Four years ago, the Obama administration scrapped plans to install advanced missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic that were seen as part of its efforts to reset relations with Russia. Today, with ties between Washington and Moscow at their lowest point in decades, the question is whether the White House should move new anti-missile equipment to Eastern Europe to reassure jittery allies and stick a finger in the eye of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The initial plan, which dated back to the George W. Bush administration, called for installing 10 ground-based interceptors in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic. Washington said the systems were meant solely to shoot down long-range Iranian missiles, but the Russians harbored deep suspicions that the systems were aimed at them.
When Obama canceled those plans in September 2009, administration officials said new intelligence showing that Tehran was making progress on shorter range missiles meant that it was important to shift to other, less advanced defensive systems that could be moved to Europe as quickly as 2015. The current White House approach calls for deploying two dozen SM-3 interceptor missiles to Romania and another two dozen to Poland by 2018. In the meantime, the Aegis combat system, mounted on Navy destroyers, would be used to shoot down Iranian missiles.
But with the U.S. scrambling to figure out how to respond to Putin's aggression in Ukraine, some on Capitol Hill are calling for Obama to accelerate his missile defense plans and move the SM-3 interceptors to Europe as quickly as possible or to deploy portable systems like the Patriot air defense system to Poland once again.
"The Obama Administration has been unable to counter this escalation of Putin's aggressive posture," Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) said in a statement earlier this month that typified Republican discontent with the White House. Turner and two others introduced legislation April 9 that he said amounted to a "to-do list" for the administration on Russia and Ukraine that includes increasing missile defenses. "Instead, they have been defensive, unsure, and unable to change Putin's course of action."
Any such move would be risky for the White House, which has tried to figure out how aggressively to move against Putin given Washington's clear desire to avoid any sort of armed confrontation with Russia and retain Moscow's cooperation on Iran and Syria.
Still, there is little question that the push from some quarters in Congress to do something is forcing the administration to consider other ways of bolstering its missile defense plans for Europe. But easy answers remain elusive.
"There's plenty of arrows in the quiver in terms of punishing Russia that can be effective and have bite," said Kingston Reif of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington. "Then there are counterproductive steps."
Experts like Reif believe the deployment of missile systems like the Patriot air defense system to help reassure allies is probably "the least objectionable" move the administration could make. "But the question remains what this hardware would be defending against and how its deployment would be more reassuring than other steps the United States and NATO can and have taken to reassure the easternmost members."
For now, the administration is sticking to moderate shows of force. On Tuesday, the Pentagon announced a series of four exercises in NATO member countries in Eastern Europe in which a total of 600 American troops would begin conducting company-sized exercises in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Poland. The first such exercise, with about 150 troops, began Wednesday in Swidwin, Poland. The United States has already sent F-16 warplanes to Romania and Poland as well as F-15s to Lithuania. The White House, though, has given no indication that it would be willing to send more troops to Europe, where about 67,000 troops are permanently stationed. The 600 troops taking part in the exercises are already assigned to the region.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers and staffers hope the administration may be willing to look for ways of strengthening its current missile defense plans for Eastern Europe.
The easiest move would also be the most scalable. Deploying Patriot surface-to-air missile systems that could be used to shoot down Russian tactical missiles, for example, could instill greater confidence among allies that they will not "walk this road alone," as Vice President Joe Biden said in Kiev this week. Likewise for the deployment of what's called the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD, designed to prevent against medium-range missile threats. Either system could be deployed to the region sometime this year, but that would likely mean the Pentagon would have to remove them from somewhere else. Patriot systems, for example, have been deployed to Turkey as part of a NATO mission to defend that country against Syria. Still, shifting the equipment to Eastern Europe would be relatively easy.
"There are things that we have today that we could deploy," said one Senate staffer, adding many members are still grappling with settling on just the right approach. It's a question of what the administration wants to achieve, the staffer said. "If your intention is to reassure allies, the most immediate response is to send Patriots into the region."
The Pentagon could also accelerate the speed at which it implements its overall ballistic missile defense policy in Europe. The Pentagon hinted last week that it could move more aggressively to place SM-3 interceptor missiles in Poland, for example.
"We will adjust where we need to adjust," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said at the Pentagon last week, his Polish counterpart standing beside him, in response to a question about accelerating timelines for deploying the equipment to the NATO member, which is looking at Russian troop movements near Ukraine with increasing alarm. "Obviously, the whole point about defensive capability, missile defense, is about real threats. It's not about theory."
A spokesperson for the White House would say only that the U.S. is committed to security in the region. "This includes our commitment to defend NATO European populations, territory, and forces from the threat posed by ballistic missiles," said National Security Council spokeswoman Laura Lucas Magnuson. She noted that the interceptor site will be active in Romania in 2015. "The sites in Romania and Poland are both in the budget and on schedule to be operational in 2015 and 2018 respectively."
The administration might be willing to speed up deployment of those missiles in part because it very much owns the current policy. In September 2009, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the then vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. James Cartwright, outlined a dramatic change in the U.S. approach to ballistic missile defense posture in Europe against a threat of long-range missiles from Iran. Citing new technology and updated assessments of the Iranian threat, the two announced the administration would move to what it called the European Phased Adaptive Approach, or EPAA. Under that plan, which remains current policy, the administration would use a land- and sea-based approach in which SM-3s were deployed on the ground and Aegis systems were used on the seas.
At the time, the Obama administration insisted publicly that the move was made solely to respond to a changing Iranian threat and had nothing to do with Russia. Privately, though, officials acknowledged then that the shift was also meant as a goodwill gesture toward Moscow, which was wary of the Bush administration plan. The Obama administration had famously promised to "reset" relations with Russia just seven months earlier.
Accelerating the current plan would mean deploying the systems to Poland as early as 2016, not 2018. That would require additional funding in the billions of dollars at a time when the Pentagon is cash-strapped and looking for ways to cut spending. The upside, though, could be significant: beyond the signal it would send Putin, the move could also reassure allies who question the American commitment to Europe's defense given the administration's much hyped "pivot to Asia." The key, some experts say, would be to use the missile defense shift as part of a broader strategy of deterrence.
"I think our debate right now should be about how to ensure that Russia does not continue invading other countries," said Michaela Dodge of the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. "It's not only about missile defense, but it's certainly a very important debate."
If the Obama administration does in fact alter its missile defense posture in the region, Moscow will almost see it as an act of American aggression. Putin himself has suggested that if the U.S. pursues a strategy in which it moves missile assets into the region it will amount to a new arms race. Hagel dismissed this flatly.
"That's ridiculous," he said at the Pentagon last week. "It's not an arms race. It's a missile defense system, and we've made that very clear."