U.S. Reaffirms Europe Anti-Missile Plan

Article excerpt

Russian President Vladimir Putin's June 7 proposal to share radar data on missiles with the United States might be an earnest offer, a cynical ploy to undercut U.S. plans to base anti-missile systems in Europe, or both. Regardless, U.S. leaders say they will continue their current missile defense approach despite strong Russian opposition.

Meeting with President George W. Bush in Heiligendamm, Germany, Putin volunteered the "joint use" of the Russian-leased Gabala radar in Azerbaijan. Putin implied the radar could be used to peer south into Iran, which the United States estimates could develop long-range missiles to strike all of Europe or the United States before 2015. Washington claims its plan to station 10 strategic ground-based midcourse interceptors in Poland and an X-band radar in the Czech Republic is to protect against a growing Iranian threat and poses no danger to Russia.

Putin further suggested that if an actual threat materialized, interceptors could be deployed in southern Europe, Iraq, or on naval ships instead of in Poland, where Moscow contends interceptors could reach into Russia. The interceptors endorsed by Putin would be technically different than those planned for Poland. Instead of aiming to collide with warheads in space, the alternative interceptors would be designed to destroy missiles in their boost phase, when a missile's rocket engines are still burning shortly after launch.

Although U.S. officials expressed surprise at Putin's proposal, this is not the first time he has made it. Putin floated essentially the same concept in June 2000 when President Bill Clinton was weighing deployment of a nationwide U.S. defense. (See ACT, July/August 2000.)

Washington rejected the proposal then, in part, on the basis that the technology was not available. The United States currently has programs that might produce ship- and land-based interceptors for boost-phase testing around 2014. (See ACT, June 2007.)

Bush welcomed Putin's ideas as "interesting." The two leaders agreed experts from both sides will explore the Russian proposal.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials maintain they will not pause their current effort. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal June 8 that "we're going to continue to work this with Poland and the Czech Republic." Engaging with Russia, she added, "doesn't mean that you are going to get off course on what you're trying to do."

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates informed reporters June 14 that the United States saw Putin's proposal on the Gabala radar as "an additional capability" and not a substitute for the proposed Czech-based radar. The Gabala radar is a Soviet-era early-warning radar designed to spot and track missiles shortly after launch, while X-band radars are supposed to provide more precise flight-tracking data and pick a warhead out of a target cluster flying through space.

The U.S. reaction was not what the Kremlin wanted. Talking to reporters June 8, Putin stated, "[W]e hope that no unilateral action will be taken until these consultations and talks have concluded." Similarly, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in a Moscow press briefing the next day declared, "POt is necessary as a minimum to freeze all the actions in deploying missile defense elements in Europe for a period of at least the study of our proposals."

Russian officials assert there is no urgency to field anti-missile systems in Europe. …