Victoria Samson and Ian Davis / Center for Defense Information – 2007-06-21 22:59:46
The Latest Snake Oil:
Beware the Salesmen Peddling Missile Defense for Europe
WASHINGTON (June 15, 2007) — In the 1936 film, Poppy, W. C. Fields portrayed a Western frontier American snake-oil salesman, complete with a surreptitious crowd accomplice.
Watch out, Europe. The modern-day equivalent, Lt. Gen. Henry A. Obering, head of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, is peddling something even more pernicious than a cure for hoarseness. The Pentagon is hoping to extend its missile-defense system all the way to Eastern Europe, with a radar in the Czech Republic and interceptors in Poland. In the background, senior NATO officials are craftily working the crowds.
The U.S. Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system uses an interceptor missile to directly destroy an incoming long-range ballistic missile while it is arcing in outer space. There are currently 14 interceptors fielded in Alaska and two in California with the aim of meeting a future threat: intercepting a single intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) fired at the United States from North Korea.
Now, the United States is arguing that it needs a third site in Europe to defend against an even more remote possibility: a single ICBM launched from Iran.
Like all forms of grift, the sales pitch involves a combination of scare-mongering, boisterous marketing hype, the presentation of pseudo-scientific evidence (usually without independent peer review) and European accomplices attesting to the value of the product in an effort to provoke buying enthusiasm.
But European leaders should exercise caution when listening to the pitch.
First, while Iranian and North Korean missiles are a growing concern, neither country currently has the capability to launch an ICBM that can strike the United States. Even if one did acquire such a capability (worst-case scenarios suggest such a possibility by 2015 for Iran and perhaps sooner for North Korea), any use with a nuclear warhead would be a national suicide note, given the 10,000-plus nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal.
Moreover, crossing the ICBM threshold is a complex, time-consuming and expensive task, and putting a nuclear warhead on a primitive and unreliable ballistic missile would be a risky and costly business for a state with only a limited amount of nuclear weapon material.
Second, it beggars belief that NATO members (who account for over half of global defense spending and with overwhelming conventional military supremacy) cannot contain such a threat, and preemptively destroy it with conventional munitions. Of course, direct U.S. diplomatic engagement with Iran and North Korea is a more cost-effective way of mitigating both the missile and nuclear threat.
Third, the missile defense system has never proven that it can reliably work in realistic real-world circumstances. During highly scripted testing, an interceptor made a successful intercept in only six out of 11 attempts. Satellite networks required for detecting and tracking an enemy missile launch are way over budget and years behind schedule. No real command and control network has been established.
Fourth, the raison d’etre for the proposed European site seems to change with the wind. It started out as a defense for the continental United States; then, it was to defend the United States and also parts of Europe; and now authorities claim there will be a new interceptor designed specifically for the European site. This two-stage interceptor, instead of the more powerful and far-reaching three-stage interceptor that has been the mainstay of missile defense to date, will presumably defend only Europe against an intermediate-range ballistic missile attack.
Outstanding questions abound. Is the United States so benevolent that it plans to spend $3.5 billion on a new missile-defense site that would only defend its European allies and not the United States? Who will develop it? Where will it be tested? Would such tests be illegal under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty?
And, if it can’t be tested, how will we know if it is reliable? What are the timelines to deployment? The current three-stage GMD interceptor has been lurching between various tests since 1999 and continues to be dogged by operational uncertainties.
Russia sees the prospective European deployment as a threat to its own national security, and fears the East European bases may trigger a new arms race. MDA downplays these fears, but the push for a European GMD site clearly accentuates anti-American hysteria in Moscow.
As a final point, the United States is hoping to build a space-based interceptor test bed as part of its overall missile-defense system, and has asked Congress for funding to start on such a project next year. If this happens, then it’s possible the European radars would be included in this capability. Does Europe really want to be involved in putting weapons in space?
Ultimately, Europe is being asked to buy into a costly (more than $100 billion and rising), destabilizing and unproven system, that includes an interceptor missile that is not yet on the drawing board, to meet a threat that does not yet exist. Attempting to sell this mother of all snake oils would make even W. C. Fields blush.
Victoria Samson is a research analyst at the World Security Institute’s Center for Defense Information in Washington, D.C., and Ian Davis is co-executive director of the British American Security Information Council in London.
“The Latest Snake Oil: Beware of the salesmen peddling missile defense for Europe,” first appeared in the Prague Post on June 13, 2007.
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