Thursday, May 17, 2007

Kicking the Can, Redux

Michael O'Hanlon is a respected commentator on defense and arms-control issues, but his latest op-ed (written for The New York Times) is simply flat-out wrong. Mr. O'Hanlon believes the U.S. should table its planned basing of ballistic missile defense (BMD) system in eastern Europe, and revisit the idea after next year's presidential elections in the U.S. and Russia. Likening the BMD deployment to a "good idea whose time is not yet come," O'Hanlon argues that the short-term benefits are not worth "the worsening of relations with Russia that it has already engendered."

..."The fact of the matter is that Russia does object to the plan, many European allies are nervous, and the whole idea could reinforce the global image of the United States as a hypermilitarized, go-it-alone superpower. Any major decision to build a new defense system needs to recognize this perception and factor it into the strategic and diplomatic calculus.

Common sense dictates that there is no need to rush ahead just so that we can start to build the system on European soil in the last 20 months of George W. Bush’s presidency. If the president wants to make creating a third missile defense site part of his legacy, he can still contribute — by setting up a formal NATO process to study the idea and give our allies a greater voice in the debate. Not only would this calm their concerns, it would give the Pentagon more time to design and test the interceptors."

From Mr. O'Hanlon's perspective, there's plenty of time to discuss creation of a NATO missile shield, to protect European members from threats in the Middle East, notably Iran. Allowing an opportunity for more discussion and planning before a final deployment decision would give us a chance to bring the Russians on board, and devise defenses that provide broader coverage. On the surface, it sounds very reasonable.

But O'Hanlon's analysis ignores key realities that are driving the effort for an "early" BMD deployment in eastern Europe. In recent months, Iran has purchased the BM-25 intermediate range missile system from North Korea, which (in turn) acquired them from--you guessed it--the Russians. The BM-25 is based on a Soviet-era, submarine-launched ballistic missile (the SS-N-6), but it's proven technology that can be easily re-engineered to carry a nuclear warhead, its original mission in the Russian Navy. More importantly, the BM-25 has range of up to 5,000 km (3,100 NM), giving Iran--for the first time--an ability to target portions of Europe with its ballistic missiles and WMD.

Various intelligence reports indicate that the first missiles and launchers have arrived in Iran, so this isn't some "pie-in-the-sky" challenge, it's a threat that already exists. And, Iran continues to make progress on the nuclear front as well. Today, former Israeli U.N. Ambassador Dore Gold reported today that Tehran could have enough fissile material to make a bomb in a year, an analysis that's consistent with recent IAEA inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities. Those inspections revealed a steadily-expanding array of centrifuges, used to make the highly enriched uranium (HEU) needed for a bomb. Iran still has technical hurdles to overcome, but it's on the road to fulfilling its nuclear ambitions, and those "ambitions" will eventually be mounted on a BM-25--or other missiles--that can reach NATO targets.

Mr. O'Hanlon also ignores the bureaucratic haggling that will be required to win full NATO approval for a wider defensive shield. One reason the U.S. is opting for a "limited" partnership with the Czech Republic and Poland is that significant blocs within the alliance are still opposed to missile defense, and might veto a more extensive system. Beyond that, there's the hard slog of getting NATO to sign off on anything in a timely manner. A former colleague once participated in an alliance "working group" assigned to crank out a relatively simple, unclassified regulation on denial-and-deception. That process took almost five years. We can only imagine how long the NATO study process--as advocated by Mr. O'Hanlon--would last.

In reality his "delayed" implementation strategy is little more than a variant on the Clinton Administration's "kick the can" security strategy of the 1990s. Under that approach, tough decisions on issues like missile defense, terrorism and military procurement were postponed or delayed, leaving those choices to the next president. The fallacy of that strategy was amply illustrated on September 11, 2001.

Likewise, it makes little sense to put off a decision on BMD deployments to eastern Europe. Under the current administration plan, the system won't be operational for at least two years, meaning that NATO members within range of those BM-25s won't have any protection until 2009-2010, at the earliest. Allowing more time for study and debate would push system IOC toward the middle of the next decade; by that time, Iran is likely to have a small arsenal of nuclear weapons and even more delivery platforms, making the issue of missile defense even more complex, contentious--and expensive.

By opting for an earlier deployment, the Bush Administration is sending a clear signal of support to our key partners on NATO's eastern frontier--and an equally clear message of deterrence to the mullahs in Tehran. As for those Russian objections, Mr. O'Hanlon is right about one thing: they have virtually no strategic merit. He echoes a point we've made before; Russia has more than enough missiles to overwhelm NATO's preliminary defensive shield. But Moscow's objections are rooted more in politics than the military balance-of-power. Concerns about missile defenses in eastern Europe reflect Russian efforts to exert influence in a region that now looks to Washington, rather than Moscow, for leadership.

O'Hanlon's op-ed also fails to mention two other inconsistencies that cut to the heart of Russian hypocrisy on this subject. First, if Moscow is truly concerned about BMD in eastern Europe, they could make those deployments unnecessary by tightening export controls on missile technology. After all, those BM-25s that are now in Iran were designed by the Russians and willingly sold to North Korea--with the full knowledge that cash-strapped Pyongyang would likely sell them to other rogue states.

Secondly, the Russians want to deny NATO a capability that they already possess--the ability to defend their territory from a limited missile attack. Unlike the U.S., Russia never abandoned its ABM system, which still operates--and provides a missile shield--around the Moscow area. Are the Poles and Czechs (not to mention the Bulgarians, Romanians, and Hungarians) less entitled to missile defense than the Russians? Michael O'Hanlon seems to suggest that they are, at least for now.


Tom from Calgary said...

Just as a point of note the SS-N-6 and the BM-25 are two entirely separate and unrelated systems.

The proper Russian nomenclature for the SS-N-6 is either the RSM-25 or the R-27.

The BM-25 is the launcher for a 250mm Russian unguided rocket with a range of 20km or so.

A not so small difference.

Brian H said...

There is also the not-so-small consideration that Putin's government seems to show every sign of going "rogue", in the sense of disregarding any and every international agreement and constraint that isn't backed by imminent countervailing force.

A Russian autocracy by any other name ...

Utopia Parkway said...

The administration should consider negotiating with the Russions on this issue: We won't build the ABM installation and they won't sell anything military to the Iranians. We can prove that the ABM installation has nothing to do with the Russian military and they can prove that they are willing to be cooperative in limiting the capabilities of the Iranians.

Unknown said...


The Russians may use RSM-25 or R-27 for the SS-N-6, but the North Koreans and the Iranians have (for some reason) designated the land-based version the BM-25. Obviusly, it's not the same thing as the Russian MRL, but that designation is being used for the North Korean/Iranian MRBM, and it appears to have gained acceptance with western intelligence agencies and the press.

In fact, virtually all media reporting on the topic uses the BM-25 designation for the system, despite the potential for confusion with the MRL.

Tom from Calgary said...

I'm actually going to have to disagree on the name issue.

Western naming conventions for DPRK missile systems have been based on what the closest village to the test site has been and the current working name is for the system in question is Musudan-ri after the village outside the test site where the first satellite images were taken of the missile.

The first usage of BM-25 was in the German press... specifically the Bild newspaper... and the other press services have just been quoting that verbatim without any fact checking.

And then theres also the solid fuel versus liquid fuel issue. The SS-N-6 is a liquid fuel missile while the Musudan-ri is allegedly a solid fuel system.

It's doubtful the DPRK could engineer a working solid fuel system with no testing. I've seen some reports that say that Iran has test fired at least one and provided the results to North Korea but that's totally unsubstantiated aside from the one report.