Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Missile Swap?

Less than two months ago, Iran's acquisition of the S-300 air defense system appeared to be a done deal. In late December, a senior intelligence official told the AP that Moscow was selling the S-300 to Tehran, although deliveries of the surface-to-air missiles--and support hardware--had not been detected. The intelligence assessment followed Russian press reports that made similar claims.

While those accounts were considered credible, they may have been premature. Reuters now says that Iran's defense minister made a pitch for the delivery of air defense systems during a meeting with his Russian counterpart on Tuesday. If that report is correct, then Tehran's purchase of the S-300 is anything but a fait accompli.

That also raises an interesting question, namely what happened to the air defense deal which seemed to be a virtual certainty just weeks ago? A couple of possibilities come to mind.

First of all, those earlier reports may have been wrong. If we had $100 for every report of an S-300 deal between Russia and Iran over the last eight or nine years, well...we'd have a nice chunk of change in our pockets. Last December wasn't the first time that sources in Moscow (or Tehran) claimed that a sale was in the offing.

More importantly, the December reports marked the first time that senior U.S. intelligence officials confirmed the deal. While our intelligence community has made more than its share of bad calls, the recent confirmation of the sale was based on more than Russian press reporting. Based on imagery, SIGINT, HUMINT--or a combination of those sources--our analysts became convinced that the S-300 was finally heading for Iran.

A second theory suggests that Moscow put the transfer on hold. That would also be something of a shocker; the deal is worth at least $800 million, with the potential for more sales in the future. Russian arms dealers--and their friends in the Kremlin--don't like to leave that much money on the table, even on a temporary basis.

Obviously, it would take a powerful incentive to get Russia to delay or cancel the sale. And what would that incentive be? How about major U.S. concessions on missile defense in Europe. Earlier this month, a senior Obama Administration official told Reuters that the U.S. might slow development of Europe-based missile defenses--if Russia agreed to help with Iran, and dissuade their nuclear ambitions.

If that's the strategy (and no one at the White House has denied the Reuters account), then it's not hard to imagine a similar request on the S-300. By cutting a deal with Moscow, the U.S. can keep a state-of-the-art SAM system out of Iran, a system that would pose a serious threat to American aircraft in the (remote) possibility that we decide to go after Tehran's nuclear facilities.

But at what price? Missile defense advocates fear that these overtures may ultimately result in the cancellation of the planned BMD shield in Eastern Europe. As defense writer John Doyle notes, that prospect has created dismay in the region, which has looked to U.S. for security guarantees, particularly after last year's conflict between Russia and Georgia.

For Moscow, the apparent "understanding" with Washington would represent the deal of the century. For a little pressure on Iran--and interruption of the S-300 deal, Russia achieves a major policy goal: getting the U.S. to defer missile defenses in Moscow's back yard.

Make no mistake--that's exactly what the Obama team is proposing. While Vice President Joe Biden said the U.S. would "pursue" BMD during a recent speech in Germany, that pledge came with the usual caveats--the missile defenses must be affordable and meet steep performance criteria. You don't need to be rocket scientist to understand what that means. By setting impossible test criteria, the new administration can assure the ultimate cancellation of key missile defense programs.

Meanwhile, Moscow will be free to pursue its own strategic modernization, without having to worry about advanced BMD systems that could (ultimately) protect against a Russian attack. Indeed, the Obama Administration has been talking about a new strategic arms treaty with Moscow that will sharply reduce the nuclear inventories of both sides. But there's been no suggestion about cuts in new systems like Russia's SS-27 ICBM, which is also being deployed on ballistic missile submarines.

Followed to its logical conclusion, the Obama policy would leave us with no missile defenses in Eastern Europe--and down-sized, aging nuclear forces--facing a resurgent Russia with newer and more capable land-based missiles. That doesn't mean that the strategic balance will tilt inexorably in Moscow's favor, but it does grant concessions that are simply jaw-dropping.

Put more succinctly: this is one "missile swap" that we don't need.

6 comments:

PCSSEPA said...

The Empty Suit and Joe the Idiot are in control now. It will do you no good to adjust the knobs on your set. These two are amateurs playing with skilled and ruthless adversaries. Community organizing and the U.S. Senate haven't prepared them for anything but getting their hats handed to them by the good ol' boys who used to bring you the Soviet Union. Seems as if Bush's warning about the right words and people changing their minds and ways was correct.

J.R. said...

First off, the SS-27 isn't being deployed in subs; the Bulava is. Even if you can't find photos that will convince you that they're different systems, look at the launch successes of the SS-27 (from silos or TELs), and the impressively bad failure streak of the Bulava.

Second, the missile defense setup in Europe is not (and never was) intended to deter Russia. Russia can crank out missiles far faster and cheaper than we can do all of the diplomacy required to field additional interceptors, and they already have a head start. Even if we could soak missiles with interceptors on a one-to-one basis, Russia's ability to saturate the skies would remain essentially unchecked.

So if we can get Russia to mistakenly believe that they're buying some additional security for themselves, while the only real change is weakening Iran -- for whom the European site *is* intended -- then isn't that a win?

PCSSEPA said...

We are swaping a ballstic missile interceptor system for the Russians holding back on a SAM system. The Iranians will still develop and deploy their ballistic missiles. How does this swap help the U.S. and its allies? The only thing it will do is give the IAF a little less troublesome flight into and out of the target area...if we give them the green light. I would not hold my breath on that one, given our current President's lack of vision, real-politik, and understanding of history.

Spook86 said...

J.R.--Check your sources; the Bulava is a derivative of the SS-27, the only differences are the required mods for submarine launch. And BTW, the Russians have solved the problems with the SLBM variant; they conducted a successful launch of the system almost two years ago.

I'll concede that Europe-based missile defenses could never completely eliminate the Russian threat. But as BMD technology advances, it will become more capable against larger numbers of missiles, putting a potential dent in Russia's strategic capabilities. Besides, if Moscow continues on its current path (modernizing its arsenal, conducting wars against its pro-western neighbors), we may be forced (at some point) to reclassify Russia as a major threat, and consider possible use of the BMD shield against their forces. That's still a long ways off, but the potential is there.

Finally, there's the perpetual question of why Moscow would oppose a system that is being deployed to deal with the Iranian threat. The answer is obvious; even a small-scale BMD deployment is a threat to Russian military power, which relies more than ever on its strategic arsenal. And putting the interceptors and radars in forward areas sends a powerful signal to Russia about our commitment to emerging democracies in eastern Europe.

Well, I should say it "sent" a powerful message. The Obama plan will eventually scrap European-based BMD facilities, in exchange for Russian pressure on Iran. Meanwhile, Moscow will continue to modernize its nuclear arsenal, while elements of our own continues to age.

If this deal holds, Iran may not get the S-300, but we will emerge as the biggest loser, in terms of missile defense and relations with key allies in Europe.

J.R. said...

The swap may prevent us from deploying land-based long-range interceptors, but we can still deploy THAAD or PAC-3 batteries to any other local ally who will have them, and we're always free to place Aegis BMD systems in the Med and the Gulf no matter who doesn't like it.

Israel already demonstrated that they can kick in the door on an S-300-based system with their attack on Syria last summer. Combined with Russia's newfound reluctance to sell hardware to Iran, it could be enough to make Iran reconsider their air defense plans and settle for an indigenous solution.

So in the end, we keep a very mildly diminished capability (a handful of interceptors fewer) and Iran has to settle for threatening their neighbors without any plausible way to prevent air strikes. I don't see it as that terrible of a deal, especially if Russia believes that they got a huge concession from us. We've got START renegotiations coming up, and it will be nice to give Sec'y Clinton a strong negotiating position.

As for the Bulava, the solid-fuel motors of all three stages of the SS-27 and the Bulava are each different lengths and diameters. In my book that makes them completely different systems. They're both poured at Votkinsk (MITT) but they're not the same by a long shot. Are you sure you're not conflating the SS-27 silo variant and the new MIRVed RS-24? There's a lot of talk that those two systems could be the same booster with different packaging. Re: flight testing, Podvig shows only one "fully successful test" in November of '08, and only a 4/10 success rate in flight tests. I don't think it's clear that they've fixed their problems yet.

MDConservative said...

The Obama Administration wants to spend away on "stimulus" but not missile defense:

http://ci-report.blogspot.com/2009/02/missile-defense-not-president-obama-is.html

In addition there was a really good piece in the WSJ:

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123414254051961831.html#printMode