[eDebate] Palin BMD Op-Ed draft - comments please

Mitchell, Gordon Roger gordonm
Wed Sep 3 23:10:24 CDT 2008

Hi folks,

The piece below is now under review at a major newspaper, and there is a window for backchannel pre-publicaton comments (wordsmithing, additional sourcing, argument refinement suggestions, constructive criticism, etc.). As usual I come to you smart people first because you never fail to amaze me with your hive-minded brilliance.

Governor Palin's Missile Defense Moment
By Gordon R. Mitchell
775 words

Sarah Palin's backers have put the Alaska governor in a tough spot by touting her missile defense credentials as evidence of commander-in-chief readiness.
The 49th Missile Defense Battalion in Alaska is staffed exclusively by members of the active Alaska National Guard. That this unit ostensibly falls under Palin's authority lends surface validity to arguments that her missile defense experience constitutes preparation for commanding the Pentagon.

But as missile defense public affairs officer Maj. Laura Kenney explained to me, "we don't really belong to the governor." According to Maj. Kenney, a memorandum of understanding between the state of Alaska and the U.S. Department of Defense sets terms whereby "the second we go into using the system, we switch into federal control." In a recent interview with the Associated Press, Maj. Gen. Craig Campbell, adjutant general of the Alaska National Guard, corroborated this point, clarifying that Governor Palin plays virtually no role in national defense activities.

This disconnect in the command chain does not seem to dampen the enthusiasm of Palin backers such as John Bolton. The former U.N. ambassador maintains that thanks to her Alaskan roots, Governor Palin "would know more by osmosis" about missile defense than her Democratic rivals. More directly, Bolton was quoted as telling Republican National Convention delegates that when he met Palin during a National Review cruise-stop in Alaska, she "knew the ins and outs of the missile defense issue" and there was "no doubt she was completely up to speed on it."

It appears that the missile defense argument for Palin's commander-in-chief readiness rests less on any actual command experience and more on her profound grasp of the subtleties involved in the complex policy debate surrounding missile defense.

Following this line of reasoning, one would expect Governor Palin to have a sophisticated and well-thought out policy position on the controversial February 2008 Pentagon shoot-down of the orbiting USA 193 satellite. As New America Foundation nuclear strategy and nonproliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis reasons, if Palin is as plugged-in on missile defense as Bolton suggests, "she ought to be able to provide a detailed explanation of her thinking about the decision to shoot down US-193."

In that episode, a sea-based X-Band (SBX) radar system positioned just off the coast of Alaska fed tracking data to an Aegis cruiser deployed in the Pacific Ocean. Cornell physicist George Lewis confirms that the SBX radar "definitely did" play a role in the intercept, perhaps by assisting the destroyer while its on-ship radar was not yet in position to see the stray satellite directly.

Bush administration officials justified the $9.5 million shoot-down by arguing that during re-entry, elements of USA 193's hydrazine fuel tank could fall to Earth and harm humans. In recent months, prominent defense analysts have debated the wisdom of this reasoning at Jeffrey Lewis' leading arms control weblog, ArmsControlWonk.com.

While analysts such as MIT's Geoffrey Forden have made technical calculations casting doubt on the Pentagon's public health rationale for shooting down USA 193, others have raised more fundamental concerns bearing directly on the Governor Palin's putative sweet spot of expertise?the strategic role of missile defense in U.S. foreign policy.

Recall that in the February 2008 USA 193 episode, the Pentagon deployed a missile defense system to accomplish an anti-satellite (ASAT) mission. Is such mission creep appropriate? This is the $64,000 question for post-Cold War missile defense policy.

Critics of the USA 193 shoot-down such as Jeffrey Lewis offer several reasons why it would be a strategic mistake for the U.S. to morph its nascent missile defense capability into a back-door ASAT program:

* Space junk. U.S.-driven space weaponizaton could stimulate others to follow suit, yielding an arms race in outer space, with the attendant space debris jeopardizing commercial ATM and cell-phone access;

* Crisis instability. Many space weapons are designed to blind adversaries, creating conditions ripe for miscalculation and hair-trigger use of preventive force;

* International cooperation. Headlong pursuit of U.S. ASAT capability would likely exact steep opportunity costs by undermining international space cooperation in vital negotiations regarding traffic control and orbital slots.

Center for Security Policy President Frank J. Gaffney, Jr. predicts that missile defense "will be one of the highlights of the vice presidential nominees' debate." As a public service, journalists now and during the debate might consider posing the following questions to Governor Palin:

* As Governor of Alaska, if you are not authorized to actually launch missile defense interceptors, what is the nature of your command authority in this area?

* What is your tactical and strategic assessment of the February 2008 shoot-down of the USA 193 satellite that involved Alaska-based missile defense assets deployed in an anti-satellite mission?

Gordon R. Mitchell (gordonm at pitt.edu) is an associate professor of communication and director of the William Pitt Debating Union at the University of Pittsburgh.

* * *

Gordon R. Mitchell
Associate Professor of Communication
Director, William Pitt Debating Union
University of Pittsburgh
CL 1117, 4200 Fifth Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15260
Phone: (412) 624-8531
Fax: (412) 624-1878

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