US 'missile defence': Be very, very afraid

March 22, 2007

Deriding the likely technical efficacy of the USA's ballistic National Missile Defense (NMD) system (a key element of which is already stationed in Britain at the Fylingdales radar base), Ming Campbell, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, asked Prime Minister Tony Blair on February 28: "Do you accept that the system proposed is largely untried, indeed it has been described as firing a bullet in order to hit a bullet?"

On the face of it, this is a very good question. Tests so far indicate that each of the interceptor missiles that the USA is rapidly installing at its NMD bases in Alaska and California, and proposes soon to install in Europe, may have less than a 90% chance of knocking out its target, a mid-flight intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) warhead in outer space.

Other detractors have pointed out what seems to be an even bigger flaw in the program. According to the US government, the "rogue" nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea are the reason why the USA needs its anti-ballistic missile project. Yet there is no evidence that either of these states have, or are likely to acquire anytime soon, the ability to manufacture a functional atomic warhead small enough for intercontinental warfare, or a functional multi-stage missile that is powerful enough to deliver such a warhead to the US land mass.

Thus Christopher Brauchli, writing in the radical US newsletter Counterpunch, observes: "... what the world now knows is that missiles that may not work will end up being deployed to defend against missiles launched from sites that may not exist. It proves, if proof were needed, that George Bush never runs out of ideas for pranks to play on the world."

But Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to be not at all amused by this "prank". Denouncing the US for seeking to become the world's "single centre of force" and "single master", he has declared that countries that host the European forward-bases for missile defence will be targets for Russian missiles, and added that Russia will defend itself using other, unspecified, "asymmetric, but highly effective" measures.

Why is Putin so angry? Is he merely seeking a pretext to harangue the US and bully Poland and the Czech Republic? Russia has more than 3000 nuclear warheads, while maximum US projections are for 250 mid-flight missile interceptors based in Alaska and North Dakota.

As for the forward-bases in Europe, the United States' official news service USINFO reported on a speech by US Army Brigadier General Patrick O'Reilly, deputy director of the Missile Defense Agency, responding to Russia's fears: "... the 10 ground-based missile interceptors and a large X-Band radar that the United States would like to see deployed in Europe 'would not negate their [Russia's] arsenal, and, it's not intended to' do so."

Which still leaves the real reasons for Missile Defense unexplained. So far, the USA has spent over US$80 billion on the project and plans to spend many billions more, much of which is feeding the profits and executive salaries of Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon and other contractors. Lockheed Martin has been awarded a further $980 million to continue developing its Aegis sea-based anti-ballistic missile system the company announced on March 6. Boeing has been named as the company that will receive most of the $2-$2.5 billion allocated for the Polish missile base. But, even if any suggestion that this huge outlay of cash might be used to solve global poverty is put aside, the financial interests of those firms could be satisfied by employing them on civil programs, or even on military projects which make some sense in terms of their stated objectives.

However, the USINFO report did hint at one credible purpose for some of the missiles in the neo-Star Wars project — to defend the satellites that are part of the same system. Under the sub-heading "United States Must be Ready for all Contingencies", one paragraph reads: "Asked about the missile defense program's ability to counter a possible threat from Chinese anti-satellite weapons, O'Reilly said the current system does not have a mandate for that but if the Missile Defense Agency were asked to undertake such a task it could do so."

Unfortunately, Missile Defense and its extension to Europe begin to make frightening sense when three factors are considered that do not figure prominently in the current public debate.

One is that the land-based mid-flight missile interceptors are not a stand-alone item but are a component of a developing three-phase system that includes submarine and ship-based missiles, airborne lasers currently under development and, further ahead, space-based weapons; it is proposed to attack incoming ICBMs as they are being launched, in outer space and then while they are in their final phase of flight, approaching their targets in the USA.

Another is the true role of the anti-missile missiles to be sited in Poland (and/or Britain, if Blair gets his way). A part of the 2008 financial year budget estimate of the US Missile Defense Agency deals with current and near-future installations, the objective of which is to: "Maintain and sustain an initial capability. This aspect of our program strategy focuses on the fielding of ground-based interceptors (GBI) in Alaska and California; the enhancement of early warning radars in Alaska, California and the United Kingdom (UK); the fielding of the sea-based X-Band Radar (SBX) in the Pacific; the fielding of transportable radar in Japan; and the fielding of Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense Interceptors and radars ...

"[W]e will upgrade an Early Warning Radar in Thule, Greenland. This radar, in conjunction with the radar at Fylingdales, UK provides the ability to track threats to The US and Europe from the Middle East. Because we must protect these radars or risk losing the 'eyes' of our system, we are planning to field ground-based interceptors and an associated ground-based midcourse radar site in Europe. This achieves four goals: protecting the foreign-based radars, improving protection of the United States by providing additional and earlier intercept opportunities; extending this protection to our allies and friends; and demonstrating international support of ballistic missile defense." [Emphasis added.]

While maintaining the fiction that the threat from Iran is the USA's primary concern, this document reveals the actual purpose of the proposed new bases in Europe. The SBX radars are for guiding the interceptor missiles, fired from the USA, to their targets in outer space. The sites of these radars obviously become prime targets themselves. So to protect these "eyes", based at Fylingdales and Thule, further interceptor missiles will be stationed in Europe. As bonuses, this will create the impression that the USA is protecting the Europeans and will "demonstrate" that Europeans support the US strategy.

A third factor is a combination of the actual nuclear warfare strategy of the United States, and the relative capabilities of the USA's nuclear arsenal against those of Russia and China. In 2006, an interesting debate took place in the pages of Foreign Affairs, the bipartisan journal of the USA's foreign policy elite. The title of the article that opened the discussion, by Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, "The Rise of US Nuclear Primacy", appeared above the summary: "For four decades, relations among the major nuclear powers have been shaped by their common vulnerability, a condition known as mutual assured destruction. But with the US arsenal growing rapidly while Russia's decays and China's stays small, the era of MAD is ending — and the era of US nuclear primacy has begun."

Since 1945, US administrations have sought to achieve and maintain the ability to win a nuclear war by striking pre-emptively, thus preventing any substantial retaliation, and this objective is close to fruition. The essay and the replies to it, which include a response from the US Department of Defense, are well-argued and readable, and I advise readers of this article to read the originals. But some excerpts are illuminating.

As they move toward their conclusion, Lieber and Press remark: "The current and future US nuclear force, in other words, seems designed to carry out a preemptive disarming strike against Russia or China.

"The intentional pursuit of nuclear primacy is, moreover, entirely consistent with the United States' declared policy of expanding its global dominance. The Bush administration's 2002 National Security Strategy explicitly states that the United States aims to establish military primacy: 'Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States.' To this end, the United States is openly seeking primacy in every dimension of modern military technology, both in its conventional arsenal and in its nuclear forces."

Alexei Arbatov, who was a former Soviet defence expert and is now deputy chairperson of the Russian parliament's defence committee, generally agrees with Lieber and Press's conclusions, but sees Russian weakness rather than US strength as the cause of the imbalance: "It is true that the United States is upgrading its strategic arsenal, but the steps it is taking today are nothing compared to those it took in the arms race during the Cold War. Rather, the primary reason for the shift is that Russia's capabilities are declining because Moscow has not paid enough attention to its nuclear forces over the past 15 years.

"Today, Russia has about 3,500 warheads based on heavy bombers and sea- and land-based missiles. Most of these were built in Soviet times, and their service lives are running out. Accordingly, these increasingly unreliable weapons will soon be removed from service. At that point, Russia's modern nuclear arsenal will only include three or four new ballistic missile submarines and around 100 Topol-M missiles, both mobile and silo-based. These forces will still be enough to serve as a minimal deterrent, but it will rely heavily on a hair-trigger alert, which is very dangerous in the age of nuclear weapons proliferation and catastrophic terrorism."

Arbatov, who is not a member of Putin's party, may be being too harsh on post-Soviet Russian governments. Even with Russia's recent resurgence on the back of higher energy prices, its economic base and technical capacities — upon which its military prowess must depend — bear no comparison to those of the USSR.

China, though its defences are slowly being upgraded, is still a puny nuclear power, with probably no more than 18 missiles capable of reaching the continental United States — assuming that China fires first. China's ICBMs are not only few in number, they are slow to fuel and cannot be maintained in a state of permanent readiness.

The USA's huge superiority in stealth technology, and the Russian and Chinese backwardness in detection systems, mean that US nuclear strikes would already be hitting their targets before the Russian or Chinese command-and-control centres could confirm that they were under attack.

This is the context for the implementation of the USA's neo-Star Wars project, hurriedly being put into place bit-by-bit with technology that is half-tested, new components being added as they are developed. Those who criticise this strategy because it might not work, rather than because they do not agree with the objective, should be reminded that this is what took place during the two World Wars of the 20th century, during which the destructive capacity of all sides grew at a terrifying rate.

Lieber and Press comment as follows on the Missile Defense debate: "Washington's pursuit of nuclear primacy helps explain its missile-defense strategy, for example. Critics of missile defense argue that a national missile shield, such as the prototype the United States has deployed in Alaska and California, would be easily overwhelmed by a cloud of warheads and decoys launched by Russia or China. They are right: even a multilayered system with land-, air-, sea-, and space-based elements, is highly unlikely to protect the United States from a major nuclear attack. But they are wrong to conclude that such a missile-defense system is therefore worthless — as are the supporters of missile defense who argue that, for similar reasons, such a system could be of concern only to rogue states and terrorists and not to other major nuclear powers.

"What both of these camps overlook is that the sort of missile defenses that the United States might plausibly deploy would be valuable primarily in an offensive context, not a defensive one — as an adjunct to a U.S. first-strike capability, not as a standalone shield. If the United States launched a nuclear attack against Russia (or China), the targeted country would be left with a tiny surviving arsenal — if any at all. At that point, even a relatively modest or inefficient missile-defense system might well be enough to protect against any retaliatory strikes, because the devastated enemy would have so few warheads and decoys left."

Putin is right to be angry. We should all be angry. And very, very afraid.

When the United States won the Cold War, many people sighed in relief because they assumed that the main factor behind the threat of annihilation was the ideological conflict between capitalism and communism. There was some truth in that. But now neither Russia nor China is socialist; both are closely connected to the West economically, through the flows of investment, energy and manufactured goods; and neither has the military ability to threaten the United States or Western Europe. The USA's technological superiority remains.

Yet, as the USA's total dominance in economic and diplomatic power wanes while China and to a lesser extent Russia rise as capitalist economies, we find ourselves in a spiralling asymmetric arms race. China's response to Missile Defense includes its development of anti-satellite weapons and the 17.8% increase in its defence spending which has just been announced; Russia's will probably include modifications to the Topol-M intercontinental missile with the aim of enabling it to elude the USA's Aegis and GBI interceptors, and the deployment of more medium-range missiles. These will no doubt be used by US military planners as justifications for even more resources to be devoted to the neo-Star Wars project.

This last point is not a consolation. Most of us grew up as children or lived for many years as adults under the shadow of the Bomb; on our post-Cold War planet it appears that this shadow is again growing darker. But the majority of Poles and Czechs, despite their history of anti-Russian nationalism, have no wish to be taken hostage by the USA's drive for full-spectrum military domination. British people also know how to campaign against US missiles. The USA's foreign bases are a physical manifestation of the United States' military, economic and political posture, and as such provide a focus for resistance.

An important element in the recent crisis of Italy's government is the massive opposition to the expansion of the US military base at Vicenza.

US capitalism and its administration, despite their huge financial and military power, require domestic and foreign acquiescence to continue to oppress and threaten the rest of the world.

The truth about Missile Defense cannot be kept hidden. And every action by the USA must generate a host of opposite — though not equivalent — reactions.

[Reprinted from <>]

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