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German Chancellor Merkel with Putin, Bush and others at the G8 summit in Germany on June 7. (AP photo)

A game of European missile shield 'Let's Pretend'

ASK THIS | June 08, 2007

One result of Putin’s proposals for an installation in Azerbaijan – whether workable or not – may be to derail Bush’s plans until he leaves office.

By Philip Coyle

At the G-8 Summit this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin showed that he knows something about negotiation.  First he sets the Bush administration back on its heels with talk of Russian missiles aimed at Europe, setting the stage for what the Bush administration thought might be a G-8 confrontation over its proposed missile defense system. Then Putin proposes a smart technical and policy solution that the Pentagon should have thought of first.

Clearly Russia did its homework and proposed a site that was better for missile defense from both an American and Russian point of view.

Because of its more southerly location relative to the original sites proposed by the Bush administration in Poland and the Czech Republic, the Azerbaijan option has advantages from both technical and policy points of view. At that location, the proposed missile defenses can "defend" all of Europe, including south eastern Europe. The Poland/Czech Republic arrangement cannot "cover" all of Europe. Also a radar at the Azerbaijan site cannot "see" Russian missile launches going over the pole towards America, which means that it cannot be used to defend America from Russia. 

The Poland/Czech Republic arrangement has raised questions about who exactly it was defending against. Since the U.S. proposal to locate missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic could not cover all of Europe, that raised questions about why the U.S. would chose to "defend" some European countries and not others.

Also, in an actual missile-vs.-missile battle, the originally proposed sites in Poland and the Czech Republic could result in debris falling on Russia if U.S. missile defense interceptors sent hypothetical Iranian missiles careening off course. The Azerbaijani site minimizes that problem, as well.

When discussing the proposed missile defense system for Eastern Europe it's best to put the word "defend" in quotes. This is because the missile defense hardware being deployed by the U.S. in Alaska and California, and proposed for Eastern Europe, has no demonstrated capability to defend Europe, let alone the U.S., from an attack by Iran (or North Korea for that matter) under realistic operational conditions.

For this reason, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency has "dumbed down" the supposed threat from Iran (and North Korea) to be just one or two missiles with no decoys or countermeasures. And yet still the Missile Defense Agency has not been able to demonstrate the  effective capability to stop even that idealized threat under realistic operational conditions. Surely the Russian military and scientific establishment knows this. After all, Russia has tried to develop missile defenses also, and knows how truly difficult it is.

(By the way, Russia has so many ICBMs it can overwhelm even the most futuristic missile defenses the U.S. can imagine. That's why the U.S. Congress voted to shut down the Safeguard ABM system in the 1970's, just one day after it was declared operational: Congress knew that Russia could overwhelm it.)

Will the Bush administration agree to President Putin's proposal? The Bush administration has reached agreements with Poland and the Czech Republic that the proposed missile defense sites, if located there, would essentially be sovereign U.S. territory, like an American embassy. Azerbaijan may not agree to that. 

The current arrangement with Russia at the Qabala radar station in Azerbaijan is a ten-year lease which expires in 2012, but with an option for renewal.

Also, the Pentagon may feel that Azerbaijan is too close to Russia for comfort, too close from a military point of view. And President's Putin's references to the existing radar site may mean that Putin intends for it to be a Russian managed or controlled site, which the Pentagon may not like. However, if Russia is not an enemy, as President Bush says, he should be willing to seriously consider this proposal. Ever since President Reagan, the U.S. has been saying it wants to cooperate with Russia on missile defense and then it doesn't happen.  Maybe this time it will.

President Putin has also proposed locating the U.S. missile defense systems in Turkey, or even Iraq or on sea-based platforms, and the initial reaction from Iraq recognizes that a U.S. missile defense site in Iraq could provide a new target, and new motivations, for insurgents.

By putting forward his proposal to locate U.S. missile defenses in Azerbaijan, in one fell swoop President Putin has effectively questioned the efficacy of the proposed sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, and justified recent cuts by the U.S. Congress in the budget for construction at these sites. The U.S. Congress has been skeptical anyway, and Putin has shown that they had good reason to be  skeptical.

The Putin proposals may have derailed U.S. missile defenses in Eastern Europe beyond the time remaining for the Bush administration, saving U.S. taxpayers millions of dollars. It has taken the Missile Defense Agency two years of efforts with Poland and the Czech Republic and questions still remain, and the Bush administration only has 18 months left.

This means that it will up to the next U.S. President to decide whether to push this idea.

Accordingly, the questions that could be asked by the media are:

Q. Why is there a rush to deploy U.S. missile defenses in Eastern Europe?

Q. Do we really believe that Iran would attack Europe with a single missile and then sit back to wait for the consequences? And if, as the Missile Defense Agency says, one or two missiles is the best U.S. defenses can handle is that a realistic, justifying threat?

Q. Since U.S. missile defenses have not demonstrated effective capability under realistic operational conditions, what's the point of deploying them in Eastern Europe now?

Six of the twelve flight intercept tests conducted with the Ground-based Missile Defense system have been successful, but six have failed for one reason or another. Perhaps the two countries, Russia and the U.S., could agree on missile defenses, but if they acknowledge that these missile defenses are not effective under realistic operational conditions, then the real benefit would be to show that Russia and the U.S. can cooperate closely on a difficult matter, not to actually defend Europe. 

And if they don't acknowledge that missiles defenses are not effective under realistic operational conditions, pretending that U.S. missile defenses actually might work in an all-out war, then they are also pretending that those U.S. missile defenses might work against Russian missiles.  If those defenses are located in Poland, as first proposed by the U.S. where they might be effective against Russia, this is something which Russia cannot accept.

[Click here for other reports by Philip Coyle on Bush’s $10-billion-a-year, now-it-works, now-it-doesn’t  missile defense program.]

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