In a welcome move US President Barack Obama has decided to shelve the previous administration's specific plans for a European Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system. In scrapping the Bush plan Obama seeks to put an alternative system in its place. Some have argued that Obama has scrapped Bush era European Ballistic Missile Defense entirely as a concession to Russia.
In response a bevy of high ranking administration officials and former Clinton administration policy makers, such as Bob Gates, Hillary Clinton and Strobe Talbott have argued that Obama has not so much scrapped European Ballistic Missile Defense as he has rationalised it. Furthermore, this decision was not made as a gesture towards Russia's unwarranted concerns, but was purely technical and based on new intelligence assessments.
Just how radical is Obama's decision, and what might we say about its underlying rationale?
The first thing we should point out is that Russia's concerns about the previous system, although over the top, did have some merit. For instance the X-Band radar that was to be placed in Europe would have had the ability to provide useful information on the telemetry of Russian ballistic missile tests. This is especially the case at that period of flight when the test missile's dummy warhead separates from the bus. The Pentagon could use this information to try and develop a system to beat Russian countermeasures, to which we return.
Ted Postol, a highly regarded physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has also shown that the GMD interceptors that were to be placed in Poland under the Bush plan would have had the ability to catch and intercept Russian long-range missiles headed for the east coast of the United States. Postol's analysis is based on a crucial operating assumption (which he does not accept), namely that the system would work as the US Missile Defense Agency claims it would work.
To be sure the Bush plan envisaged that these interceptors would be capped at 10, nowhere near enough to prevent a Russian first strike. However, the problem with BMD is not its effects on first strike dynamics, but its potential (again if it works as advertised) to blunt a second strike and thereby possibly deny Russia a second strike deterrent capability. Under Bush's Ballistic Missile Defense policy, NSPD-23, 10 need not be seen as a limit.
Any Russian strategic planner, no matter what his scientists might tell him about the system's true capability, would need to take its advertised capabilities seriously and plan accordingly. It is for this reason that the Bush BMD plan partly acted as a break on further strategic arms control even though the Russian reaction went overboard. Scrapping this specific plan opens up the prospect for a successful US-Russia arms control accord, which is to be welcomed.
The Obama alternative is built around the SM-3 interceptor. It actually trades the Bush GMD plan for a SM-3 based plan directed southwards, which includes a less troublesome radar component from the Russian perspective. It has been argued that contrary to the GMD interceptor the SM-3 is a well tested capability and would be able to intercept Iranian missiles headed for Europe with much higher confidence. This is the technical argument used to support the Obama decision. This claim is not accurate. Like the GMD the SM-3 system is an exo-atmospheric based BMD capability. Although the SM-3 has been put through its paces in tests we should note that these tests were not based on combat conditions.
It has not been demonstrated that any exo-atmospheric based interception system would be able to defeat countermeasures, such as decoys. Many analysts have argued that BMD tests are designed such that this challenging task is avoided in order to prevent Congressional defunding. The technical argument is not as water tight as administration officials would have us believe. If the system cannot defeat countermeasures then nuclear strikes remain a possibility. Only one such strike need be successful in order to defeat the entire system.
European BMD has always been justified with respect to the Iranian missile threat. The Bush system was to provide protection for Europe, but more so for the east coast of the United States, from Iranian long-range missiles. Upon review the Obama administration argues that this specific threat has been slow to emerge and that Iranian medium-range missiles, such as the Shahab-3, are much more serious at this time and over the medium term.
The first thing that we might say here is that this demonstrates the overly pessimistic intelligence analysis used to support the previous plan. It really is a stunning repudiation of one of the most important justificatory studies behind BMD, namely the 1998 Rumsfeld Commission report. The Rumsfeld report clearly was based on a far too pessimistic analysis of what states like Iran and North Korea could do with Scud missile based technology, as has been pointed out from the get go by critics.
Second, usage of the phrase "missile threat" is highly misleading. The threat should be seen as a "warhead threat". Even more to the point the threat is supposed to be a nuclear warhead based threat. According to the latest US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's nuclear program (2007) Iran halted a nuclear warhead program in the fall of 2003 (a high confidence conclusion).
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