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November 13, 2008
Notes from the Pentagon

Missile defense future
Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry A. Obering, outgoing director of the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency, said on Wednesday that U.S. missile defenses are working and he hopes President-elect Barack Obama will continue the multibillion-dollar programs once he is briefed on them.

Asked if current U.S. ground-based and sea-based systems are "workable," Gen. Obering said: "Absolutely."

"Not only are they workable, they've been proven in combat" in the Middle East, he said in a farewell interview with Defense reporters.

President Bush was prepared to shoot down a North Korean missile using the new U.S. missile defense system in July 2006, and Gen. Obering said he thinks the system would have been able to knock out one or two Taepodong-2 missiles if they had come toward the United States.a Additionally, U.S. war-fighting commanders are demanding more and better missile defenses to defend troops against missile attack, he said.

"Our testing has shown that not only can we hit a bullet with a bullet, we can actually hit a spot on a bullet with a bullet," he said. "The technology has caught up with that."

Gen. Obering, who retires this month, said questions have been raised by critics about the 10 ground-based interceptors planned for Europe. He said those missiles designed for a site in Poland are a low-risk, two-stage version of the 22 three-stage interceptors now deployed in Alaska and California.

A spokesman for Mr. Obama, Denis McDonough, said Saturday that Mr. Obama discussed missile defense with Polish President Lech Kaczynski but that the president-elect made "no commitment" to the interceptor base.

Mr. Obama "supports deploying a missile defense system when the technology is proved to be workable," Mr. McDonough said.

The European interceptor has modified software and a different casing from those now deployed in Alaska and California, Gen. Obering said Its non-explosive warhead, called a kill vehicle, and the software and censors are the same, Gen. Obering said, noting that deployment in Europe could be ready by 2012.

Gen. Obering said he is prepared to brief the president-elect and his team.

Abandoning plans for missile defenses in Poland and Czech Republic would "severely hurt" U.S. defenses against missile attacks and would "severely undermine" U.S. leadership in the NATO alliance, he said.

U.S. intelligence estimates state that Iran could have a long-range missile capable of hitting the United States by 2015, Gen. Obering said.

He said he was worried that missile defense programs might be cut by an Obama administration, based on statements made early in the presidential campaign.

However, the three-star general said he was encouraged by later statements. "I think if [new administration officials] get the latest information, I'm confident they will come to right conclusions with respect to program," he said.

Obama security team
Washington political operatives with ties to both Democratic and Republican circles are closely monitoring the Obama transition and have handicapped the future Cabinet. The leading candidate for Pentagon chief is current Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, according to a transition assessment provided to Inside the Ring by the operatives.

Other candidates for the Pentagon post include former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig, an Obama campaign adviser; former Deputy Defense Secretary John J. Hamre, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies; and Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat and member of the Armed Services Committee.

A spokesman for the Obama transition team declined to comment on any pending personnel appointments. Transition director John Podesta said Tuesday that announcements on key appointments could be made in the coming days by Mr. Obama in Chicago.

A Pentagon spokesman said Tuesday that Mr. Gates has not been contacted by the president-elect or the transition team about whether he will stay. Mr. Gates has said he plans to leave the administration in January but has not ruled out continuing.

Two candidates for the key post of White House national security adviser are said to be James B. Steinberg, a former deputy National Security Council adviser during the Clinton administration; and Susan E. Rice, a former assistant secretary of state and Obama campaign adviser.

Department of Homeland Security secretary choices include former Rep. Timothy J. Roemer, Indiana Democrat and member of the 9/11 Commission; New York City Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly; James Lee Witt, former Federal Emergency Management Agency director; and Richard A. Clarke, the former Clinton White House counterterrorism coordinator. Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton also is a candidate for the DHS post.

Nuclear threat
Former Pentagon policymaker Mark Schneider is warning that the United States is threatened by a current or future nuclear attack as the result of the gradual decline of the U.S. strategic arsenal during the past several years and the resulting weakening of deterrence.

Mr. Schneider, an analyst with the National Institute for Public Policy, a think tank based in Fairfax that focuses on post-Cold War threats, outlined his concerns in a recent article in the institute's journal. The article also challenges the notion that arms control agreements and precision-guided conventional weapons can deter nuclear threats.

"Today, the United States, the worldīs only superpower with global responsibilities, is the only nuclear weapons state that is seriously debating about whether the United States should retain a nuclear deterrent," stated Mr. Schneider, who has held numerous posts in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and State Department.

Every other nuclear power -- Britain, Russia, China, France, India, Pakistan and Israel -- are modernizing and expanding their nuclear arsenals, with Russia and China engaged in major buildups, he wrote.

Conventional weapons alone are unable to deter nuclear attacks because of the massive destructive power of nuclear bombs, he said. Precision-guided bombs and missiles have "minuscule" power compared to a nuclear detonation that is thousands to millions of times more lethal, he said.

Nuclear weapons can "kill millions to hundreds of millions of people in an hour, and there are national leaders who would use them against us if all they had to fear was a conventional response," he stated. "The threat of nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack ... is so severe that one or at most a handful of EMP attacks could demolish industrial civilization in the United States."

The main nuclear worries are Russia, which is moving away from democracy, and China, a communist state. Both are building an array of new strategic missiles and warheads "with the objective of targeting the United States," he said.

Mr. Schneider favors modernizing U.S. nuclear weapons and warns against relying too heavily on arms control agreements.

"For a century, Western nations have tried unsuccessfully to use arms control as a means of reducing the threat of war," he said. "Yet it fails essentially 100 percent of the time because the nations that create the need for it either donīt sign the relevant treaties or ignore them if they do," he wrote.

"The appeal of arms control is that it permits thinking noble thoughts and embracing the illusion of free, effortless security," he said. "Yet the conceptual basis of arms control is flawed - it is analogous to the idea of fighting crime by reducing and eventually eliminating the police while signing agreements with the criminals."

  • Bill Gertz covers national security affairs. He can be reached at 202/636-3274, or at

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