Yet questions surround Mr Obama’s plans. Having ships permanently on station is costly. Even with an updated version (the Block IB update of the SM-3 missile, now due to be introduced in 2015), seven ships deployed in European waters could provide only patchwork protection. Maintaining it permanently would need more than the 18 Aegis ships that America now has. In a crisis, ship-based defences could “surge” only temporarily.
The more powerful Block IIA version of the missile, expected in 2018, should mean that Europe can be protected from just three locations. But a study by the Congressional Budget Office in February reckoned that placing these on ships would cost almost twice as much as the GBI system. A favoured site would be the Black Sea, but the 1936 Montreux Convention limits foreign warships’ presence there.
The Pentagon says it wants to deploy at least some SM-3 interceptors on land bases from about 2015, which would be cheaper. But this could run into the same political problems that dogged the GBI. Favoured options include Turkey and central Europe. Officials have promised the bruised Poles and Czechs “first refusal” to host these missiles; but would they risk it again? The Pentagon also talks of deploying a mobile tracking radar in “the Caucasus”. The most likely location is Georgia. But Russia loathes Georgia’s ties with America.
Given the uncertainty over still-untested future versions of the SM-3, Mr Gates says the Pentagon will continue developing the GBI as a hedge. Some ask why he bothered to scrap the original scheme in the first place. The combination of the GBI system with the other defences would have been a powerful way to deal with both present and future threats. Pentagon officials say that limited budgets mean they had to choose between systems. But it is hard to avoid concluding that dumping GBI was, in part, a gesture to Russia. (graphic: Congressional Budget Office)