Commentary Magazine


Missiles? Yawn

The Obama administration’s reaction to Iran’s Sajjil-2 missile launch on Wednesday has been beyond perfunctory; in fact, it has been disjointed and blasé to the point of haplessness. One has the sense of a vacuum where the conventional signals on defense policy used to be, as if no serious effort were being made.

The Sajjil missile program is two things. It’s a game-changer for our own missile-defense planning—a type of game-changer anticipated in theory for some years, and now being tested live in Iran. The pace of its development is, in the words of Israel’s former missile-defense chief, “phenomenal.” The launch-testing program started in November 2008 and has straddled two U.S. administrations, a political disadvantage for the objective analysis of its import. But from a professional military standpoint, the program’s progress naturally cues an adjustment to our own planning.

It’s therefore misleading—even a touch disingenuous—for the Pentagon’s spokesman to dismiss the Sajjil-2 launch on December 16 (the missile’s second successful launch ever) as “not particularly different than [sic] anything we’ve seen before.” This is narrowly accurate, but it’s not what matters. Downplaying the significance of the Sajjil program is lazy and sloppy; the professional approach would be conveying that we are taking steps to position ourselves for its emergence—which we are, at least from a long-term programmatic perspective.

The Sajjil is also the kind of missile program Obama had in mind in September, when he announced he was changing our missile-defense policy to be better prepared for the “emerging medium-range threat.” This announcement was made with some fanfare, attended by a phalanx of officials and experts explaining how the Obama policy would position us better for missile defense in the near future. It’s therefore particularly odd that the administration spokesmen didn’t make that connection in their public comments about Wednesday’s missile launch.

Perhaps they were deterred by the fact that the individual elements of Obama’s missile-defense plan are either not proven against an Iran/Sajjil threat scenario or out of sync with the Sajjil program’s rapid time line (e.g., the ground-launched version of the Navy’s SM-3, which is to substitute for Bush’s silo-based interceptors in Europe, doesn’t exist yet). But I doubt it. Spinning a policy initiative to de-emphasize its inconvenient particulars is just basic political competence. In theory, Obama’s policy shift in September was targeted precisely on the threat represented by the Sajjil. That no one in an official capacity has promptly spun this point for positive effect argues a weird lack of interest and focus.

Media reports are pairing the Sajjil-2 launch with Monday’s earlier announcement that the Pentagon will test our silo-based interceptors—which are operationally deployed in Alaska and California— against a simulated Iranian attack scenario in January. The testing program for U.S missile defenses has concentrated on a North Korea scenario up to now, with the threat mimicking the No Dong missile, the prototype for Iran’s older Shahab. This certainly seems linked to the Sajjil story. But since the silo-based interceptors are exactly the ones Obama has decided not to put in Europe, it’s another story with loose ends. What does it mean that we are doing this?

We can speculate, and many are busy doing just that; but we shouldn’t have to. Neither should Iran—or Russia or China, for that matter. There is no downside to sending signals on this topic that are clear, consistent, and unified. There is a serious downside, however, to sending signals about our defense policy that come off as detached and random.