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Time Is Running Out For Sensible Decision-Making On Missile Defences

Viewpoint by Jonathan Power

Photo: 2019 Missile Defense Review. Credit: Defense News Weekly.

LUND, Sweden (IDN-INPS) – The number of nuclear weapons possessed by the U.S. and Russia is a fraction of what it was during the height of the Cold War. Successive presidents on both sides, since the time of John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, have feared their destructive power. The supposed value of nuclear arsenal, so called Mutually Assured Destruction, known by its capitals, MAD, is in fact valueless. They cannot be used, and nearly everyone accepts that. [2019-01-29]

Yet they continue to exist and, as President Mikhail Gorbachev and his ally in nuclear arms control, President Ronald Reagan, both said, there is the fear of a false alarm or two errant officers in the silo entering simultaneously their keys, which allows the firing of the rocket.

Yet here we are in 2019 with a new American nuclear initiative – 2019 Missile Defense Review (MDR) – announced on January 17. (I doubt that president Donald Trump is in the clutches of Russia. Otherwise, why would he be pushing for such a significant anti-Russian policy?) The Americans are planning a new deployment of nuclear rockets and the radar to go with them, this time supposedly aimed at Iran but with also the range to reach Moscow.

How can Iran ever be a threat is the first of many questions. Voluntarily, in an agreement negotiated with the Administration of President Barack Obama, Iran has forsaken the technical wherewithal to manufacture nuclear weapons. Even if it didn’t observe the treaty it has no rockets that could carry a nuclear or serious conventional payload as far as Europe. No wonder the Russians wonder what the NATO plans are all for, and come to a reasonable conclusion- they are meant for them.

The initial defensive screen, according to the New York Times, “rests upon a network of early-warning satellites, a new high-powered X-band radar based in Turkey, and at least one on a Aegis-equipped U.S. warship, deployed in the Mediterranean, capable of shooting down incoming missiles. Two land-based missile defence sites are also planned – first in Romania, and later in Poland.”

When Obama decided to modify this latter part of the deployment, President Vladimir Putin expressed his thanks. But the deployment appears to have crawled on to the agenda again.

Some Russian generals have said that Russia will deploy the nuclear-capable Iskander missiles against any NATO missile sites constructed in Poland and Romania.

To what extent does Russia have a point? Dmitri Trenin, the Russian director of the (American) Carnegie Center in Moscow, “sees U.S. ballistic defence plans as global in scope”. Their concern, he believes is that “strategic defence impacts upon strategic offence, devaluing the deterrent value of Russia’s own nuclear arsenal”.

"Moscow wants both formal assurances and an insight into the system's parameters, to be confident that the U.S. has no intention of degrading Russia's own deterrent power, and that the NATO system has no capability against Russian strategic missiles. Washington's reluctance to give either raises Moscow's suspicions. . . ." Trenin believes that Washington must engage Moscow before both sides get entrenched with their plans.

For all its hostile rhetoric, Russia must be somewhat relaxed as it can see that the kind of missile the U.S. plans to use if attacked is the so-called Standard Missile 3 (SM-3).

Professor Theodore Postol, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, America’s leading scientific university, an expert on NATO’s nuclear policy, says: "All the tests have been characterised by extraordinary efforts to eliminate all objects that could possibly confuse the SM-3 kill vehicle. For these reasons and others, it is overwhelmingly likely that if the SM-3 is used in real combat, it will be total failure." The missile has only been tested under non-combat conditions.

But the paradox is that even when missile defences don’t work, potential adversaries will treat them as if they do. This produces the worst of all possible worlds – no defence but build-ups of offensive weapons to deal with those defences.

For those with long memories we recall Reagan’s “Star Wars” speech. He said the U.S. would deploy weapons in space to shoot down incoming Soviet missiles. This would be a missile shield. Thus nobody would get hurt. 36 years later there is no sign of such a system working.

At the same time Trump has threatened to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty that eliminates short-range missiles in Europe. So far it’s been a great success. Trump says Russia is cheating. But American defence experts who have held high positions in the Defence Department and Congress argue that it would be a grave mistake to terminate the treaty.

As for the Russians they see an overlap between the radar and missiles to be deployed against Iran and the weapons banned by the INF treaty.

The Iran dimension of all this could be solved if Trump would recognize the treaty signed by Obama and Iran to halt Iran’s bomb research.

Time is running out for sensible decision-making. [IDN-InDepthNews – 29 January 2019]

Note: For 17 years Jonathan Power was a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune – and a member of the Independent Commission on Disarmament, chaired by the prime minister of Sweden, Olof Palme. He forwarded this and his previous Viewpoints for publication in IDN-INPS Copyright: Jonathan Power. Website www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com.

Photo: 2019 Missile Defense Review. Credit: Defense News Weekly

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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