Sunday, July 13, 2008

Missile defence

Getting to first base

Jul 10th 2008
From The Economist print edition

An American missile-defence radar in the Czech Republic infuriates Russia

IS IT wise to bargain hard with your best friend? This is the question for loyal Atlanticists of the Czech Republic and Poland, as they consider America’s planned missile-defence bases.

The Czech approach is that anything that bolsters the fraying transatlantic security relationship is welcome. Neither the European Union nor NATO seems like a fully reliable bulwark against a resurgent Russia, so hosting an important American radar base adds a valuable extra dimension to Czech security. Condoleezza Rice, America’s secretary of state, signed a deal on the radar this week in Prague. Although around two-thirds of Czechs oppose the radar, the government seems confident of surmounting the final hurdle, a vote in parliament.

The Polish approach is more muscular. In exchange for hosting a base with ten interceptor rockets (designed to deter any Iranian missile attack on America or Europe) the government has asked for billions of dollars to modernise its armed forces, plus Patriot air-defence missiles. Having first dismissed this out of hand, the Americans have shifted a bit, offering a temporary deployment of Patriots.

But no deal has yet been reached. Poland’s president (who wants a deal at any price) is embarrassingly at odds with the government (which doesn’t). Neighbouring Lithuania says it will happily host the missiles. The Americans sound huffy but are anxious to clinch the deal in time to give a rare foreign-policy success for the outgoing Bush presidency.

Yet success is not the word that leaps to every European lip. Some see the entire plan as divisive and unnecessary. America now portrays the missile-defence bases as a NATO project, but few see any difference. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s former president, threatened to target nuclear missiles on European countries that co-operated with the missile-defence plan. This week the Russian foreign ministry said that the response to an American deployment would be not merely diplomatic, but “military-technical”. That could mean bolstering Russian conventional forces in Kaliningrad, or in Belarus.

America swiftly rebuked Russia for its “bellicose rhetoric”. It says Russia has nothing to fear from the installations and has been offered the right to join the project. The Poles and Czechs already feel uneasy about this offer (made over their heads). They are also fretful about American politics. What if an Obama administration watered down or cancelled the plan, leaving those who supported it twisting in the wind from the east?


sols said...

The Economist is obviously no expert on missiles or, moreover, on missile defense. However, even without much technical knowledge common sense can be used to at least avoid meaningless statements.

1) First of all, ballistic missiles are very complex and very expensive systems. It would be impractical and even stupid if they were designed such that they could not be re-targeted very quickly.

Statement like "threatened to target nuclear missiles on European countries" do not have much technical or military meaning because nuclear missiles can obviously be targeted very quickly to anywhere in the world. Such threats are issued by politicians to frighten naive populace but it doesn't make sense to repeat them for intelligent publication such as The Economist.

2) The statement "designed to deter any Iranian missile attack on America or Europe" is laughable. Again, you don't need to know much about missiles or missile defense to understand that ground-based middle trajectory missile defense (as it would be if it was designed to protect US or let's say UK) is practically useless.

The reason for this is again flexibility of missile trajectory. Exactly the same missile can be programmed to fly at much higher altitude above the ground and still to hit the same target on the other side of the globe. This means that in the middle of the trajectory the warhead will be very high above the ground: thousands kilometers (or miles if you wish). Trying to strike a warhead at such altitude is very hard and impractical.

The drawbacks of high altitude trajectory are: relatively longer flight time and lower accuracy. However, this is a reasonable price to pay to avoid the missile defense altogether.

3) The previous point raises the question of why W. administration is pushing so hard against the popular resistance. Obviously, it's hard to imagine Iran wanting to strike Poland (or neighboring Germany) even if it had the long distance missiles and the nukes. If Iran wanted to strike something, they would attack Israel or US targets in the Middle East.

I must admit that I don't have much intelligent to say here: obviously goals stated by W. administration don't make sense. People raised some good points: military Lobby, trying to open as many military bases as possible, etc. but it's all just a guess-work.

Edward Lucas said...

If you read my book you will find some caustic criticism of the MD plan which in my view is the wrong answer to any threat from Iran. However if America wants to pay for it and the Czechs want to host it, that's their business. It clearly is not a threat to Russia as currently conceived (indeed it is probably not a threat even to Iran).

sols said...

Mr. Lucas, I am not going to read your book because I don't think I will find anything new in it. Your arguments are too predictable (and, of course, biased and russophobic as you admitted) to waste time on them.

Your post seems quite contradictory: your article apparently doesn't express your views on MD even though you stated that The Economist is a "viewpoint" magazine. So, what happened to your "viewpoint"? Why didn't you say that you believe MD is the wrong answer?

Also, you didn't mention in this article one important point: very successful diplomatic maneuvering by Putin (very rare case) to show that Bush's stated intention for MD to protect against Iran is a joke. As you know Putin suggested to use a radar in Azerbaijan, however, Bush refused saying that it would be "too close". When I asked my Iranian officemate about what Iranian press writes about MD he said they didn't care about it because after Azerbaijan offer was refused everybody in Iran understood MD is designed against Russia.

Finally, if I continue the logic line from you post then I can say that if Iran wants to buy S-300 anti-aircraft system and is ready to pay for it, then it's Iranian business which has nothing to do with US. Why did US officials issued “bellicose rhetoric” and threats to prevent sale of such system? Or if Russian bombers are going to be re-fueled in Cuba, then again it's business between Russia and Cuba. Why would US military object it?

Edward Lucas said...

If you read my book you will find sharp criticism of the MD plan, as an expensive technological boondoggle that benefits only American arms manufacturers. However, if American voters are willing to vote for politicians who will back it, and Czech voters will vote for politicians who will host it, that's their business. Cuba, by contrast, is a dictatorship.

Unknown said...

Weeellll, Mr Lucas, it isn't quite like that, is it? It is provocative and unnecessary. The Czech and Polish people are hardly demanding such a shield, are they? How about a referendum, rather than repeating the undemocratic ploys of the UK government (let us talk about Menwith Hill). Sounds to me like you are saying democracies can do no wrong becuase they are democratic. History, which isn't quite so neat or so shallow, tells us differently. It is wrong for the US to be provocative, it is wrong for Russia to be provocative (or Georgia). As Sols said, you can't have your cake and eat it ...