By Peter Zeihan
The commander of Russia's strategic bomber force, Lt. Gen. Igor Khvorov, said March 5 that his forces could easily disrupt or destroy any missile defense infrastructure in Poland and the Czech Republic — where the United States is preparing to set up parts of a ballistic missile defense (BMD) system. Khvorov was hardly the first Russian official to make such a threat: On Feb. 19, statements by Strategic Rocket Forces commander Col. Gen. Nikolai Solovtsov
left little doubt that Moscow would target U.S. BMD sites with its nuclear arsenal if Washington pushes ahead with its plans. Exactly why missile defense — a technology that has received little publicity since the Cold War — should be a source of increasingly obvious tension between the United States and Russia is an interesting question. An equally interesting question: Why are the Russians threatening once again to target NATO countries — a tactic Moscow abandoned 15 years ago? The answer is rooted not only in the history of BMD, but in the myriad ways the European theater has changed — from both the U.S. and European points of view — since the end of the Cold War. BMD and the Cold War
When Ronald Reagan introduced the Star Wars system in the 1980s, his logic was much more political than military. It was apparent that, even with extremely aggressive funding, the United States was decades away from being able to establish a missile shield capable of deflecting a significant Soviet nuclear strike. Rhetoric aside, the argument for a BMD system was not really about establishing an impregnable bubble around the United States, but rather about shifting the strategic balance away from mutually assured destruction and into a venue that catered to the Americans' economic advantage. In the minds of Politburo members, the United States not only was moving into a realm in which the Americans already enjoyed substantial technological and economic advantages, but in which the costs of development also threatened to overturn Soviet military doctrine. As of the early 1980s, the United States was spending only 6 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, whereas the Soviets are thought to have been expending more than one-quarter of theirs. The Soviets recognized that they could not win a space race involving defensive weaponry. Reagan's insistence on keeping the BMD issue on the table, therefore, gave him enormous bargaining power against the Soviets and contributed heavily to the subsequent arms-control and disarmament treaties that ultimately heralded the Cold War's end. European leaders, however, viewed BMD issues in much the same light as the Soviets did. Though few Europeans were comfortable with the idea of the Americans and Soviets being locked into a Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) structure that would consume their homelands if anything should go awry, it was impossible to ignore the fact that MAD had brought about 50 years of relatively stable Great Power relations. Reagan's BMD was viewed as an extremely aggressive effort to overturn that system and disrupt the stability that went with it. European states were terrified of BMD at both the political and strategic levels. But the arguments and alignments in favor of BMD have changed drastically in the post-Cold War era. The New American Logic
As the Russian missile arsenal has declined in quantity and quality, U.S. desires for a BMD protective net have only strengthened. Though most American strategic planners in the 1980s were well aware that the system being envisioned was merely drawing-board material, strategic and technological realities today are starkly different. U.S. strategic thought now is fixating on two ideas. First and most obvious is that, though it would not be foolproof by any stretch, it is possible that within a few years, an American-installed BMD network in certain parts of the world could protect against secondary threats such as Iran and North Korea. Given that the human and financial costs involved in rebuilding a major U.S. city (should one be hit by a nuclear weapon) are well above even the most aggressive price estimates for a global BMD network, the original vision of BMD as an effective defensive weapon now could be within reach. The second idea dovetails with long-standing U.S. strategic doctrine — a philosophy that long predates the Cold War. That doctrine has always aimed to push threats away from the continental United States — initially by securing U.S. sovereignty over the North American land mass, achieving strategic depth and controlling sea approaches. Ultimately, the doctrine calls for the United States to project power into Eurasia itself, establishing as much stand-off distance as possible. In the early 20th century, naval power allowed the United States to do this just fine. But in the early 21st century, with the proliferation of intercontinental ballistic missile technology, naval power is only one leg of such a strategy. Having forward-based BMD facilities not only is becoming important for Washington, but is moving to the core of U.S. defense logic. From Washington's perspective, establishing a BMD system is not about taking advantage of Russia's relative military weakness, but instead about adapting to a new strategic reality. The foes and threats facing the United States have changed. No one is pretending that Russia's decline as a global power has not opened the door to a U.S. BMD system in the first place, or that the system could not be expanded and upgraded in the future as a potential counter to Russia's nuclear arsenal. Rather, it means simply that in the current strategic picture, the Russians really are not at the heart of U.S. defense planning — and certainly not so far as BMD is concerned.
(click to enlarge)
The technological considerations are not unimportant here. With current technology, any system would be twitchy at best — so for best results, the United States is seeking a layered network. The first layer of defense — which most likely would include airborne lasers at some point — would be sited as close to the launching states as possible, allowing the system to target any missile launches during the boost phase. The second layer would involve missile interceptors or AEGIS systems to strike during the midcourse of the missile's flight, followed by terminal phase engagement with anti-missile systems, such as the PAC-3 (the newest incarnation of the Patriot). The polar projection of an ICBM is also key to understanding Washington's logic. Any missile launched from Iran and bound for the continental United States would have to fly over Central Europe — which is why the United States has pending agreements to set up an interceptor base in Poland
and a radar station in the Czech Republic. Similarly, any North Korean missile would have to fly over Alaska, the other major BMD interceptor locale. A nuclear strike out of Russia, however, would travel over the North Pole. BMD installations in Europe and Alaska would cover only the peripheries of that attack corridor — and with vastly insufficient numbers of interceptors.
In short, the U.S. rationale for BMD has evolved. In the 1980s, it was about breaking out of the MAD impasse and wringing concessions out of the Soviets. Today, BMD has the potential to be something that was never seriously considered in the 1980s: a viable defensive weapon. Put another way, BMD once was wielded as a political tool to avoid
a future war; now, it is coming to be viewed as a defensive weapon to be used
in a future conflict. The New European Logic
The Czech Republic and Poland are not the only European states to have changed their thinking about BMD either. A number of countries not only are responding warmly to U.S. overtures regarding facilities, but in some cases actually are initiating the siting requests. For central European states, the benefits of such deals are obvious. Most of the political elites in these states fear a future conflict with the Russians, and anything they can do to solidify a military arrangement with Washington is, to their thinking, a benefit in and of itself. But even in Western Europe, further removed from the Russian periphery, opposition to the United States' BMD programs seems to have relaxed considerably. The United Kingdom has specifically requested inclusion in the system (though Washington so far has declined), and the German government has called for the United States to address the issue of BMD in the context of NATO. There are several reasons for this change. First and foremost, BMD technology — while still unproven — has advanced considerably since the Reagan era, and thus is now far more likely to work. When BMD was only a political tool and could offer no real protection, the Europeans were understandably squeamish about participating in the system. But if the system is actually functional, the calculus shifts. Second, a weak BMD system designed to guard against Iran theoretically could evolve into a stronger system that helps to protect Europeans against Russia in the future. Of course, the system is not designed to target Russia at the present time, but if Russia's military capabilities should decay further over time, the technological argument — that the system might actually work — weighs heavily in the European mind. And at a time when Moscow is growing more aggressive in economic and political terms, laying the groundwork for a military hedge makes sense. Third, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Europeans to define their security interests as separate from Washington's. Moscow's new energy strategy
is a tool for exerting influence over Europe, making European states more willing to view Russia through American goggles. Moreover, Iran regularly bites its thumb at the United Nations and its nuclear watchdog, inducing the Europeans (little by little) to morph from being apologists for Tehran to quiet, if still primarily unofficial, enforcers of sanctions. BMD fits into the U.S. strategic doctrine, and that logic, by association, is now taking hold in Europe. Fourth, there is a desire to rope the United States into a multilateral defense stratagem. Many Western Europeans begrudge U.S. efforts to dominate the NATO alliance and regularly try to persuade Washington to more seriously consider European points of view. But the United States' ability to make bilateral defense deals cuts the Europeans out completely. For countries like Germany, which considers itself a key driver of European policy, the only way to counter unilateral American moves is to make it worth Washington's while to discuss issues like BMD within the framework of NATO — which means taking BMD well beyond committee meetings and talk shops. It means actually deploying assets. To do otherwise would only encourage Washington to impose a security policy upon Europe without consulting the Europeans. Finally, there is the "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" logic: Bilateral U.S. security agreements with Central European states are forging BMD into reality. If is going to happen anyway, the logic goes, you might as well jump on the bandwagon and reap some of the benefits. Russian Repercussions
The Russians, of course, are not blind to the emergence of a potential threat near their borders — even recognizing the limitations of the BMD system as currently envisioned. The United States certainly does not want to trigger a war with Moscow, but that does not mean that Washington is oozing with warm feelings toward all things Russian. Throughout American history, only three countries have seriously threatened the United States: Britain, which ultimately was forced into the role of ally; Mexico, which was occupied and half its territory annexed; and Russia/Soviet Union — the only foe still remaining. Traditionally, the United States does not defeat its enemies so much as crush them until either they switch sides or are incapable of posing more than a negligible threat. Though the days of Russian-American military parity are long past, the United States is not yet finished with Moscow from a strategic perspective. Washington wants to pressure Russia until its will, as well as its ability, to pose a viable threat completely disintegrates. Therefore, while it is true that Russia is not an explicit target of the BMD system being established in the Czech Republic and Poland, it would be ridiculous to believe that BMD facilities in Europe would not trigger evolutions in Russian policy. Washington realizes that. In fact, the Americans are betting on it. Establishing a BMD system on Russia's doorstep would indeed pose a potential long-term threat for Moscow — but more importantly, it creates a political irritant that will generate a steady stream of bellicose Russian rhetoric. And that serves American purposes. The more aggressive Russia sounds, the more willing Europeans will be to see strategic U.S. policy in general — and BMD policy specifically — from Washington's point of view. Which brings us back to the recent statements by the men who manage Russia's warheads. Their direct threats against European targets must have thrilled American strategic planners. With but a few words, the Russian generals not only supplied a fresh rationale for the BMD system, but also tilted the debate in Europe over the entire system toward the Americans' logic.