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Is a European missile shield worth it?

Secretary Gates tells NATO that Washington won't stand defense freeloading for much longer. He says he believes Russia is serious about an eventual missile defense system for the Continent -- although he admits the progress toward that goal is measured in millimeters. And now, even the measure that was supposed to provide a compromise for everyone -- the use of U.S. Navy warships on standing missile defense patrols -- is causing problems.

Russia is objecting to the presence of the cruiser USS Monterey, only the latest Aegis BMD ship to cruise around Europe, but the first that was advertised as falling under the "phased adaptive approach." As the AP reports, Russia's foreign ministry issued a statement warning that it "has repeatedly stressed that we will not leave unnoticed any elements of U.S. strategic infrastructure in the immediate vicinity of our borders and will consider any such steps as a threat to our security." (The whole point of using Aegis warships, which can weigh anchor and go anywhere they please, was so that there is no "infrastructure" at first, but let's leave that aside for now.)

All this, along with the technical headaches involved with integrating sensors, weapons and other, larger questions -- if the bad guys did launch a missile at Europe, who pushes the button to shoot it down?  -- raises the biggest question of all: Why is the U.S. spending billions to help protect Europe from a missile threat that doesn't yet exist? Can that commitment endure in Austerity America?

You could argue it's the right thing to do for a lot of reasons: Europe is the home to some of America's best allies. A nuclear attack from Tehran would be unconscionable. America has had its missile defense commitment since the early days of the Bush administration, and it would raise far too big a row to back away now. These Russians are never going to go along, you could argue -- their kvetching is just part of the price of doing business on this project. Or, if you can sell them on it, that would be a coup worth all the work.

And yet -- when you look around the world at missions the American military could easily give up in our new era of frugality (which DoD is now doing) what's a bigger target than the Euro missile shield? This is a continent with what Gates called "the mightiest military alliance in history," in NATO, and some of the richest nations in the world -- if its leaders are really worried about an attack, shouldn't they take full responsibility for defending themselves? You could even argue that Russia might lift its objections if the U.S. weren't part of the missile defense shield. So the countries involved need American weapons or technical know-how -- OK, they're welcome to write a big check to Raytheon or Lockheed.

But right now, the plan for the "phased adaptive approach" eventually involves U.S. Navy sailors serving on "Aegis Ashore" ground stations on the Continent, manning radars and missile launchers against the threat of a launch. Meantime, American Aegis warships, like the Monterey, aren't available for other missions because they can't stray too far from their Euro-leash.

What do you think? Are America's missile defense commitments worth the cost and sacrifice? Or should Washington begin reevaluating this mission as part of its big mega-review?

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