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What exactly is the latest missile defense argument about?

ASK THIS | July 18, 2007

The U.S., unable to develop a dependable anti-missile system at home, seems determined to put a new one in Eastern Europe regardless of whether it will work or if there’s any real need for one or how much ill-will it causes. Why?

By Victoria Samson

Q. Does a missile threat from Iran actually exist? What is the time frame for Iran to create a ballistic missile that could reach Europe? When if ever will it be able to target the continental United States? 

Q. Does any Iranian missile threat justify putting in place a half-formed missile defense system?

Q. Russia has said it will expand deployment of conventional weapons as a response to a U.S. missile defense system in Eastern Europe. Will it take the next step of pulling out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty? What about its threat to target Eastern Europe with Russian missiles? 

Q. If ballistic missiles are such a threat to the United States and its allies, what other steps are we taking to protect ourselves, outside of unproven missile defense weaponry?   

Q. Since 1997, the Pentagon has been flight-testing a missile defense system deployed in Alaska and California and still cannot say that the system is operational and dependable; how can it claim that it can build an entirely new system for Europe from scratch in under four years? How will it know that the brand-new interceptor will perform as planned?

While the Cold War has been over for the better part of two decades, relations between the United States and Russia are rather dicey these days. The unease has been building up over the past six months as Russia voices continually louder protests about the United States expanding its missile defense system to encompass Eastern Europe. Despite the many vows of amity and friendship during the “Lobster Summit” in early July between Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, the two countries’ relationship has reached a new nadir with Russia’s recent announcement that it was preparing to withdraw from the 1990 Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE Treaty). 

The CFE treaty limits the amount of conventional weapons that countries on both sides of the Iron Curtain may deploy and was a strong factor in cutting back much of the armaments that had built up during the Cold War.  

In Russia’s announcement, it officially expressed displeasure with the failure of NATO countries to ratify the 1999 Istanbul agreements to the CFE treaty, and argued that NATO countries’ insistence that Russia pull its troops out of Georgia and Moldova before ratifying the Istanbul agreements is wrong. Therefore, “Exceptional circumstances surrounding the CFE Treaty have led the Russian Federation to consider suspending its participation in the Treaty until NATO members ratify the Adapted Treaty and begin to implement the document in good faith.” Unless steps are taken, this suspension will occur in 150 days. 

While the U.S. missile defense system is not listed in this document as a causal factor leading to Russia’s impending suspension of the CFE, it definitely is a contributing issue to the increased tensions between Russia and the United States. 

What the United States is proposing is placing up to 10 interceptors in the ground in Poland that would be linked to an updated X-band radar in the Czech Republic. The United States argues that these sites would help protect the United States and possibly some or all of Europe (the rationale changes as time goes on) from a long-range ballistic missile attack from Iran. 

Russia has been furious about what it sees as an encroachment in its former sphere of influence, especially in its former Cold War rival’s plans to place parts of a missile defense system close to Russian territory. Besides threatening this spring to withdraw from the CFE, Russian officials have also speculated about possibly withdrawing from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty or even pointing their missiles toward Eastern Europe.

What is truly galling is that this missile defense experiment by the United States is strictly that: an unknown, untested, brand-new system (the interceptor is still on the drawing board, even though U.S. officials claim that they can get the site up and running by 2011) which is supposed to defend against a theoretical and frankly inexplicable Iranian missile threat that also does not exist. The Polish and the Czech parliaments have not officially agreed to cooperate, Congress is cutting back funds on the U.S. side (the House eliminated all funding for site construction and activation, while the Senate reduced some of the site-related funding request), and even if everything goes smoothly, a ratification agreement is not expected until 2009, at which point the United States may have a new president who may not be as enamored of missile defense. 

The United States currently has part of a missile defense system deployed with interceptors (different from the ones that would be placed in Poland) in the ground in Alaska and California. This system has not proven itself to be reliable during testing, where it has achieved intercepts during six out of 12 attempts, and is missing important parts (like a satellite tracking system, a trusty radar network, and a working command and control system). 

For reporters and editors, there is one overall, dominant question: Why exactly is the Bush administration ready to create great ill-will in the international community over insistence on a shaky missile defense system to counter an as-yet nonexistent threat?

For more from NiemanWatchdog on the $10-billion a year missile defense system:

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