By F. Michael Maloof

WASHINGTON – A comment President Obama made in South Korea to outgoing Russian President Dmitri Medvedev seeking “space” – or more time to work on missile defense “after my election” – has renewed concerns about his commitment to a system for which he’s already expressed a high level of uninterest.

It’s the same system the Russians vehemently oppose.

In an exchange picked up by an open microphone as reporters were being let into a room, Obama said to Medvedev, “This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.”

Medvedev replied, “Yeah, I understand. I understand your message about space. … I will transmit this information to Vladimir (Putin), and I stand with you.”

Putin, slated to become the next president of Russia, has been out front of Russian opposition to placement of a missile defense system in Europe to guard against the prospect of Iranian missiles.

Medvedev and Putin believe installation of the anti-ballistic missile system in Europe is a threat to Russia’s security, since it diminishes the capability of Russia’s own offensive nuclear ballistic missiles.

Moscow also fears that the system could be used in an offensive manner. In response, Putin has threatened to install its very effective Iskandar ballistic missiles in the Kaliningrad region, which is the nearest point in Russia to Eastern Europe.

In addition, the Russians have threatened to withdraw from the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s program to “reset” relations between Washington and Moscow. Indeed, Moscow recently has raised the ante by treating the decision to go ahead with a missile defense shield in Europe as a basis to determine the future of U.S.-Russian relations.

Putin also has threatened to cut off American use of the Northern Distribution Network that goes through Russia to supply U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan if the Obama administration continues deployment of the anti-ballistic missile system in Europe.

Moscow also said that it could decide to ship the long-delayed S-300 air defense missiles to Iran, arguing that the missiles are defensive just as the U.S. considers missiles to be installed in Europe as defensive.

In early March, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton thought that the Russians would come around and cooperate on missile defense – a position contrary to previous Russian leadership remarks.

Clinton, while visiting Poland, which would be one of the sites for the missile interceptors, sought to make it less of a U.S. issue than one made by the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

“NATO has made a decision,” she said. “We believe that it is in all of our interests to carry forward and implement that decision.

“Now, we’ve also made it clear that we would love to cooperate on missile defense against mutual threats with Russia,” she said. “That is not only a U.S. position; that is also through NATO that we have sought to discuss this at the NATO-Russia Council.

“Thus far, we’ve not seen a lot of movement, but we are going to continue to press that with the Russians and hope that there will be an agreement at some point that could be in both of our interests.”

The Russians, however, are showing no movement in that direction and, given Obama’s latest remarks, will see no reason to alter their position.

Obama’s waffling on the issue on installation of an anti-ballistic missile defense system in Europe, with the latest example demonstrated in his exchange with Medvedev, also reflects yet another delay to a 10-year-old requirement from Congress “to deploy as soon as technologically possible an effective National Missile Defense.”

Instead of the land-based system as proposed by the former Bush administration, the Obama administration had envisioned “stronger, smarter and swifter defenses of American forces and America’s allies,” which missile experts say is turning out to be the least effective.

The Bush administration sought to deploy ground-based interceptors in Poland and early warning radars in the Czech Republic, a plan meant to save billions of dollars in missile-defense planning. At the same time, it was designed not only to guard U.S. forces and allies overseas, but also the U.S. homeland, which was mandated by Congress.

The goal of the Bush administration missile defense system was to “defend (U.S.) allies and deployed forces in Europe from limited Iranian long-range threats and expand protection of (the) U.S. homeland,” according to a February 2009 Congressional Budget Office report titled “Options for Deploying Missile Defenses in Europe.”

In doing its analysis of various missile defense options, the CBO looked at three approaches, in addition to the Bush administration’s proposal.

The alternatives included the sea-based system which the Obama administration initially wanted, mobile missile defenses located in Germany and Turkey and forward-positioned Kinetic Energy Interceptors also located in Germany and Turkey.

The CBO concluded that the Bush administration proposal was preferable to the three alternative solutions. In fact, the Kinetic Energy Interceptors weren’t even an option during the latest round of considerations since they was cut from the Pentagon’s missile defense budget earlier this year.

“(The Missile Defense Agency’s) proposed system would complement the coverage already available from U.S.-based interceptors by providing redundant defense from a third interceptor site for all of the continental United States,” the CBO report said. “None of the alternatives considered by CBO provide as much additional defense of the United States.

“Deploying Kinetic Energy Interceptors would add defense from a third redundant interceptor site for about 75 percent of the U.S. population in range of ICBMs from Iran. Deploying land-based or sea-based Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IIA interceptors would provide additional defense for about one-half or less of the U.S. population,” the report added.

In effect, the proposed Obama administration sea-based approach offered the least protection as compared to the Bush administration proposal, and it was more expensive, since there would be added costs for specially equipped ships. In addition, it would take more time to deploy.

Further, the Kinetic Energy Interceptor approach that the Obama administration cut earlier this year would have offered the next best protection to the U.S. homeland.

Iran has been working on developing intercontinental ballistic missiles, which it is expected to field by the next decade. Also, its space program has made serious advances, with Russian assistance that make the ICBM threat more imperative.

Given the similarities between space launch and ballistic missile technologies, the progress Tehran has made in one is expected to help advance the sophistication of the other, making the prospect of a long-range Iranian missile capability possible much sooner, according to missile experts.

Iran is making such progress that the concern now is that missile defenses won’t be operational before Iran’s long-range missiles are ready, making both the U.S. and its allies vulnerable to potential attack, with the prospect of nuclear-tipped missiles.

Security experts say that Pentagon planners have been concerned about this outcome for some time.

Missile planners who formulated the requirements for missile defense concluded that the U.S. requires three separate locations for anti-missile systems.

The first and second sites, to defend against a North Korean missile attack, have been secured, in Alaska and in California. The third site, to defend against Iranian missiles launched against the U.S. homeland and against U.S. and allied forces in Europe, is to be built in Poland and the Czech Republic.

F. Michael Maloof, staff writer for WND’s G2Bulletin, is a former senior security policy analyst in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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