Over the past few months, Russia has mounted a non-stop diplomatic and media offensive against U.S. plans to install ballistic missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic. When Moscow got wind that Washington was negotiating a basing deal with its partners in Prague and Warsaw, Russian diplomats leaned hard on their Polish and Czech counterparts, warning of potential "consequences" if they went along with the plan. With memories of a 50-year Soviet occupation still fresh in their minds, the Czechs and Poles readily agreed to host early warning radars and interceptor missiles on their soil, further infuriating the Russians.
Now, Moscow is again playing the military card, pointing out how easy it would be for Russian bombers to target--and destroy--"lightly defended" BMD complexes in Poland and the Czech Republic. A senior Russian general told the Interfax News Agency that his country's strike aircraft could target and eliminate the missile defense sites.
"Since the components of the anti-missile defence system are weakly protected, all types of our aircraft are capable of using electronic countermeasures against them and physically destroying them," Interfax quoted Lieutenant General Igor Khvorov as saying.
Khvorov also reported that Russia is modernizing its small fleet of TU-160 BLACKJACK bombers, which could be used to attack missile defense installations in eastern Europe. Russia also has a larger number of shorter-range TU-22M BACKFIRE bombers that are also capable of reaching targets in the former Soviet bloc. Khvorov's comments came only a few days after other Russian officials suggested that the BMD deployments could touch off a new arms race in Europe, with possible redeployments of theater-level ballistic missiles that were banned during the 1980s.
As with most military claims out of Russia, there is an element of truth in General Khvorov's remarks. But he also ignores several important considerations--beyond the fact that the proposed BMD deployment is aimed at Tehran, not Moscow. As we've noted before, an early warning radar and a handful of interceptor missiles wouldn't provide much protection against a full-scale Russian missile strike. But placing the BMD sites in eastern Europe does move another NATO trip-wire a bit closer to the Russian border, further reducing Moscow's leverage in the region. And there's the real rub.
Regarding the potential Russian air threat, it's worth noting that their once-massive tactical and long-range aviation arms suffered greatly after the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Thousands of older fighters were retired or scrapped; bomber units saw major cutbacks, and aircrew training was reduced across the board. Some of Russia's most capable strike platforms--including the BLACKJACK--barely flew during the 1990s. More recently, Moscow has begun fielding larger numbers of more modern fighters and fighter-bombers (mostly FLANKER variants) and its bomber fleet has achieved some degree of stability, but training hours--in comparison to the U.S. or NATO countries--remain low. That translates into decreased operationaly proficiency, particularly on long-range missions against more modern air defenses.
Make no mistake; Russian fighter or bomber crews would be capable of locating and targeting two relatively large, fixed-site targets in Poland and the Czech Republic. But, given recent weaknesses in training, maintenance and logistical support, the mission described by General Khvorov would be far from a cakewalk.
The reason? Even General Khvorov realizes that additional layers of air and missile defenses can be placed around the complexes in Poland and the Czech Republic. Deploying a few Patriot batteries in those locations would create enormous problems for Russian bomber or fighter-bomber squadrons, and there's no reason that other defensive systems--including the airborne laser (ABL), THAAD, and the AEGIS/SM-2 Block IV--can't be shared with our allies, or positioned in support of BMD complexes in Poland and the Czech Republic. That would provide protection against air and missile attacks, and invite a U.S. response, if the sites were actually attacked.
Moscow also realizies that the "weak" defenses around those bases during construction will likely pale in comparison to those that may be available in a few years. What's more, the Czechs and Poles completely understand that too, another reason that Moscow's bluster isn't having much of an impact in Warsaw and Prague.