A U.S. bid to base anti-missile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic is provoking strong reactions from Russia, including hints that it might abrogate a two-decade-old treaty restricting Russian missile holdings.
Moscow has consistently opposed Washington’s proposal to base long-range ballistic missile interceptors in Europe since it first became public in 2004. (See ACT, July/August 2004. ) But January revelations that Washington has approached Prague and Warsaw to start formal negotiations over deployment options have reinvigorated the Kremlin’s denunciations.
Lieutenant General Henry Obering, head of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), told reporters Jan. 25 that the proposed stationing of 10 missile interceptors in Poland and a high-powered radar in the Czech Republic were not aimed at Russia, but primarily Iran. Tehran’s longest-range deployed missile, the Shabab-3, which some Iranian officials claim can fly up to 2,000 kilometers, could reach southern Europe. The MDA contends Iran might acquire a missile capable of striking the United States before 2015.
In a Feb. 10 speech blasting the United States at a high-level security conference in Munich, Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed Iran as a threat justifying the U.S. bases. Putin said the fielding of missile defenses in Europe “cannot help but disturb us.”
Days later, top Russian military officials, including General Yuri Baluyevsky, chief of Russia’s general staff, implied Russia could react to the U.S. interceptors by withdrawing from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. This accord, which led to the destruction of 2,692 missiles, bans U.S. and Russian possession of ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers.
Putin also indicated Russia was re-evaluating the INF Treaty, although he attributed the deliberations to the accord’s inequity of forbidding Russia from having missiles similar to those being acquired by other countries. “It is obvious that in these conditions we must think about ensuring our own security,” Putin stated.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates registered concerns about the treaty’s possible abrogation. He told reporters Feb. 15 that it would be “a problem for us” and a “special problem” for European countries. Gates also said a Russian INF Treaty withdrawal could not be linked plausibly to the proposed European anti-missile units because they pose “no threat to Russia.”
Obering made a similar case Jan. 25, noting that Russia’s hundreds of ballistic missiles vastly outnumber the 10 planned interceptors. He further pointed out that the anti-missile systems would be physically incapable of stopping Russian missiles launched at the United States because the interceptors would be attempting to catch Russian missiles from behind as they fly away from, not toward, the interceptors.
The MDA chief also said he had kept Russian officials informed of U.S. plans and “will continue to work closely with the Russians.” Obering noted, however, that the United States would have to secure the agreement of host governments to permit Russian delegations to visit any future U.S. anti-missile sites on the continent.
If the Polish and Czech governments quickly consent to U.S. plans, Obering said construction could begin in 2008 and the sites could be operational as soon as 2011. He projected costs could total $3.5 billion and said that the United States would pick up the full tab.
U.S. lawmakers last year trimmed requested funding for exploratory site work from $56 million to $32.8 million and provided $63 million for initial work on 10 interceptors that could be deployed in Europe or the United States. MDA spokesperson Rick Lehner told Arms Control Today Feb. 20 that the administration’s February fiscal year 2008 budget request asks for about $225 million for the European sites. Fiscal year 2008 begins Oct. 1.
The United States is currently deploying and testing the ground-based interceptor model designated for Europe. The model scored its first intercept of a target last September, while earlier prototypes tallied five hits in 10 attempts during rudimentary testing. (See ACT, October 2006. )
Similar to the Fort Greely, Alaska, interceptor field, which totaled 14 interceptors at the end of February, no interceptors will be flight-tested out of the European site. Obering said that, during a real attack, there probably would not be time to consult a host government before launching an interceptor.
Sovereignty concerns, doubts about the system’s capabilities, and comments by Russian officials that they would target the anti-missile sites have caused mixed opinions among the Polish and Czech populations about the endeavor. Nevertheless, leaders in each country say they are inclined to engage in formal negotiations.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Forces Policy Brian Green told reporters Jan. 25 that the United States has been “very, very pleased” with discussions with the two governments and that Washington has “every expectation that our more intense discussions…will succeed.” Green and Obering said, however, that alternatives existed if negotiations with the two countries failed.