Vice President-elect Joe Biden was wrong when he said, “It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy.” Well, it was more like six hours. Yesterday, as other world leaders were sending the President-elect congratulatory messages, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev apparently thought that a hostile theme was more appropriate. In his first state of the union address, Medvedev threatened to deploy short-range missiles against Poland if a missile defense system, the so-called Third Site, were deployed in that Eastern European country. The Russian President went on to list other hostile steps his country might take including electronically jamming the missile defense.
It is ironic that President-elect Obama’s first test should be about missile defenses. He has expressed skepticism about the current Administration’s missile defense program, saying he would cut investments in unproven systems. During a mid-2007 visit to Poland, the then Senator said that the United States and Poland should cooperate on effective missile defenses, perhaps indicating his opposition to the Third Site.
The Kremlin may believe that it is pushing on an open door when it comes to the new Administration’s willingness to deploy missile defenses in Eastern Europe. However, Medvedev’s quintessentially Russian strategy of threaten first, negotiate later may backfire. His actions are reminiscent of Russian Premier Khrushchev’s behavior when he met newly elected President Kennedy in Vienna in 1961. The latter’s failure to stand up to the Russian leader’s bluster led the next year to the Cuban Missile Crisis. In this most “Camelot” of moments, can the new American President afford to appear weak by acquiescing to Russia’s demand that the Third Site not be deployed?
The Russian President’s threats open up a larger issue. Forward-deployed fixed site missile defenses could be vulnerable to a host of countermeasures. The Russian President may be deterred from making good on his threats, but what about other U.S. adversaries? Medvedev’s statements underscore the importance of mobile missile defense systems that can be deployed when and where needed.
The United States has effective mobile missile defenses against short-range threats – the sea-based Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System and the land-based Theater High Altitude Air Defense and Patriot systems. What it lacks is a mobile system that can counter long-range threats. The technology for such a system is within reach: it is the land-based Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI). KEI could backstop the Third Site, deploying only when a threat emerged and thereby rendering moot any Russian threats. Without a fixed infrastructure, KEI also could provide a flexible solution to the appearance of new long-range ballistic missile threats. In the event a friendly country changes its mind about supporting missile defense deployments, the entire system is not placed in jeopardy. Unfortunately, the current Administration put KEI on a slow development track. If the new President wants effective missile defenses, he should consider putting KEI on a fast track to deployment.
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