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Trust, Not Tech, Big Problem Building Missile Defenses Vs. Iran, North Korea

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

A North Korean Taepodong missile launcher on parade.

A North Korean Taepodong missile launcher on parade.

WASHINGTON: Missile defense is notoriously technically challenging, but sometimes the biggest problem isn’t tech, but trust.

Even the most advanced systems can’t stop Iranian or North Korean missiles if America’s allies can’t cooperate to integrate those systems into a regional defense, because ballistic missiles can move too fast and far for a single country to catch. Nor is America a perfect partner: If the US  can’t relax its restrictions on sharing technology, those advanced systems may never be deployed. Those were the recurring themes at yesterday’s missile defense conference hosted here by the Atlantic Council.

Keynoting the conference was no less a figure than Adm. James “Sandy” Winnefeld, vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Just by showing up, the nation’s Nr. 2 military officer highlighted the priority the Pentagon puts on missile defense. In his remarks he repeatedly emphasized the importance of cooperation with allies and partners. Besides reiterating America’s “iron-clad” commitment to the European Phased Adaptive Approach — designed to stop a handful of Iranian missiles, not hundreds of Russian ones — the admiral also put in good words for Japan, South Korea, Israel, and the Gulf Cooperation Council.

But a lot of these countries distrust each other. The enemy of my enemy isn’t necessarily my friend, and the friend of my friend can still be my enemy. In the Gulf and Northeast Asia in particular, the assembled experts argued the US is in the awkward position of cajoling mutually suspicious countries into cooperating against a common threat, be it Iran or North Korea.

“The problem with hardware is it doesn’t operate in a political vacuum,” said Atlantic Council senior fellow Bilal Saab. “Without closer political relations and greater trust among the Gulf partners, this missile defense business isn’t going to go very far,” he said. Yet he’s found it politically impossible just to get defense attaches from Gulf countries to sit down together in Washington for an unofficial wargame. As far as he can tell, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries are doing no joint planning or exercises for an Iranian attack. In fact, he said, the GCC countries don’t even agree on the severity of the Iranian threat.

But if Iran launches missiles across the narrow Persian Gulf, there’ll be “no time for decision by consensus, perhaps no time for decision by political authorities, they have to have thought this through ahead of time,” said Kevin Cosgriff, the retired commander of US naval forces in the region. “Given the history of cooperation amongst Gulf states, I think it would be extraordinarily difficult.” For example, if Iran launches a missile at a target in Saudi Arabia, it’s entirely possible for the best-placed interceptor system to be one based in Qatar — and the two countries have a lot of mutual distrust. Cosgriff would expect the Saudis to look suspiciously at the Qataris and ask, “will they take the shot?”

There’s a similar problem forming a united front against North Korea. “I think the United States should be very impatient with its Northeast Asian allies,” said RAND scholar David Gompert. While Japan and South Korea each have a strong alliance with the US, they have struggled — mostly unsuccessfully — to overcome their historical antipathy to one another. An agreement to share classified intelligence fell apart in 2012 — and if the two countries are to coordinate against supersonic North Korean missiles, they need not only to share intelligence but to do so in miliseconds.

There’s a lot of talk about making US and foreign systems “interoperable,” which boils down to being able to share data, but for missile defense that’s not enough. What’s required, Gompert argued, is a truly “integrated” international defense. “Integrated and interoperable, they’re not the same thing,” he said. “Integrated means that things happen in seconds. They happen at speeds that are required for sensors and shooters to work as part of a single system.”

But there’s tremendous political “pushback” against integration, especially in South Korea, noted Patrick Cronin, head of the Asia-Pacific program at the Center for a New American Security. In the near term, “interoperable” may be the best that we can get, hopefully as a first step towards true integration. “This is what the US government can sell today to South Korea,” Cronin said. “I want to go the same place David [Gompert] does, but I’m telling you, this is what’s possible.”

It is possible the US could serve as a high-speed clearinghouse, with Korea and Japan sharing their data with the Americans rather than dealing directly with each other. “If we are the hub,” said Gompert, “we should get data from everywhere” anyway: US assets, Australian, Japanese, Korean, whatever.

But the US itself can be part of the problem. In the Gulf, said Saab, “trust me, they get it, they get that interoperability is very important” — but when they ask the US to sell them the networking and communications technologies required to interoperate, America’s export control system makes it painfully slow to arrive. America’s partners are “frankly fed up with the system,” Saab said. “It’s not keeping up.”

“We have tremendous opportunities for cooperation today in missile defense as in other areas, [but] we’ve got to change the model we have for export control,” said James Miller, until recently the undersecretary of defense for policy. “We are not going to keep the technological edge by over-protecting [our technology, but] by partnering with our allies [and] innovating more rapidly.”

“I am proud of what this administration did,” Miller emphasized when I approached him after the panel. “It ultimately migrated thousands of items from the USML [United States Munitions List] to the CCL [Commerce Control List], and with the 36 [thirty six] countries that are under strategic trade authorizations, that means many, many thousands of transactions per year go through like that” — he snapped his fingers — “instead of being stuck and going much more slowly.”

“There’s a lot of international cooperation but it’s [still] harder and more time consuming than it should be,” he told me, “and that results in a lot of missed opportunities.”

“In the day when DoD dominated US technology and the US dominated international technology, the current export control system and technology security system arguably made sense — I’d still think it was overdone — but neither of those is true today,” Miller told me. “We need to focus on controlling a few items, the so-called crown jewels, and then really engage with our allies and partners on the others and take advantage of their expertise.” Just ask former Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre, who made Miller’s argument at the end of the last century.

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