February 23, 2007
Alan W. Dowd
It’s uncanny how disparate events sometimes come together to prove the soundness of a policy. Consider what has transpired over the last fortnight-plus to validate the nascent international missile defense system (IMD) being constructed by the United States and its closest allies.
In Europe, the Czech and Polish governments signaled their readiness to move ahead with deploying key IMD elements on their soil—a radar-tracking facility in the Czech Republic and a bed of missile-interceptors in Poland to be completed by 2011 or 2012. “We have agreed that both countries are likely to give a positive response,” Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek announced on February 19.
Soon after Topolanek showed the world that he and his partners in Poland are ready to look forward, the grizzled commander of Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces forced us all to look backward—back to a time when the world was split between East and West, when Washington’s gain was Moscow’s loss, when Europeans and Americans and Russians braced for mutual destruction.
Trapped in the ice of a cold war that ended almost 20 years ago, Gen. Nikolai Solovtsov—playing to type, he actually resembles Nikita Khrushchev, but with hair—talked about withdrawing from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty and re-targeting the arsenal under his command to strike Poland and the Czech Republic. “The Strategic Missile Forces,” he said matter-of-factly, “will be capable of carrying out this task.”
Of course they are capable of that. Russian missiles can strike anywhere on earth. And the Polish and Czech and Russian and American governments know that. They also know that this system is not designed to shield Europe or North America from Russia’s vast arsenal of missiles, an arsenal that can launch thousands of warheads by air, land or sea. It’s designed to protect the U.S. and its friends from madmen in the Middle East and along the Mediterranean. Those radar stations on Czech soil will enable the IMD system to peer deep into Asia, the Middle East and Africa; those missile-killing interceptors in Poland will give American and allied cities a fighting chance in a century that promises not just to be terrified by long-range missiles, like the century past, but bloodied and scorched by these weapons.
The general’s not-so-vague threats came while his president’s Khrushchevian vitriol was still hanging heavy in the air. Vladimir Putin, the part-democrat/part-dictator who commands Russia, lashed out at the U.S. during a conference in Munich, claiming that “nobody feels safe anymore” because of Washington’s “unrestrained hyper-use of force” and “unilateral, illegitimate military actions.” For good measure, he scolded the U.S. for “trampling fundamental principles of international law” (this from the man who has flattened Chechnya, unleashed assassins to silence critics and rival heads-of-state, cut off fuel shipments into Europe, pumped arms into rogue regimes and refused to withdraw Russian troops from neighboring nations).
But perhaps it’s a good thing that Putin and his generals have given us a glimpse into their government’s paranoia. If this is how Moscow reacts to a wholly defensive system that has been openly developed, openly discussed and debated among America’s European allies, and openly and repeatedly explained to Russian policymakers (according to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, there have been ten formal IMD discussions between Washington and Moscow since spring 2006), then maybe Iran isn’t the only reason IMD’s time has come. Maybe, just maybe, IMD can be a safeguard against a stray Russian rocket—or a hedge against another Cold War with Moscow.
The pieces are starting to fall into place. Just this month, the ambidextrous U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) conducted an exercise involving land- and sea-based elements of the burgeoning system; the super-sophisticated X-Band Radar, which supports IMD by tracking small objects in space, arrived in Alaska after traveling from Hawaii, proving the system’s capacity to be deployed and redeployed based on possible threats to U.S. territory; and the Airborne Laser—a missile-killing laser mounted on a 747 that can loiter outside enemy territory and destroy a missile long before it threatens American soil—underwent flight testing of its beam control/fire control systems.
On the other side of the planet, somewhere above the Mediterranean Sea, the U.S. and Israel successfully intercepted a ballistic missile with their joint Arrow anti-missile system. According to the MDA, “This test marks the U.S./Israeli Arrow II program’s 13th success in 15 attempts.” (For the critics who dismiss such systems as failures because they achieve something less than perfection, 86.66 percent is much better than the 0-percent success rate we would have if we were to delay deployment until that unreachable day when the system is foolproof.)
If the Russians are uncertain about where the Czechs and Poles will aim their components of IMD, there is no doubt about where the Arrow II system is pointing. It’s a shield against Iran, one that may soon be put to the test in battle.
On February 19, Iran launched another in a series of provocative and reckless war games. The second large-scale exercise in as many months, these mock operations involved 60,000 men and 750 missiles of various ranges.
Recent Iranian military activity has been so purposely provocative or so poorly executed—neither alternative is comforting—that the U.S. military was forced to send additional assets into the crowded and strategic waters of the Persian Gulf just to protect the shipping lanes. According to Vice Adm. Patrick Walsh, Iran’s too-close-for-comfort military maneuvers have lunged “right around the jugular” of the vital waterway’s exit point at the Straits of Hormuz. As Walsh explained in a recent interview with AP, the shipping lanes in the Straits are just six miles wide.
During its spasm of war games, Iran has been firing Shahab-3 missiles, with a range of 800 miles, “very close to the traffic separation scheme in the Straits themselves,” according to Walsh. “This gives us concern because innocent passage of vessels now is threatened.”
The Iranians have another missile with a range of 1,250 miles, bringing parts of Europe within reach. The Congressional Research Service concludes that there is evidence Tehran has mated its more accurate, shorter-range missiles with chemical and biological weaponry. And Pentagon officials have reported that Iran test-fired a Scud variant from the deck of a ship, making the missile’s range unlimited.
Iran’s February war games were purposely timed to coincide with yet another UN deadline demanding that the mullahs suspend their uranium-enrichment activities. The deadline passed on February 21, predictably without much more than a few feckless words of consternation from UN diplomats. Perhaps they are too busy digesting yet another IAEA report, this one describing how Tehran is installing centrifuges capable of producing weapons-grade uranium.
Finally, amid all the nuclear brinkmanship and missile tests and war games, the European Union has apparently arrived at the same conclusion the Bush Administration privately accepted more than a year ago—that diplomacy is not enough to rein in Iran’s nuclear program. “The problems with Iran will not be resolved through economic sanctions alone,” an internal EU document conceded on February 12. Sounding more like George W. Bush than Javier Solana, the document added, “the Iranians have pursued their programme at their own pace, the limiting factor being technical difficulties rather than resolutions by the UN or the International Atomic Energy Agency.”
In other words, if the Europeans don’t join the U.S. in taking a more aggressive stance against Iran, they may need those IMD sites in Poland and the Czech Republic up and running much, much sooner than 2011.