US missile shield in Europe: Logic or mere Provocation?

By David Eshel - Updated June 6, 2007

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Although US President George W Bush tried hard to pacify Russia that his sponsored missile shield in Europe was by no means any threat to Moscow, President Vladimir Putin did not buy Washington's version. At the weekend, Putin told Western media that Russia may point its own missiles at European targets should the US push ahead with missile shield bases in Poland. Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov slammed a US plan to deploy missile defense hardware in Poland and the Czech Republic, which has infuriated Moscow in spite of Washington's insistence it poses no threat to the Russian mainland.

After repeated warnings from Russia that the US plan would set off a new "arms race," Russia tested a new multi-warhead missile last week that President Vladimir Putin said was a direct response to US actions. Tensions over the plan have helped send relations between the two states to what many analysts call a post-Cold War low just before Putin and US President George W. Bush meet at this week's Group of Eight summit.

Russian Topol M MissileRussia's Defense Ministry, meanwhile, announced that the new intercontinental ballistic missile was featuring multiple warheads designed to overcome Western missile defense systems, such as to be deployed in Poland and Czechoslovakia. According to intelligence reports, monitoring the launch, which took place, last Tuesday, from the Russian missile test base at the Plesetsk cosmodrome in northern Russia, it was claimed that the missile hit its target 3400miles away in the Kamchatka peninsula. The missile, designated RS-24, can be armed with up to 10 warheads and was designed to evade missile defense systems, the Russian defense ministry says. According to an official Moscow statement, the missile is aimed to replace two aging ICBM systems - the RS-18 and RS-20, known in the West as the SS-19 Stiletto and SS-18 Satan, respectively. Western intelligence analysts claim, though, that the latest Russian missile test has more to do with Russia's plans to modernize its aging nuclear force than its complaints about the proposed US missile defense shield in Europe, which US officials say could not intercept Russian missiles. Of particular concern to Russia is the treaty between the US and the then Soviet Union that banned intermediate range nuclear weapons, he writes. This treaty is still in force and applies only to the US and Russia.

However, in Washington's latest political game of theater of the absurd, the Bush administration recently announced its extended ballistic-missile-defense program, a wildly expensive and no less ineffective venture, under which the Pentagon plans to deploy a new set of interceptors in Europe, probably in Poland or the Czech Republic, for the purpose of shooting down Iranian missiles. Already becoming a hot topic in Europe, the new Bush Plan involves the same rocket boosters and interceptors that the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency is currently fielding at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, with the same grave flaws and incalculable uncertainties. The obvious result is, that it has already created one of the most sensitive issues in US-Russian relations and even among NATO partners in Europe.

In fact, Moscow is raising highly suspicious eyebrows at the prospect of U.S. missile bases appearing near the Russian borders, not even pretending to be satisfied by the official story of the need to repel potential Iranian and North Korean ballistic missile attacks. But if this ambitious project is not enough, according to a US official, the Pentagon plans further to deploy mobile radar stations in the Caucasus, probably in Azerbaijan, Armenia or Georgia, which could detect missile launches in Iran and North Korea and transmit data to a radar station in the Czech Republic. Although the official did not specify which of the three countries would likely host the radar units, Russian officials believe that the host would be Georgia. Last Friday, an official source in Moscow warned former Soviet republics in the Caucasus against hosting any parts of a controversial U.S. anti-missile shield.

To defend against threats coming eastwards, the US has positioned an X-Band radar to detect, track, discriminate and engage potential targets over the pacific ocean, as they fly in space towards the West Coast. However, protecting against missiles fired westward or to a polar trajectory, radars should be positioned in the area, i.e. in Europea and central Asia.
According to the Pentagon project, a powerful tracking radar will be installed in the Czech Republic and PAC-3 Patriot anti-missile defense systems specially designed to intercept ballistic missiles and their warheads will be deployed in Poland. Further plans include expanding the European part of the antimissile system and integrating it into the U.S.-created global ‘missile shield.’ European analysts suspect, that the proposed system could hardly enhance European security, as the skeptic named, "Son of Star Wars" umbrella, will entirely work to protect US territory.

U.S. strategic doctrine, a philosophy that long predates the Cold War, has always aimed to push threats away from the continental United States. This was achieved initially by securing U.S. sovereignty over the North American land mass, gaining strategic depth and controlling sea approaches. Eventually, this strategy would call for the United States to project power into Eurasia itself, in order to establish as much stand-off distance as possible. In the early 20th century, naval power alone, allowed the United States to achieve this aim, but in the early 21st century, with the proliferation of intercontinental ballistic missile technology, by so-called "rogue' states, a changed concept became imperative.

Each time Moscow sees itself threatened by outside aggression, as in the case of the U.S. proposed missile shield, it has always, in the past, taken effective countermeasures to ensure its territorial integrity and security is maintained

The second layer involves missile interceptors or AEGIS systems to strike during the midcourse of the missile's flight.The ultimate United States missile defense concept is seeking a layered network. The first layer of defense - which most likely would include airborne lasers at some point - would be sited as close to the launching states as possible, allowing the system to target any missile launches during the boost phase. The second layer involves missile interceptors or AEGIS systems to strike during the midcourse of the missile's flight, followed by terminal phase engagement with anti-missile systems, such as the PAC-3, the latest incarnation of the Patriot system.
The projection of ICBM is also the key to understanding Washington's logic. Any missile launched from Iran and bound for the continental United States would have to fly over Central Europe - which is why the United States has pending agreements to set up an interceptor base in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic. Similarly, any North Korean missile would have to fly over Alaska, the other major BMD interceptor locale, where the present missile defense system is established.

Ground Based Interceptor emplaced in an ABM silo at Ft Greely, Alaska. A question, which has been asked repeatedly, is why European nations have sofar been reluctant to develop their own missile umbrella. The unquestionable fact is, unfortunately, that America's European allies have sofar failed to support their own national missile defense, traditionally due to a strategic concept, that most European states are unlikely to wage war against the emerging ballistic missile powers, including Iran and North Korea. Thus Europe has not invested the necessary funding priorities to pursue national missile defense systems that could counter long-range ballistic missiles of the kind that North Korea, Iran, and formerly Saddam's Iraq were expected to wield.

A single European project, called Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS), a joint U.S.-German-Italian program, built around the latest modification of the U.S. Patriot air-defense missile, called PAC 3 is the only venture in this domain. Compared with the exotica of the multiphase missile-defense program, MEADS is fairly simple technology, consisting of a radar network which tracks the enemy missile's flight; an anti-missile missile tries to shoot it down. Yet even this project has been stalled by political and technical obstacles. One has to wait and see, Whether German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier's declaration, last Monday, that Europe was considering its own missile defense system, parallel to a shield the United States wants to put up in Eastern Europe,will finally mature into a new initiative.

But even President Bush's European Missile Shield project will not meet "plain sailing" in its implementation. To consider Moscow's verbal response to the anti missiles scheme as mere "sabre-rattling", would be too cursory. In fact, a glance at the map demonstrates or highlights the nature of the perceived threat in Moscow. Looking at it from Russia's angle the country will be practically surrounded as almost never before in its history. The problem is, that each time Moscow sees itself threatened by outside aggression, as in the case of the U.S. proposed missile shield, it has always, in the past, taken effective countermeasures to ensure its territorial integrity and security is maintained. There is little doubt that establishing a BMD system on Russia's doorstep would indeed be perceived as a potential long-term threat by Moscow.

The commander of Russia's strategic bomber force, Lt. General Igor Khvorov, said March 5, that his forces could easily disrupt or destroy any missile defense infrastructure in Poland and the Czech Republic - where the United States is preparing to set up parts of a ballistic missile defense system. And Khvorov was hardly the first Russian official to make such a threat: On Feb. 19, statements by Strategic Rocket Forces commander Colonel General Nikolai Solovtsov left little doubt that Moscow would target U.S. BMD sites with its nuclear arsenal if Washington pushes ahead with its plans.

However, as strange as it may sound, the more aggressive the Russian rhetoric sounds, the more willing Europeans will be to see strategic U.S. policy in their homeland. It seems that Russian sabre rattling no longer convinced the post-Cold War Europeans as before. But the "Russian Bear" should not be underestimated entirely either. In recent months Vladinir Putin’s rhetoric against the U.S. - supported by his notion of the U.S.’s overbearing, hegemonic, influence in global affairs - has risen to a near fever pitch. Experts on Russian politics, wonder, if Putin's warnings are good old ex-Soviet paranoia- after all they remind, that Vladimir is a product of the Soviet KGB? On the other hand, although Moscow is sending warning messages to its former vassal states in Europe, at the same time Putin said that Russia has nothing to fear from US missile defense systems because the new Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile has stealth characteristics that enable it to penetrate the American shield.

But a return to Cold War scenarios, although seemingly unrealistic should not be taken lightly altogether as intercontinental tension rises. Only three days before Putin’s bellicose speech in Munich, Sergei Borisovich Ivanov, Russia's first deputy prime minister, unveiled a 5 trillion rubles ($189 billion) military rearmament program. According to Ivanov, 45% of Russia's weapons will be replaced with new ones by 2015. Ivanov boasted that 17 new ICBMs would be procured in 2007. Although experts doubt that the Russian defense industry will be able to produce the modern weapons Russia military needs, there is a marked escalation in tension between Moscow and Washington these days. Russia’s General Nikolai Solovtsov has even gone so far as to threaten an effective withdrawal from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty, which forced the US and the Soviet Union to ban nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles.

Under these dubious circumstance, one must really wonder, whether on the two sides of the Atlantic another Cold War scenario is currently enfolding. With two eccentric politicians, a Russian and an American, both under growing internal pressure and closing in on new elections next year, are these men really willing to drag this already unstable world back into the long forgotten days, when MAD was created between the two nuclear superpowers?

Read David Eshel's past commentary here



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