The physics and politics of missile defence in Europe

Like the proverbial bad dream that it is, missile defence once again has a lot of people losing a lot of sleep. The finger of blame swings naturally to Washington , but this time let’s not overlook Russian President Vladimir Putin. His energetic Russia-as-victim positioning not only tries to return nuclear competition to the core of Russian-US relations, it misses the perfect opportunity to expose the US ballistic missile plan (BMD) for the minor irritant and major fraud that it really is.

The US missile defence system is and will remain powerless to prevent Russia from launching a nuclear attack on the United States if that is what it really wants to do. Indeed, David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists points out that “because the system is vulnerable to decoys, it also wouldn’t stop a missile attack from the Middle East. If Iran or other states in the region develop long-range missiles and deliverable nuclear warheads, they would certainly equip those missiles with countermeasures that could render U.S. defenses ineffective.”[i]

American officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have themselves been claiming that the Poland-based GBIs would be ineffective against Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMS), not because they have finally admitted that the system doesn’t work, but because of the physics of missiles and the geography of Poland.[ii]For once they are right.

Even if the system worked as intended, the only Russian ICBMs which the Poland-based GBIs would have a chance of intercepting would be those launched from western or European Russian. The trajectory of west Russian missiles headed for the US would not pass directly over Poland, but close to it, while the trajectory of central and east Russian missiles would be far to the north of Poland and impossible to catch (interceptors have to be directed at a target warhead coming toward them, not one they are trying to overtake).

But if the system was intended to intercept warheads launched from western Russia, the US Arms Control Association confirms, Poland would be a poor location for the GBIs.[iii] Some Russian commentators insist they could work against west Russian launches, but they are tentative at best.[iv] Others say definitely that GBIs in Poland would not have the capacity to reach the Russian warhead flight path in time.[v]The Americans have said that if the focus was Russian ICBMs, England and further west would be a far the better location ( Baffin Island !?).

On the other hand, if the American focus is Iran (remember, we’re still pretending the system actually works), then Poland is a logical location inasmuch as the flight path of an Iranian missile headed for Washington, were such a thing to actually exist, would take it directly over Poland with enough time for the interceptors to be fired into the path of the Iranian warhead (or at least one of the decoys).

In any event, the audience for Mr. Putin’s protestations is his domestic constituency, not the White House. For him to be dismissive of this faux American threat he would have to forgo the opportunity to foster an image of Russian toughness in the face of an irresponsible and reckless US Administration.[vi]

And speaking of President George W. Bush, he is almost too easy a target. But he remains diligent in earning the world’s opprobrium – not so much for his dogged pursuit of missile defence in the face of overwhelming expert testimony that it will never be made effective (that makes it is a colossal waste of money, but given their current war-spending and annual deficits, Americans seem fully inured to waste), but for doing it in a unilateral, arms-control-destroying, and political-cooperation-defying way.

And it is not only Russia to which Mr. Bush gives offence and an excuse to avoid disarmament commitments. The United States says it wants China to agree to negotiate a treaty banning further production of fissile materials, but does Mr. Bush really think he can persuade China to take action to cap its stocks of fissile material through a legally binding treaty if it believes that America is committed to perfecting its strategic first-strike capability and link it to an upscalable missile defence system that could theoretically defang China’s nuclear forces? As long as the US continues to modernize its nuclear forces while pursuing missile defence, China will have little incentive to cooperate.

Had Mr. Bush genuinely wanted a BMD system as a hedge against rogue states far into the future, he would have done long ago what he has now, at the German G8 meeting, agreed to – and that is present missile defence as an instrument of cooperation with Russia, and China , rather than as a tension escalator.[vii] Even supporters of missile defence make this point: “If the President wants to make creating a third missile defense site part of his legacy, he can still contribute – by setting up a formal NATO process to study the idea and give our allies a greater voice in the debate. We should also involve Russia in the discussion, especially as good diplomacy might be able to turn it into a supporter rather than an opponent of the plan.”[viii]

Instead, while Mr. Bush gave Mr. Putin an opportunity to work the polls at home,[ix]he also managed to push nuclear disarmament even further down his To Do list.

While sharing the blame, we should also not forget the Republican Presidential hopefuls who turn out to be almost unanimous in their declared willingness to use nuclear weapons against Iran if it persists in pursuing a nuclear weapon capability.[x]In concert with the Administration in Washington , the Republicans believe that it is possible to threaten states into disarming. All the while, of course, Iran sees that the US does not make the same threat against states that actually do acquire nuclear weapons, e.g. North Korea and India , but reserves its threats for those it accuses of trying.

The lesson is clear, and President Mahmoud Ahamdinejad of Iran has been diligent in learning it. Iran could obviously undercut the US rationale for missile defence in a flash if it would simply agree to full and unfettered cooperation with the IAEA. Of course it doesn’t, and so the cycle of threat and counter-threat is fed, derailing nuclear disarmament and a host of genuine opportunities to pursue real world problems in both the Middle East and Russia .

Putin, Bush, the Republican aspirants to global leadership, and Ahmadinejad are in full cooperation mode to keep threat and counter-threat alive and to position themselves as the heroic defenders of the threatened rights and security of their respective publics.

The late news flash that the US and Russia will now seek to cooperate on missile defence brings to mind the oft-quoted African proverb: be careful when two elephants get together, because whether they decide to fight or make love, a lot of grass is bound to get trampled. It is almost twenty years since the Berlin Wall was dismantled, but with Russia and the US still placing nuclear arsenals at the core of their relationship, whether to balance them or defend against them, a lot of political, economic, and security grass continues to get the life trampled out of it.


[i] David Wright, ” President Putin Needn’t Worry About a U.S. Missile Defense System: It Won’t Work, Says Leading U.S. Science Group ,” June 6/07, Union of Concerned Scientists

(http://www.ucsusa.org/news/commentary/president-putin-neednt-worry-0036.html).

[ii] Donna Miles, “Putin Baffles Gates With Missiles in Eastern Europe ,” American Forces Press Service (http://www.sitemason.com/newspub/dtWzug?id=46198&mode=print).

[iii] William Matthews, “As U.S., Russia Spar Over Missile Defense, Congress Cuts Funding”:”The missiles would, indeed, “be incapable of intercepting Russian missiles aimed at the United States ,” said Boese. “Russian missiles would be fired over the North Pole to reach the United States. Anti-ballistic missiles fired from Poland would be chasing them and could not catch up. Besides, 10 interceptors would be no match for a barrage of Russian missiles.” http://www.defensenews.com/story.php?F=2797079&C=europe

[iv] “Missile defense interceptors in Poland” – “Although it is true that Poland is not exactly on the flight path of Russian missiles, it is close enough to give interceptors deployed there a chance to reach SS-19/UR-100NUTTH ICBMs launched from the Koselsk or Tatishchevo bases. SS-27 Topol-M missiles based in Tatishchevo, as well as SS-25 Topol in Vypolzovo and Teykovo also may be within the interceptors reach.” http://russianforces.org/

[v] Vladimir Belous, The Missile-Defense Flap ,” RIA Novosti, Moscow , April 11, 2007 (http://www.spacewar.com/reports/The_Missile_Defense_Flap_999.html).”But the snag for the United States is that the strategic missiles deployed in European Russia — mobile and silo-based Topol-M (NATO reporting name SS-27) missiles and Stilet missiles — make too quick a getaway to be intercepted by U.S. anti-missiles. Solid-fueled Topols (SS-25 Sickle) have a launch speed of 5 km/sec, and liquid-fueled Stilets, 4.5 km/sec, compared with the 3.5 km/sec of ground-based interceptors. GBIs cannot catch up with Russian strategic missiles because they are too slow and too far from where the missiles would be launched. And the trick could never be pulled off outside the atmosphere, because Topol and Stilet warheads have even faster speeds there.” http://www.spacewar.com/reports/The_Missile_Defense_Flap_999.html

[vi] ABC News, “Leaders spar in war of words over missile defense system at summit”: “Putin rightly understands that the U.S. is weak and discredited around the world, and therefore he can make points on the world stage” (http://abclocal.go.com/ktrk/story?section=nation_world&id=5373927).

[vii] Jennifer Loven, “Putin tells Bush to put missile shield in Azerbaijan ,” Associated Press, Winnipege Free Press, June 7, 2007(http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/world/story/3983664p-4599862c.html).

[viii] Michael O’Hanlon, “A Defense We Just Don’t Need (Yet),” The New York Times, May 17, 2007 (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/17/opinion/17ohanlon.html?ex=1337054400&en=e45e98aa13d55c3a&ei=5088&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss).

[ix] Tom Miles, “‚ÄòCold War’ talk sets the scene for polls in Russia ,” 7 June, 2007 (http://www.gulf-times.com/site/topics/article.asp?cu_no=2&item_no=153621&version=1&template_id=46&parent_id=26). Gennady Gerasimov, Soviet spokesman at the end of the Cold War, sees a clever game by Putin. “It’s all about psychology. It’s not really serious. It’s not a Cold War, no,” said Gerasimov, who is now retired from government service. “He wants the West to take him seriously.” Putin had an interest in making a fuss over missile defence even if it presented no threat, Gerasimov said. “This helps him to take the position of the defender of Russia , which is a victim of American aggression. If you take into account anti-Americanism all over the world, you can also interpret this as something which plays in Putin’s hands.
“It helps him to stay in power and to increase his power.” Andrei Illarionov, once Putin’s top economic aide, agreed. “Russia is pursuing a deliberate policy aimed at putting a strain on relations with G7,” Interfax quoted him as saying. The outspoken economist said Putin’s strategy was “to provoke (G8 leaders) to make harsh statements or even take steps that could be interpreted as interference in domestic affairs.”
This would allow the Kremlin to “declare the West an enemy and to mobilise the electorate”, he added. – Reuters

[x] William Arkin, “Nuking Iran : The Republican Agenda?” The Washington Post, June 6/07 (http://blog.washingtonpost.com/earlywarning/2007/06/nuking_iran_the_republican_age_1.html#more).

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