On March 15, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that the Obama administration would shift tactics on ballistic missile defense (BMD). Specifically, the U.S. will shift its focus from overseas, regional ballistic missile defense toward greater protection of the homeland. However, while the political symbolism of this switch may be positive, the strategic and military consequences may well be counterproductive. As a result, the move looks more like short-term politicking than a new approach to strategic thinking.
To some observers, Hagel’s announcement was a significant and welcome change in policy. Under the new plan, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency will most notably deploy 14 more ground-based interceptors in the United States to augment the 30 interceptors that are already in silos in Alaska and California. The plan also calls for the agency to deploy more radar assets overseas, notably in Japan; pursue the possibility of a third interceptor site on the Eastern Seaboard; and modernize the kill vehicle that sits atop its long-range interceptor missiles. At the same time, the Pentagon will cancel phase four of the so-called European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), unveiled in 2009, which involved deploying the SM-3 IIB interceptor missile to Europe.
The switch will undoubtedly be received well in the United States by those who have charged President Barack Obama with neglecting the defense of the homeland. And despite some criticism over the cancellation of phase four of EPAA by BMD advocates who considered it a symbol of America’s commitment to its Eastern European allies, the move will make relatively little difference to missile defense capabilities in Europe, given that the other three phases of the EPAA will almost certainly go ahead. In fact, in many ways, the new plan brings policy more into line with what the Bush administration proposed in 2002: Forty-four long-range interceptors based in the United States, a possible third interceptor site either in the U.S. or Europe and enhanced BMD assets in regions across the globe.