellows have criticized the Obama administration for abandoning Eastern European allies. According to the editorials, Obama has given up proposed missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic (sometimes called the "third site"). They argue that this will will serve to embolden Russia and increase our vulnerability to Iran's missile capabilities. The first problem with their arguments is that Obama has not yet abandoned the proposed missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic. In fact, after a report released in a Polish newspaper said that the sites had been abandoned, administration officials were quick to point out that all options were still on the table. According to the New York Times,

The Obama administration has developed possible alternative plans for a missile defense shield that could drop hotly disputed sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, a move that would please Russia and Germany but sour relations with American allies in Eastern Europe. Administration officials said they hoped to complete their months-long review of the planned antimissile system as early as next month, possibly in time for President Obama to present ideas to President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia at a meeting in New York during the annual opening at the General Assembly of the United Nations.But they cautioned that no decisions had been made and that all options were still under discussion, including retaining the Polish and Czech sites first selected by President George W. Bush. The Obama review team plans to present a menu of options rather than a single recommendation to a committee of senior national security officials in the coming weeks. Only after that would the matter go to cabinet-rank officials and the president. Among the alternatives are dropping either the Polish or Czech site, or both sites, and instead building launching pads or radar installations in Turkey or the Balkans, while developing land-based versions of the Aegis SM-3, a ship-based anti-missile system, officials said. The changes, they said, would be intended not to mollify Russia, but to adjust to what they see as an accelerating threat from shorter-range Iranian missiles.

The administration was also quick to deny reports that there was a secret agreement in which the U.S. traded missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic for Russian cooperation on Iran. However, the Obama administration is between a rock and a hard place. They want to finalize a new START treaty and realize that Russian objections to missile defense could block progress. At the same time, the administration recognizes that abandoning the proposed sites could be seen as bowing to the demands of Russia. The editorials pose interesting questions: If the US does decide to abandon the current proposal for radar stations in Poland and the Czech Republic, will it increase the threat posed by Iran? And, will our Eastern European allies feel abandoned?

Would Abandoning Sites in Poland and the Czech Republic Increase the Threat Posed by Iran?

On the first question, Peter Brookes, in the New York Post, argues that alternative proposals don't provide the same level of protection against long-range missiles:

Iran, meanwhile, is as defiant and thorny as ever. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reportedly promised this week to never submit to demands for nuclear talks (something the Obama crew hopes to have this month) or knuckle under to punitive economic sanctions.Nor has Tehran paused its nuclear/ballistic-missile work since Obama took office, despite White House attempts to extend a hand of friendship to the Islamic regime. In fact, Israel believes Iran will have a bomb within one to two years -- and the US Air Force assesses Tehran could have an ICBM that can reach the United States by 2015. But there must be a method to the madness, you say? Yes, the Obama administration is reportedly looking at alternatives to the Eastern European sites -- including sea-based missile defense on Aegis-class ships and ground-based sites in Turkey and the Balkans. Problem is, those configurations would be for fending off Iranian short-range missiles against some European targets, but couldn't tackle the long-range ICBM threat, which could be bore-sighted on Western Europe -- or the United States.It also isn't clear whether the United States has even approached Turkey or other Balkan states with a proposal. Even if they agree, it would likely take years to iron out the details and establish missile-defense sites -- years we don't have.

Nile Gardiner and Sally McNamara, in a Heritage Web Memo, also point out that alternatives such as sea-based missile defense might not be effective:

Alternatives to the third site include the deployment of sea-based or mobile theater-based missile defense systems. However--due to President Clinton's gutting of the program and President Bush's unwillingness to fully restore it--as they stand at present, these alternatives do not provide a level of defense comparable to that of the third site, especially against Iran's rapidly developing long-range ballistic missile threat.The Congressional Budget Office states: "None of the alternatives considered by CBO provide as much additional defense of the United States [as that offered by the third site]."[6] Although sea-based alternatives may provide effective defenses against intercontinental ballistic missiles, such effectiveness would be subject to future testing and development which is currently underfunded in both the House and Senate's version of the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act.

There are a number of problems with these objections. First, alternative to the third site are not as bad as they're made out to be. Sea-based missile defense has proven to be fairly effective. According to Rear Admiral Alan B. Hicks, Program Director, Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense:

Aegis ships, manned with naval Sailors and officers, have recently completed a series of firing missions to validate the operational capabilities of Aegis BMD against a progressively more complex set of targets and scenarios, compiling a record of 12 successful intercepts in 14 attempts.The flexibility of this capability was demonstrated by the recent intercept of an errant U.S. satellite. The satellite was higher, faster, and larger than any previous target. Modifications were made to the Aegis BMD Weapon System and the SM-3 missile to accommodate these new target challenges…The second capability is provided by LRS&T installations that can search, detect, and track ballistic missiles of all ranges, including intercontinental ballistic missiles, and transmit the track data to the BMDS via [C.sup.2]BMC. This tracking data cues other BMDS sensors, as well as assisting in the fire control solution of the GMD system.

Instead of waiting years, relying on Aegis missile defense might provide an almost immediate ability to counter the threat posed by Iranian missiles.

Also, while Gardiner and Sally McNamara argue that funding has been cut for the program in the past, that doesn't account for the current budget. An earlier Heritage article by Baker Spring, which is critical of some of the budget cuts in missile defense, acknowledges that Obama has allocated money for improving sea-based systems:

[Obama proposed to] Increase funding for the sea-based ballistic missile defense, including for conversion of additional ships to give them missile defense capabilities and procurement of Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptors…The increase is one of almost $690 million over the FY 2009 level…The budget will permit the conversion of six additional Aegis ships to give them a missile defense capability.

In fact, Spring’s only real criticism of the current proposal is that it should be transferred to the control of the Navy:

While the Obama Administration's proposal for advancing sea-based missile defenses is fairly strong, it can be improved…Under the proper management by the Navy, the sea-based missile defense program should be able to perform ascent-phase intercepts.

Spring may be right that control should be transferred to the Navy, but he clearly recognizes that Obama's budget has invested a lot of resources in improving Aegis capabilities. If they are already showing some effectiveness in tests, it's likely that these capabilities will continue to improve with additional testing and technological advancement. Brookes seems to acknowledge that sea-based missile defense is effective against short- and medium-range missiles, but is more concerned with longer-range Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). However, this fear is probably misplaced. As noted in the New York Times quote above, the Obama administration has argued that short-range missiles are a more important threat. This was backed up in a June 16th Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) hearing on missile defense (transcript available here). General O'Reilly pointed out that Iran's current capability is short- and medium-range missiles, and long-range missiles would take a while to develop:

SEN. BAYH: General, the collaboration between North Korea and Iran, factoring that in, the Iranians, they currently have missiles that can hit a fair amount of Europe. Is that correct? They can obviously hit Israel, is that true?
GEN. O'REILLY: Yes, sir, that's true from what they've demonstrated in their flight testing. They have a range of about 2,000 kilometers is what they've stated and what they've demonstrated.
SEN. BAYH: And it's a further out time horizon for them to have the capability of a missile with a warhead that would reach the United States?
GEN. O'REILLY: That large of a missile, yes, sir.

Also, inasmuch as long-range missiles are a threat, Bill Lynn, the deputy secretary of Defense, and General Cartwright, expressed confidence in the SASC hearing that current ground-based missile defense in Alaska and California would provide sufficient coverage of US territory against missiles launched by either Iran or North Korea. Cartwright said his confidence was "Ninety percent plus."

Brookes also makes it sound like missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic could be in place much quicker. However, obstacles remain. The proposals still have to be approved by the legislatures in Poland and the Czech Republic, which could prove difficult. According to Senator Nelson, the the same hearing cited above, approval by the Czech Republic seems unlikely:

SEN. BILL NELSON (D-FL):... about Eastern Europe… the Czechs may well reject having the facilities in their territory. As you know, the government has changed and, although they've got an election coming up, we fully -- the expectations are that the party that will be in power will not approve of the facilities located there and this was clearly the message that Senator Collins and Senator -- our chairman and I learned while we were there.

And, even if the agreements are approved, Gardiner and McNamara acknowledge that the installations in Poland and the Czech Republic will not be operational until 2013 (at the earliest). If short- and medium-range missiles are a short-term threat, it may be more prudent to invest in a form of missile defense that could be operational more quickly.

Would Shifting to an Alternative Form of Missile Defense Cause Our Easter European Allies to Feel Abandoned?

While expressed in slightly hyperbolic terms, the editorials do note a realistic fear that altering a our missile defense plan could be perceived as abandoning our Eastern European allies. Brookes argues that it would appear as if the U.S. was caving to Russia:

True to form, the Obama-viks are bending over backward to please the Russkies in hopes they'll finally come around on helping curb Iran's runaway nuclear and missile programs. As a result, Team Obama will likely can the W-era missile-defense system slated for Poland and the Czech Republic. The system would defend us (and Europe) from Iranian nukes/missiles, but the Russians hate it because it's in their old stompin' grounds.Not only does this make us look weak by giving in to the Russian demand, there's also the delicious irony that Moscow is largely responsible for the Iran problem today, dating back to help the Kremlin gave the mullahs in the 1990s.(North Korea is also to blame for a great deal of Iran's ballistic-missile progress -- but, then again, most of Pyongyang's prowess originated with Moscow.) Our Polish and Czech allies, who were close to us under President Bush, now increasingly feel Obama is abandoning them as he acquiesces to the growing shadow of Russian hegemony in Eastern Europe -- and elsewhere. Indeed, they're carping about being in the dark as Washington conducts a review of missile defense, despite all three governments having agreed to move forward with the program last year. (So much for Obama's promise of better foreign relations . . .)

And according to Gardiner and McNamara:

Cancelling the third site would also send a clear message to America's allies in Europe that Moscow's bullying will be tolerated and even tacitly encouraged. Furthermore, it would be a dangerous signal that the U.S. is unlikely to stand up to Russian demands that Georgia and Ukraine be barred from becoming full members of the NATO alliance.

The administration clearly realizes this concern and has attempted to rebut claims that it is willing to trade the security of Eastern European allies for cooperation with Russia. As a result, they have consistently argued that any decisions on missile defense will be made based on the specifics of the Iranian threat, not the need for cooperation with Russia. However, this will be a difficult sell for Obama because Russia has opposed the proposal from the beginning. In reality, both of these considerations are probably driving the shift. If Obama does decide against building permanent radar cites and ground-based missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic, he should consider taking other actions to assure Eastern Europe.

Alternative # 1: More Temporary Missile Defense

One solution, would be to assure allies like Poland that other missile defense commitments were sufficient for their defense. According to Senator Collins and General Cartwright, Poland is more interested in temporary missile defense capabilities like Patriots than permanent ground-based defense:

SEN. COLLINS: Secretary Lynn, I'm very sensitive to the concerns…we don't want to break our commitments to our allies, but when we were in Poland, we found that Polish leaders were far more concerned about the goal of having some sort of U.S. presence on Polish soil than they were being the host for the ground-based interceptors. And, in fact, what they said over and over again that they wanted was the Patriot battery installed in Poland…GEN. CARTWRIGHT: When we did the negotiations with the Poles… The construct that was worked out is that we would over the first few years, cycle periodically the number of times during the year a deployment of Patriot, PAC-3 capability to the country, that we would also rotate the Aegis ships and SM-3 when the Patriots were not there and increase the presence to be able to give them now some theater coverage. They're more comfortable as anybody would be with something that's right there in their backyard…

Some of these proposals might also be objectionable from Russia's point of view, but it's possible that Russia could be convinced that more temporary missile defense systems that are designed to shoot down short- and medium-range missiles aren't a threat to them.

Alternative # 2: Unrelated Assurance

The U.S. could also take additional steps to assure Poland. A March 2009 article by Łukasz Kulesa entitled "Reduce US Nukes in Europe to Zero, and Keep NATO Strong(and Nuclear). A View from Poland" recognizes the risk of abandoning Eastern European allies like Poland and offers a potential compromise:

The gravest danger of any move to eliminate US nuclear weapons from Europe, from the perspective of Central Europe, would be to create the impression that NATO has gone “soft” where its primary function of defending the territories of the member states is concerned. Therefore, such a move would probably need to be counteracted by a set of decisions giving credible reassurance on the value of Article 5. These should include first and foremost the affirmation of the function of the strategic nuclear forces as the supreme guarantee of security of the Allies. Moreover, practical measures can be agreed upon to strengthen the conventional defence potential of the Alliance. Finally, the role of NATO in creating a Missile Defence architecture covering all the territories of the Allies would need to be reaffirmed, thereby compounding the overall deterrence potential of the organization. On a parallel track, some of the Allies would likely expect the United States to increase its military footprint within the territory of those member states situated along the eastern border of the Alliance, though not necessarily by building major new bases or installations.

While Kulesa is writing about the possible loss of confidence that could result from U.S. withdrawal of deployed nuclear forces in Europe, the same recommendations could offer a solution for changing the location of missile defense as well. This is especially true if you consider why Eastern European countries want missile defense in the first place. While they are worried about the threat posed by Iran, countries like Poland are more concerned with the deterrent benefits (against Russia) that come from having U.S. troops on their soil. This is put quite well in an article by David Yost:

It is noteworthy in this regard that new allies in Eastern and Central Europe have expressed a willingness to host US and NATO facilities. One of the main reasons given by Czech and Polish supporters of the deployment of US missile defence system elements has been to gain the presence of US troops on their soil. Whatever happens with the missile defence plans under the new US administration, these countries remain interested in hosting US or NATO facilities.Radek Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, declared in November 2008 that, although Poland joined the alliance in 1999, it had so far received only a promise of a NATO conference centre. ‘Everyone agrees’, he added, ‘that countries that have US soldiers on their territory do not get invaded.’36

There are a number of ways the US, and NATO, could assure allies like Poland without missile defense. According to Kulesa, these include: more frequent exercises of NATO forces, putting physical NATO infrastructure in Eastern European countries, and increasing the presence of US troops (even without permanent bases). Poland would probably be willing to compromise if they still felt that the US was committed to their security. They also recognize that the chances of a Russian invasion of Eastern Europe are fairly low and there are benefits to engaging Russia. Again, according to Kulesa:

But I think for now and for the foreseeable future there is no need to deter Russia…there are certain statements, certain actions that raise some concern. For example, the announcement that Russia might aim the nuclear weapons at the territory of Poland or the Czech Republic…But I think they should be treated as they are or maybe as mainly political tools with limited military usefulness. The alliance cannot overreact and on the contrary we should find ways to cooperate with Russia, to engage Russia in this quest of – of making the extended deterrence less salient.

Alternative # 3: Tying Missile Defense to a Threat Assessment

Instead of abandoning the proposed missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, the US could suspend that deployment until its necessary. If Iran's missile capabilities started to improve, the US could redouble efforts to get the Eastern European sites up and running. This is consistent with the approach that the Obama administration is currently pursuing, but could be made more explicit to ease the perception that we're abandoning our allies. A recent blog post thought this compromise could ease Russia's fears and provide an opportunity for cooperation:

It looks like the administration understands that it has to come up with something positive - it apparently wants to seriously explore Russia's offer to use its radars in Gabala and Armavir. But that interest alone might not be enough - some words would need to be said about the elements of missile defense system in Poland and Czech Republic.
One way to deal with the issue would be to return to the idea of "tying together the activation of the sites in Poland and the Czech Republic with definitive proof of the threat", which was articulated by Robert Gates in October 2007. This idea was later killed in the interagency process in the Bush administration, but the Obama administration could certainly revive it (as a bonus, the Bush legacy could help deal with inevitable criticism from the right). That way, the Gabala/Armavir enterprise would not even be part of the missile defense system, which is still quite controversial in Russia. Rather, the U.S.-Russian cooperation would concentrate on threat assessment - a much more reasonable and useful undertaking than missile defense. I certainly hope that the Obama team could put together a reasonable proposal along these lines.

Kulesa also expressed support for a missile defense system that is clearly linked to Iran's capabilities,

I think prioritizing the role of NATO in creating the missile defense architecture covering all the territory of the alliance and therefore taking off the stigma of the U.S. unilateralism from the project. And, of course, if the fielding of such a system is clearly linked to development of Iran’s ballistic program then Russia would be not in a position to question it purpose.


Finding an effective solution will require finesse. The number one priority for the Obama administration should be to carry out a thorough assessment of Iran's missile capabilities and the best ways to counter them. However, even if that assessment finds that the ground-based missile defense in Eastern Europe is not necessary, there will be difficult decisions to make. If a new START agreement is a priority for the administration (which they say it is), they will have to find a way to sell an alternative missile defense package without appearing to abandon Eastern European allies. There are some potential alternatives that might assure our allies, but the administration must actively engage with countries like Poland to ensure they don't feel like they're being "thrown under the bus."