Monday, March 22, 2010

Could missile defense make the US invulnerable to nuclear attack?

This is moving off of the main topic of this blog, and well outside of the areas that I've been watching the most closely, but there is a connection because one of the easiest places for a US/Russian rivalry to play itself out is the Middle East, where the US is still tied to a colonial structure that includes Israel and a host of illegitimate US-aligned regimes.

Russia has certainly not reacted to its knowledge of US plans to extend its missile defense systems to the Russian border as if it feels assured that any defense can be more cheaply overcome than it can be implemented. Russia, unanimously in what its leaders and experts say, see a real threat to Russian interests in this extension. A threat serious enough that Russia warned Poland and Czech Republic that they would be early targets in any conflict with the US if they proceeded.

I don't know exactly what threat the Russians interpret, but I can see trends they may find troubling. At the height of the Cold War, Russia and the United States reached strategic parity. Neither has a distinct nuclear advantage over the other. After Russia lost the cold war, Russia still has the same strategic parity.

The United States did, at least for a moment, though it is now decreasing, have an economic advantage over Russia post-Cold War that did not translate into an adjustment in the strategic situation in favor of the US. If the US becomes able to sprint to solve the difficult engineering problems associated with intercepting missiles, it will have an advantage that it will, as it was before Russia's first nuclear bomb in the 1950s, be able to attack but not be attacked itself.

If such a strategic position is feasible, the United States structurally cannot pass it up. The US military will demand it and modern US Presidents are not able to (and of course have no reason to want to) deny a strongly held strategic objective of the military. The US military is far more influential in forming US military/strategic policy than any domestic lobby or other governmental constituency.

That missile defense is difficult is an advantage, not a disadvantage in that it offers the hope that it can be put in place by the US and will be difficult for adversaries to copy to catch up.

The question is "is missile defense unfeasibly difficult." Russia is acting as if it is not. We're talking about a tremendous strategic advantage, and also an advantage that the US benefits from the public and its adversaries having an exaggerated idea of its difficulty and an understated perception of any progress already made.

I'm comfortable saying missile defense is not feasible today. I'm not comfortable saying the US will not be able to implement reasonably effective global missile defense 20 years from now, while the US will be hoping to have a monopoly at that.

Russia and China are the countries whose strategic situation would be threatened the most by such a US monopoly at missile defense. If Russia and China are producing more engineers and scientists than the US by that time, they may be able to neutralize the US advantage either by developing ways to overcome the US defenses or building their own - but if the US is able to develop missile defenses over time without suspicion, there may be a lot of ground for its adversaries to cover by the time they realize the change in the strategic situation.

The advantage the US has today, in the post-Cold War world is that the United States is the country most able to allocate the tremendous amount of resources missile defense would cost. So far the US advantage in ability to finance huge military projects has not resulted in a change in the strategic situation. The US military is simply not able to allow the US to just fail to press a huge advantage like that. US diplomats can say the US has no intention to build missile defense, but if it is at all feasible, those US diplomats are either lying or misinformed. It is impossible for it to be feasible and the US not to reach for it.

Is there a connection between missile defense and the Middle East at all? If the US was to have an operational global missile defense it could put Israel under it and leave adversaries such as Iran outside - effectively restoring Israel's regional monopoly on nuclear capability.

The US-Middle East colonial structure is expensive to maintain, but is fundamentally in strategic terms a vanity project for the United States. If Russia or China threatens it, the worst they could do is relieve the US of the expense of holding it together. There is no threat there.

If Russia or China could maneuver the US into a broader war with Iran, that war could drain the US of the resources it hopes to use to reshape the global strategic environment in its favor. If a war actually was to happen, Russia and China have internal supply lines that they could use to keep Iran armed and equipped indefinitely. It would be a total nightmare for the US, and with troops already in the region that the US military cannot just leave to die, the US would have no choice but to increase its commitment there, increasing both its losses and the amount of troops that remain for it to lose while unable to leave without an agreement from Iran and its supporters. A war with Iran would change everything. A war with Iran would end US hopes of extending, much less increasing, any strategic advantage anywhere.

But every indication is that the US military has calculated its expectations from war with Iran and concluded that a war is to be avoided. Not only because it would give Russia the opportunity to grind the US down the way the USSR was ground down by the US in Afghanistan, but because there is no point where there are clear advantages to the US of war with Iran, the US is just not going to war with Iran.

Because the US has enough understanding of its situation that it will not be drawn into a war with Iran, the Middle East plays very little part in the dispute over either missile defense or the strategic environment that will prevail in the next generation between Russia, China and the US/Western Europe.

Russia seems to me to be acting as if it perceives, and I think it is right to perceive, that there is a real threat of the US greatly improving its strategic environment with respect to its main rivals over the next 15 or 20 years.


masoud said...

The question is "is missile defense unfeasibly difficult." Russia is acting as if it is not.

I would disagree with that. I think if the Russians thought this type of system was a threat they would react much more violently with the states that border them.(see Georgia)

I would say, based on my own lay-understanding of the issue, that reliable missile defense is very likely impossible. If it is possible then it is very likely much easier to defeat than it is to implement.

I think what Russia balks at is:
1. The added cost of research programs it will have to invest in if the US does go ahead with these plans.
2. The effect that even partial or fictional missile defense may have on both on NATO expansionism and former soviet block countries independent streak. It is the idea of Russia's relative weakness in the minds of decision makers, more than whatever Russia's actual strength is that has the potential to drive these in directions detrimental to Russian interests.


Lysander said...

This is indeed a very crucial topic and well worth exploring, even if it's only peripherally related to the middle east. It is extremely difficult to parse it without any technical background, but I'll make the following points.

Russia does seem very angry about the missile shield, but I would posit that that does not mean Russia believes such a shield is feasible or cost effective. Russia could simply be reacting to the slow encroachment of western military bases towards its borders.

Russia's anger was that the weapons were to be placed in former Warsaw pact nations. I believe the US is placing them in Poland and Check republic precisely for that purpose. After all, couldn't the US set up the exact same bases in Germany? Will the interceptor system work only in certain countries? Also, if the US is indeed designing such a system, why so much talk about it years, likely decades before it would ever be operational? That just gives adversaries plenty of warning time to counter it. If the US truly expected to invent an effective shield, it would do everything possible to maintain secrecy.

If the US were to place the system in Germany, I doubt Russia would care. There is a long standing military alliance between the US and Germany. Another base would be nothing new.

Poland is a different matter. Russia perceives Poland as viscerally anti-Russian. Unlike Germany, Poland's alliance with the US is relatively new. A missile defense system, even if not effective, would solidify that relationship.

Russia also has reason to fear the sort of color revolution rabble rousing that the west is accustomed to. After all, Russia was barely a decade ago under the control of a very west friendly Yeltsin and along with him a group of west (and Israel) friendly oligarchs. Only some very clever maneuvering by Putin and a click of KGB types returned Russian control back home. Placing bases in Poland is a sign that the US still hopes to destabilize Russia.

It is hard to discuss the technical aspects of it. But as far as countering the shield, keep the following in mind. The US spent decades and enormous sums of money trying to develop stealth aircraft. For a fraction of that cost, Russia, Ukraine, and the Czech Republic have already developed stealth detecting radar. As did Sweden.

What was supposed to be a strategic game changer, turned out to be an expensive toy.,15240,157743,00.html