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The Missile Defense Systems of George W. Bush: A Critical Assessment

The Missile Defense Systems of George W. Bush: A Critical Assessment by Richard Dean Burns. Praeger Security International, 2010, 198 pp.

Richard Dean Burns’ book is a review and assessment of America’s ballistic missile defense history focusing upon specific actions taken by then-president George W. Bush. The author is professor emeritus of history at California State University Los Angeles and the author or editor of several books on related topics. He covers the relevant time line beginning with the emergence of ballistic missile use on the world stage through America’s efforts to defend against evolving threats into the first year of the Obama presidency.

The Missile Defense Systems of George W. Bush does indeed provide sufficient information for the reader to grasp the plethora of concerns surrounding decisions both by Bush’s administration to deploy ground-based midcourse defense (GMD) and the Obama administration’s plan for a phased approach for missile defense of Europe. Regarding the former, one of Burns’ primary objectives was to enable the reader to assess whether or not the American public will in fact be protected by GMD.

The seemingly politically driven decision by the Bush administration to deploy the GMD when it did has resulted in a system that to this day must still prove itself. Challenges include countering a larger arsenal of faster and more maneuverable intercontinental ballistic missiles, overcoming decoys and countermeasures, and defending against a raid attack of several missiles with countermeasures and multiple warheads. There is some encouraging news however. Burns did note testing successes against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles (SRBM/MRBM) by several elements of the ballistic missile defense system (BMDS), including Aegis BMD; theater high-altitude area defense, or THAAD; and Patriot systems. These successes are significant given the recent shift in missile defense emphasis from strategic to regional/theater.

Administration approaches to the proposed missile defense of Europe shifted from a purely strategic focus during the Bush administration to one that evolved with the perceived threat during the Obama administration. This latter approach is known as the phased-adaptive approach or PAA. Specifically, the PAA is a four-phase plan that would initially deploy more proven capabilities to meet current SRBM/MRBM threats and evolve into a capability to defend Europe against longer-range missiles, should they be developed. While the Obama administration plan makes more practical sense, at least in its early phases, it faces many of the same roadblocks in implementation as the Bush plan. Most prominently, Burns states that depending upon where the PAA latter-phase interceptors and radars are located, Russia may view the Obama PAA as no better than the original Bush plan. In the words of Maj Gen Vladimir Dvorkin, former chief of the Russian military’s primary research institute for nuclear strategy, the scale of the proposed PAA system “may threaten the Russian potential of nuclear deterrence.”

There were three particularly insightful revelations in Burns’ book. First, a nuclear disarmament opportunity was lost during arms reduction talks between Pres. Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavik, Iceland, in October 1986. In response to Reagan’s offering of comprehensive US proposals to eliminate all nuclear warheads by the year 2000, Gorbachev surprised everyone present by responding yes, provided Reagan agreed to limit strategic defense initiative (SDI) research to the laboratory for a minimum of five years. Gorbachev’s offer was rejected, as Reagan did not want to surrender development of SDI. Burns believes final summit records made it clear that Reagan failed to take advantage of an opportunity to at least reduce if not eliminate intermediate- and long-range ballistic missiles.

Second, decisions by the Bush administration helped validate Russian concerns about US intentions surrounding the placement of advanced missile defense radar in the Czech Republic. During the G-8 summit in early June 2007, Russian president Vladimir Putin proposed establishing an alternate missile defense radar site at an existing early warning radar station in Azerbaijan. Despite the fact the proposed site had several technical advantages over one in the Czech Republic, a radar site in Azerbaijan could not be used to defend the United States from an attack by Russia. For reasons not stated by Burns, the Bush administration rejected Putin’s proposal.

Finally, while promising successes have been made in some of America’s ballistic missile defense programs, more attention must be given to cruise missile defense. Burns notes that during the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Patriot units, while successfully engaging nine SRBMs, failed to intercept any of the Iraqi cruise missiles. Dennis Gormley, an acknowledged expert on missile nonproliferation issues, believes the improvements in our defense against SRBM/MRBMs have made cruise missiles a much more attractive option to our adversaries, and US defenses against cruise missiles “remain weak and poorly managed.” Further, given the relative high cost of missile defense interceptors, it may be difficult to afford an effective defense against an attack with combined cruise and ballistic missiles.

While Burns’ book is excellent, a few additions could make it better. In his discussion of missile flight stages on page 9, he omits a fourth stage of flight, the ascent phase. The ascent phase begins directly after the missile’s powered flight and ends just prior to missile apogee. Inclusion of this phase is important given the Missile Defense Agency’s desire to leverage technology to reap the many benefits of ascent-phase intercepts. Second, additional treatment of the efforts of the BMDS Operational Test Agency (OTA) would be beneficial. The BMDS OTA prepares annual, independent, and authoritative operational effectiveness and modeling and simulation (M&S) accreditation assessments of the integrated elements of the BMDS for the director, Operational Test and Evaluation. More attention must also be given to M&S and the necessity of its verification and validation. Verified and validated M&S supporting hardware-in-the-loop, digital, and exercise operational test events can provide added confidence in the performance of the BMDS and may be the only means to assess performance for scenarios where flight test data is limited or not available.

The Missile Defense Systems of George W. Bush is a good read for anyone wishing to gain an appreciation of the complex technical and political landscape surrounding missile defense. It should be mandatory introductory reading for all involved in supporting the efforts of the Missile Defense Agency.

Lt Col Paul Nemec, USAFR

Air Force Research Institute

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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