World Politics Review | 9.29.08
By Alan W. Dowd

These are heady and crucial days for the burgeoning international missile defense system (IMD), which the US is building in cooperation with its closest allies. Indeed, every week seems to bring with it another validation of IMD’s necessity, viability and/or practicality. The past several weeks are no exception.

On the capabilities front, just this month, the Airborne Laser (ABL) was successfully tested aboard its demonstrator aircraft (though not yet in the air; that comes next year). “We have now demonstrated all of the technical steps needed to shoot down a boosting missile in flight,” explains Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA). “And we're on track to do that next year in a flight test.”

Obering reported in July that there are now 15 Aegis ships ready to launch sea-based SM-3 interceptors. “We should have a total of 18 ships by the end of this year,” he says. The IMD inventory also will include a total of 30 ground-based interceptors by the end of the year. By 2011, the US will have 44 interceptors at US sites—and likely more outside the US.

Indeed, according to Obering, no less than 18 nations are collaborating with the US on IMD. He calls it “an integrated layered system.” It’s not unlike a chain-link fence stretching from Australia and Japan, to Alaska and California, to Greenland and Britain, to Poland and the CzechRepublic, to Israel and the Persian Gulf, all linked by numerous assets at sea and in space.

Since 2001, IMD assets have scored successes on 35 of 43 hit-to-kill intercepts, or 81.39 percent of the time. And MDA is deploying new radars to enhance the system’s ability to distinguish between warheads and decoys—and improve the odds of success.

The critics latch on to this as reason to de-fund, downplay or downgrade the system, knowing that defining success as a 100-percent intercept rate makes “failure” inevitable. But what future president—and which American city—would prefer a zero-percent chance of deflecting an inbound missile over an 81-percent chance or even a 50-percent chance or 20-percent chance, for that matter?

On the diplomatic front, Washington and the UAE announced plans earlier this month to cooperate on deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD). Aviation Week reports that the UAE will purchase “three THAAD fire units equipped with 147 THAAD missiles.” It will be America’s first THAAD sale to a foreign country, according to Reuters, and the UAE seems an ideal candidate. Not only does the UAE sit just across the Persian Gulf from Ahmadinejad’sIran, it would be a prime target for Iranian missiles in a time of hostilities due to its relationship with the US. According to the State Department, the UAE “hosts more US Navy ships than any port outside the US.”

In August, Poland and the US ended their months-long impasse and agreed to deployment of IMD interceptors on Polish soil. The Polish bed of interceptors will be placed at an old airbase near the Baltic Sea town of Redzikowo. Some 500 US troops will man the base, according to an AP report.

The bed of interceptor missiles will work in tandem with a new radar facility in the neighboring CzechRepublic. An official agreement to place IMD radars in the CzechRepublic came this summer, soon after NATO blessed the US-led IMD system during its Bucharest summit. US and Czech diplomats plan to hammer out a complementary treaty later this month dealing with US forces deployed in the CzechRepublic.

Brushing back Russian claims that the US is acting provocatively and aggressively, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated the obvious after inking the deal with Poland—namely, that missile defense is a matter of, well, defense.

“It is in our defense that we do this,” she explained.

To cut through all of Moscow’s diplomatic nonsense, just ask yourself: Is it the cop wearing a bullet-proof vest who is provocative and aggressive—or the gunman loading his weapon? And to extend the metaphor, if Russia has no intention of unloading on Central Europe or North America, why is it bothered by the bullet-proof vest?

Moreover, it pays to recall that the IMD elements in Poland could never defend against Russia’s arsenal—due to both the placement of the system and the number of Russian missiles.

As Undersecretary of State John Rood has noted, Russia’s recent START declarations reveal that Moscow deploys 850 ICBMs—with thousands of warheads. A measly ten interceptors simply cannot counter a missile force of that size.

“Ten interceptors in Poland could absolutely not match the hundreds of interceptors and thousands of warheads that the Russians have deployed,” according to Obering. 

Plus, as MDA explains, “There would not be sufficient time to detect, track and intercept” Russian missiles using the radars and interceptor beds planned for Central Europe.

“We proposed the Czech Republic for the radar and Poland for the interceptors because, very simply, technically they were the optimum locations” for tracking missile launches from Iran and its neighborhood, Obering explains.

But don’t confuse Moscow with the facts. The Bear is wide awake and eager to flex its muscles. “Russia will be forced to react and not only through diplomatic” channels, as AP quoted the Russian Foreign Ministry late last month.

Poland,” blusters Russian Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, “is exposing itself to a strike.”

If Russia’s invasion of Georgia didn’t validate the Polish-Czech embrace of the US—as embodied by NATO membership and IMD participation—Russia’s bellicose words certainly have.

Call it a self-fulfilling prophecy; call it a sign of insecurity in Moscow and insensitivity in Washington; call it avoidable. But don’t blame these countries that were forgotten after World War II and orphaned after the Cold War for wanting the West’s protection—and wanting it in more than writing.

The IMD systems soon to be deployed on Polish and Czech territory are wholly defensive. As Obering reminds us, “They don’t carry warheads.” After years of consultation and even offers to allow Russian personnel to be stationed at IMD facilities in Central Europe, Washington has given Moscow no reason to be threatened by a defensive system that aims to do nothing more than track and intercept offensive weapons from nations to Russia’s south and east.

Indeed, the threats to America and its allies are growing.

  • Obering says there were 120 ballistic missile launches in 2007 alone.
  • According to Obering, as recently as July, “Iran orchestrated launches of several short- and medium-range ballistic missiles capable of striking Israel and the U.S. bases in the Middle East.”
  • Once deployed, Iran’s latest variant of the Shahab-3 will be able to hit targets in southern Europe and across the Middle East. The Defense Intelligence Agency “estimates that Iran could have an ICBM capable of reaching the United States by 2015,” Obering says, ominously adding, “We should not assume that we have full understanding of ballistic missile activities around the world. We have been surprised in the past.”
  • That brings us to the unpredictably dangerous regime in North Korea, which makes a habit of getting our attention with missile tests—and now has an ailing leader at the helm.

“None of this existed just four years ago,” Obering is quick to remind us, pointing to IMD’s blossoming assets. If given room and resources to grow, just imagine what IMD will look like four years from now.

The good news is that Obering and his team already have.