In his now infamous “open mike” moment with outgoing Russian President Dimitry Medvedev, President Obama expressed the not too surprising idea that he would have greater negotiating flexibility after the November elections. It is assumed that the President was addressing the subject of missile defenses, specifically Moscow’s demands for limits on the U.S. theater missile defense system known as the Phased Adaptive Architecture (PAA).
The first phase of this PAA, based on Aegis-capable missile defense ships armed with the new Standard Missile-3 Block IA has already been deployed. Successive phases involving more capable sensors, battle management systems and versions of the Standard Missile are planned for deployment in two year cycles.
Any flexibility this or another occupant of the White House may hope to have vis-a-vis negotiations with Moscow on missile defenses could be rendered moot in the next few weeks. North Korea is preparing to test what it is calling a space launch vehicle. Regardless of its alleged scientific purpose, a successful launch will give Pyongyang an entry pass to the club of nations capable of building Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles. Underscoring the significance of its missile test, North Korea is reported to be preparing for another underground test of a nuclear weapon.
At the same time, Iran and the major powers are about to resume negotiations over Teheran’s nuclear program. Since the last time such talks were held, Iran has significantly increased its stocks of 3 and 20 percent enriched uranium, put thousands of centrifuges in operation and opened or expanded a number of nuclear sites. If these talks fail, the risk of conflict in the region could grow dramatically. Oh yes, the third stage of the new North Korean missile is reported to be of Iranian design. So if Pyongyang has an ICBM how long do you suppose it will be before Teheran has one too?
U.S. regional allies are clamoring to get under an American missile defense umbrella. NATO is committed as part of its Smart Defense Initiative to deploying national missile defense systems in conjunction with the PAA. Japan and South Korea desperately want to see a Northeast Asian version of the European-centered defense. The U.S. recently committed to working with the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council to deploy robust missile defenses.
Any flexibility President Obama may hope to have on missile defenses could be eliminated by a thirty-minute test flight of a North Korean missile. But this could be a good thing. Russia needs to be made aware of the growing importance of missile defenses to U.S. security and that of our many allies.
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