March 14, 2008
By Peter Brookes
After seemingly endless rounds of talks with its Polish and
Czech counterparts about fielding a missile defense system in
Europe, the United States made some progress in early February when
Warsaw and Washington jointly announced they had reached an
agreement-in principle-to move forward with the deployment of ten
interceptors in Poland.
The devil, without a doubt, is in the details. The Poles are
pushing for a deal which includes American support for bolstering
their air defenses (likely in the form of PAC-3 batteries), a
reflection of their fears of rising Russian animosity. (The Czech
Republic also has to come to agreement with the United States, but
will likely move in concert with its Polish neighbors.)
With Iran continuing to enrich uranium, the possibility of
"loose nukes" in Pakistan, and a spate of ballistic missile tests
(by Russia, China and Iran, among others) over the past year, the
announcement of an agreement is undoubtedly good news. Concluding a
deal this year will serve to bolster transatlantic security and
protect the United States and Europe from the growing threat of
long-range ballistic missiles and the unconventional payloads they
But this deal will not go unopposed. Public opinion in Poland
and the Czech Republic is shaky, NATO member countries are not
fully on board, and the Russians will continue their vociferous
opposition. The Kremlin has not been shy about expressing its
opinion that a European missile defense system is a serious threat
to Russian interests. Indeed, days before the Warsaw-Washington
deal was announced, almost as if anticipating a breakthrough in
talks, a top Russian general said Moscow may restructure its
military presence in the Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, which
borders both Poland and Lithuania, in response to missile defense
plans for Eastern Europe. This is sure to rattle nerves in the
Despite the Kremlin's growling, the Bush administration sees the
deployment of a missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech
Republic-also known as the "third site"-as critical to blunting the
growing worldwide ballistic missile threat, protecting the homeland
and defending its European allies. Indeed, as President George W.
Bush said in a speech at the National Defense University in late
October: "The need for missile defense in Europe is real and I
believe it's urgent."
But it is also a race against the clock. The recent U.S.
National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the supposedly dormant
state of Iran's nuclear weapons program notwithstanding, the
American intelligence community believes Iran could have an
intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of striking the
United States by 2015. (Notably, the NIE's findings are the
subject of considerable debate at home and abroad; if its critics
are correct, an Iranian missile could be mated with a nuclear
warhead by this time as well.) These estimates, of course, do not
take into account the possibility of a Manhattan Project-like
effort by Iran, which could decrease the time needed to reach
initial operating capability for either the missile or nuclear
program. Nor do these dates take into account outside assistance,
which might accelerate both programs. The most likely candidates
for making that happen are North Korea (both missiles and nuclear)
or the remnants of the Pakistani A. Q. Khan nuclear proliferation
According to the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency (MDA), if the
green light were given today by all concerned to break ground for
the Eastern European missile defense sites, the earliest the system
could be fully operational would be 2013. The inking of final
agreements and likely American congressional debates over funding
will only push that timeline out further.
Indeed, the ballistic missile and nuclear proliferation trend,
in general, is not positive. Ten years ago, there were only six
nuclear weapons states. Today there are nine. Twenty-five years
ago, nine countries had ballistic missiles. Today, 27 do. Concerns
about Iran's programs will only exacerbate the situation, as
countries-especially those in the Arab Middle East-seek to balance
Iran's rise. Of course, none of these arguments are likely to
convince the Russians of the need for missile defenses in Eastern
Russian-American relations since the fall of the Berlin Wall
have not really changed all that much. During the Cold War, the
security relationship was characterized as one of mutually assured
destruction (MAD). Today, it's still MAD-but now the relationship
is one of mutually assured distrust. And nothing is making Russia's
ties with the United States or Europe more suspicious-and
contentious-than the simmering disagreement over Washington's plans
to deploy anti-missile capabilities in Eastern Europe.
Although the Kremlin agreed to move beyond the Cold War
strategic balance of power with the signing of the 2002 Moscow
Treaty, Russian President Vladimir Putin has had a significant
change of heart about missile defenses, especially those of other
parties. Indeed, Putin drew parallels at an October European Union
(EU) summit between the plans for an Eastern European missile
shield and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, which saw the two sides
go to the brink of nuclear war. A day later, the commander of
the Russian Strategic Missile Forces, Col. Gen. Nikolai Solovtsov,
warned that Moscow could restart the production of short- and
medium-range missiles on short notice if directed, raising fears of
rising major power tensions.
Russia strongly objects to the U.S. proposal to install a
high-tech X-band radar in the Czech Republic and deploy ten
ground-based interceptors in Poland, claiming the defensive missile
system would cause an "arms race" and turn Europe into a "powder
keg." The Kremlin also insists the limited system would undermine
Russia's nuclear deterrent, despite the fact that a Russian
land-based nuclear strike on the United States would not be
launched on a trajectory over Poland, but would fly toward its
American targets over the North Pole, or Iceland and Greenland,
depending on the targets.
In fact, according to the MDA, the proposed kinetic kill vehicle
designated for deployment in Poland is simply not fast enough to
catch a Russian land-based ICBM in a tail-chase scenario. These
interceptors, therefore, would have no capability against Russia's
sea- or air-based deterrence capabilities. (Interestingly, at the
time, Moscow did not object to the U.S. decision six years ago to
deploy missile defenses at California's Vandenberg Air Force Base
and Alaska's Fort Greely to counteract the still-evolving North
Korean nuclear and ballistic missile threat.)
Possibly more fearful of the radar, which Moscow believes could
give NATO intelligence on Russian maneuvers and weapons testing,
Putin suggested to Bush last spring that the United States and
Russia share an early-warning radar at Gabala, Azerbaijan, instead
of building the Czech radar. But the leased, Soviet-era facility
will not even come close to matching the American radar's tracking
capabilities, according to expert estimates.
Putin has also suggested the United States put its Eastern
European missile defense interceptors in Iraq or Turkey instead of
Eastern Europe. As well, Russia recommended that the United States
target Iranian missiles using U.S. Navy Aegis-class ships, equipped
with the upgraded SM-3 missiles. (The latter is, in fact, a viable
option. On the positive side, there are fewer political-military
issues like basing to deal with, since U.S. Navy ships would be
operating in international waters. But there are technical
questions about the capabilities of current interceptors, concerns
about ship deployment schedules, and, of course, no lack of
parochialism within the U.S. Department of Defense.)
Not getting any traction on those offers, Putin made another
counteroffer while with Bush in Maine in early July: a regional
missile defense with a radar facility in southern Russia under the
control of the NATO-Russia Council. In October, Defense Secretary
Robert Gates made his own rejoinder, offering that the Eastern
European system would not be activated until the United States and
Russia could agree that an Iranian threat existed. (Hearing howls
of protest from inside the Beltway about leaving U.S. national
security to Russian discretion, Washington has since backed away
from that idea.)
Making matters worse, Moscow has threatened to vacate a number
of arms control treaties on account of the missile defense
facilities in Eastern Europe, including the Intermediate-Range
Nuclear Forces (INF) and Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE)
accords. It made good on its threat to leave the latter in December
2007. The INF Treaty may be the next to fall.
Yet despite the proposals, counterproposals and threats of
vacating treaties, neither Washington nor Moscow seems willing to
abandon its position for-or against-the planned Eastern European
sites. But it's not just about the United States and Russia.
All of this political jousting over missile defense is having an
effect on the security debate in Europe, especially in Poland and
the Czech Republic, as well as within NATO. In Poland, domestic
public opinion is not entirely convinced about the need for missile
defense. The Poles are less enamored with America than they were
previously, partly as a result of the protracted conflict in Iraq.
They also question the threat emanating from Iran, nor do they want
to be dragged into a dust-up between Washington and Tehran.
Not surprisingly, the Polish national security
establishment-worried about taking a ration of Russian wrath
without appropriate compensation-wants to extract all it can from
the United States for allowing the placement of interceptors on
Polish soil near Slupsk on the Baltic coast. Although positive
about closer defense ties with Washington, and by extension NATO,
Warsaw has not been subtle about wanting deal "sweeteners" in
exchange for hosting the missiles. The Poles have expressed
interest in PAC-3 and THAAD missile-defense systems, defense
modernization assistance and more intelligence-sharing, among other
issues. Poland is already the largest recipient of U.S. military
aid in Europe, but it has lingering concerns about the commitment
of the NATO Alliance to its defense should Russia want to play
rough (not surprisingly, considering the Polish experience with its
British and French allies in World War II).
The X-band midcourse radar in the Czech Republic, to be located
in the Brdy military district near a former Soviet base west of
Prague, is not without controversy either. While the ruling
government supports the missile defense radar, concerns exist among
the Czech public, especially about the system's environmental and
health effects. Czech opposition parties are calling for a national
referendum on the issue-and for the European Union and NATO to play
a larger role in European missile defense plans.
NATO has generally considered the talks among Washington, Warsaw
and Prague to be bilateral issues, and has chosen not to interfere.
Indeed, in general, NATO has expressed support for missile defense
in Europe, especially against short- and medium-range missiles.
NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer stated after the April
North Atlantic Council meeting: "There is absolutely a shared
threat perception between the allies. Allies all agree that there
is a threat from ballistic missiles." Subsequently, at a meeting of
NATO's 26 defense chiefs in June 2007, the Alliance agreed to
assess the political and military implications of missile defense
in Europe in a report due in February. The NATO summit in Bucharest
this spring could therefore be a key meeting for missile defense on
While NATO is actively studying short- and medium-range
ballistic missile defense programs for Europe, France and Germany
have expressed concern about the deployment of assets "in theater"
that are not controlled by NATO. The European Parliament has also
asked for a say on missile defense. Europeans fear that missile
defense will provoke Moscow on other thorny issues, such as
Europe's energy security, which is heavily dependent on Russian
natural gas, or on the question of Kosovo's independence from
Serbia, which the Kremlin opposes, and on future NATO expansion
(e.g., Ukraine and Georgia).
But Russian anxiety about the Eastern European missile shield is
more likely about the placement of the system in what it perceives
as its old stomping grounds than any real strategic concerns. The
supposed threat from missile defense could also provide a
convenient excuse for the $200 billion defense build-up the Russian
military is now undergoing following years of abject neglect of the
once-mighty Red Army. Not even taking into account the sea and air
legs of its strategic nuclear triad, the Kremlin should realize
that the currently configured system could not deal with a massive
Russian nuclear assault on the United States.
It is likely the Kremlin will try to leverage public sentiment
in Eastern Europe and NATO countries to get impressionable,
democratically-elected governments to back down on missile defense.
Moscow will also try to make missile defense a wedge issue to
divide Europe, undermine NATO and weaken transatlantic relations,
all while carving out a sphere of political and military influence
for itself. Worst of all, Russia might deepen its nuclear
cooperation with Iran, beyond building and fueling Iran's Bushehr
reactor, as a bargaining chip against missile defense. Notably,
both Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made trips to
Tehran in October within weeks of one another. It was the first
visit of a Russian leader to Iran since Stalin met with the Allies
in Tehran in 1943. Military sales, such as the highly-capable S-300
air defense system, have also been recently rumored to be in the
works, adding to previous deals for Russian equipment.
It appears the Russians will do all they can to prevent the
deployment of missile defense in Eastern Europe-maybe all of
Europe. Although hope may spring eternal, it is unlikely an
increasingly confident Kremlin is going to change its position.
In recent years, the United States decided that leaving itself
deliberately vulnerable to any weapon system or state, as it did
during the Cold War, was foolish. And rightfully so. Deliberate
vulnerability can lead to perceptions of weakness, inviting
provocation or aggression from another nation or transnational
actor. In addition, being perceived as weak and vulnerable can lead
a potential adversary to use threats, intimidation, "blackmail" or
coercion to achieve its objectives. In a day when North Korea is a
nuclear weapons state and Iran is still very likely on the path to
becoming one, the chance that these weapons will be used against
peaceful nations is a troubling but very real possibility.
Every state has an undeniable right to self-defense-and it only
makes sense that all reasonable, necessary steps are taken to
protect one's national security. It is even more logical if the
capability is emerging to do so, as witnessed by over 30 successful
missile defense tests to date by the United States alone. As these
tests have shown, hitting a bullet with a bullet in the atmosphere,
or even in space, is in fact possible.
But even though rogue states like North Korea and Iran are good
examples of the need for missile defense today, developing and
deploying such capabilities is not about the missile or a weapon of
mass destruction threat from a single country, or even several.
Rather, missile defense is about protection from these weapons no
matter where the threat comes from, now or in the future.
There are other advantages to fielding a missile defense system
in Europe for the United States, too. Hosting a transatlantic
missile defense system will deepen, and further unify, the security
relationship between European NATO members, especially Poland and
the Czech Republic, and the United States, enhancing our mutual
national security against external threats from ballistic missiles
and weapons of mass destruction. And despite the range of concerns
about missile defense, it should be emphasized that missile defense
is a defensive-not offensive-weapon. Indeed, the dominant design of
the missile defense interceptor warhead does not even contain an
explosive charge; traveling at 15,000 miles per hour, it destroys
the missile warhead by the sheer force of the collision. Therefore,
the idea that missile defense is an offensive system, as many have
suggested, is patently false. In a way, missile defense is like an
umbrella; it is only needed if it rains.
This means that missile defense threatens no one. Missile
defense only undermines the capability of one country to threaten
or attack another with its ballistic missiles. The idea that the
deployment of missile defenses in Europe will provoke an attack
against Poland, the Czech Republic or any country that hosts them
(including the United Kingdom or Denmark, which have missile
defense radars) is a canard meant to encourage passivity. Defensive
systems do not provoke attack. It is vulnerability or weakness that
invites attack, not resolve and strength.
The United States-and others-have made it clear to Russia that
missile defense does not threaten Russian security. Talks have
emphasized that missile defense is part of an expanding effort in
Europe to counter the growing ballistic missile threat-wherever it
may come from. Of course, Russia should not expect to have a veto
over European or American security-nor should that right be
surrendered by the United States or Europe. Indeed, Moscow would do
better to turn with its protests toward Tehran and Pyongyang,
capitals that are driving the need for missile defense because of
their growing offensive ballistic missile capability. Moreover,
some security analysts have speculated-though cautiously-that the
successful deployment of such effective defenses may one day
convince countries like Iran and North Korea that their pursuit of
missiles and weapons of mass destruction should be abandoned as
futile endeavors. Mutually assured destruction or massive
retaliation should not be the only policy options.
In the end, it is clear: missile defenses will improve America's
security, and that of Europe, against the growing challenge of
ballistic missiles and their unconventional payloads. It is high
time the Americans, Poles and Czechs strike a final deal for
deployment, enhancing both transatlantic ties and our common
Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and
former US deputy assistant secretary of defense.
"Russia May Restructure Forces in Kaliningrad Region in Response to
U.S. Missile Defense Plans," Interfax-AVN (Moscow), January 30,
President George W. Bush, Remarks before the National Defense
University, Washington, DC, October 23, 2007, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2007/10/20071023-3.html.
Admiral Lowell E. Jacoby, "Current and Projected National Security
Threats to the United States," Statement before the Senate Armed
Services Committee, March 17, 2005, http://www.dia.mil/publicaffairs/Testimonies/statement17.html.
Patricia Saunders, "Missile Defense Program
Overview," presentation before the 4th International Conference on
Missile Defense, Washington, DC, June 26, 2007, 14.
EU Summit, Putin Evokes Cuban Missile Crisis," Associated Press,
October 25, 2007, http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2007/10/26/europe/EU-GEN-EU-Russia-Summit.php.
"Russian General: Country Can Quickly Resume
Intermediate-Range Missile Production," VOA News, October 27, 2007,
Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, press conference after
reinforced meetings of the North Atlantic Council and the
NATO-Russia Council discussing missile defense, Brussels, Belgium,
April 19, 2007, http://www.nato.int/docu/speech/2007/s070419a.html.
"NATO Agrees on Missile Defence Way Forward," North Atlantic Treaty
Organization News, June 14, 2007, http://www.nato.int/docu/update/2007/06-june/e0614a.html.
First appeared in the Journal of International Security Affairs
After seemingly endless rounds of talks with its Polish and Czech counterparts about fielding a missile defense system in Europe, the United States made some progressin early February when Warsaw and Washington jointly announced they had reached an agreement—in principle—to move forward with the deployment of ten interceptors in Poland.
Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
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