Missile Defense Collision Course

By Kimball, Daryl G. | Arms Control Today, July/August 2007 | Go to article overview

Missile Defense Collision Course


Kimball, Daryl G., Arms Control Today


When President George W. Bush withdrew from the 1972 U.S.-Soviet Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty five years ago, he asserted that "my decision to withdraw from the treaty will not, in any way, undermine our new relationship or Russian security." Now, Bush's latest proposal to site 10 ground-based interceptors in Poland and an advanced radar in the Czech Republic has severely compounded the Kremlin's anxieties about growing U.S. offensive and defensive strategic capabilities.

President Vladimir Putin's response to missile defense deployments in two former Warsaw Pact states has been hostile and counterproductive: he has threatened to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; to target the sites with Russian missiles; and to stop work on a Joint Data Exchange Center intended to help avoid an accidental or mistaken nuclear attack.

For some Americans and Europeans, a rudimentary defense against a potential long-range missile threat from Iran may seem attractive. But for now, it is a flawed idea whose time has not come.

Russia's concerns may be exaggerated, but that does not alter the reality that the European anti-missile plan is premature and the technology unproven. And, if Washington presses ahead despite Russian objections, it could trigger the renewal of U.S.-Russian missile competition and hamper efforts to further reduce each nation's still massive nuclear warhead and missile arsenals.

In recent weeks, U.S. officials have crisscrossed Europe to say the proposed system is not designed to counter Russia's nuclear-armed missiles and therefore does not threaten Russia's security. To be sure, 10 U.S. interceptors would only provide a rudimentary defense against a handful of incoming missiles, let alone Russia's current force of some 500 land-based missiles. Highly scripted tests involving prototypes of ground-based interceptors now deployed in California and Alaska have failed three out of five times since 2002. The proposed system in Europe would use a new type of interceptor that has yet to be built, let alone tested.

But just as U.S. officials are seeking missile defenses against an Iranian missile threat that does not exist, Russian leaders are worried they cannot maintain their strategic nuclear retaliatory capability against a porous strategic missile defense that has not been built and a potential U.S. nuclear buildup that will not likely materialize.

Why? Because old habits die hard. Russia and the United States each still deploy approximately 4,000 nuclear warheads on delivery vehicles on high alert, and as a result, military strategists on both sides plan for the worst. Under the flimsy 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), the United States will be able to maintain a large "hedge" arsenal of reserve warheads and excess missile capacity. …

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