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U.S. Walks Away from the Missile Defense Third Site (and European Allies) September 17, 2009

Posted by SV in Iran, North Korea, Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Russia, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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In an excellent WSJ article, Peter Spiegel details the reasons behind the Obama administration’s shelving of the missile defense third site in Central Europe.  Though they are claiming that it was based on a technical assessment and that Iran’s long-range ballistic missile program is proceeding slowly, it should be apparent to the casual observer that this has been Obama’s plan since January 20th.  In a move to appease Russian objections to installing U.S. military assets in their “sphere of influence,” the U.S. has walked away from defense commitments made to Poland, the Czech Republic, and other nations within range of Iranian missiles.  This decision is misguided and dangerous for several reasons.

First, the procurement issue.  Even if you accept the delay in Iranian ICBM capabilities until mid-2010s, due to the slow acquisition process (and slower deployment timetable), that is about the time the Third Site would become operational.  By shelving the plans, the U.S. will be putting itself in the position where it finds the Iranian missile program progressing faster than its missile defense deployment.  In the time period between Iranian long-range missile capability and U.S. BMD deployment, Iran may be able to coerce the U.S. or Europe by threatening unprotected European cities.  Their stopgap measure of rotating terminal-phase missile defenses (those that intercept the missile in its last minutes of descending flight) through Europe will leave plenty cities vulnerable and will take just as long to deploy (and probably cost more).

Second, the timeline issue.  The 2007 national intelligence estimate, which had a lot of political influences, delayed the timeline of Iran’s nuclear program.  However, it failed to account for technical surprise, and it is likely the missile estimate failed to do so as well.  In 1998 virtually every intelligence agency in the world was surprised when North Korea launched a three-stage ICBM.  In 2003 the unraveling of (some of) the A.Q. Khan network revealed how private individuals could essentially proliferate nuclear weapon technology to any country with cash.  The point is that a significant surprise – such as North Korean or private-network assistance, could propel Iran to an ICBM capability far sooner than the intelligence currently suggests.  The third site would have provided valuable insurance against this possible eventuality.

An Iranian Shahab-3 has a range of 1,600 km

An Iranian Shahab-3 has a range of 1,600 km

Third, the allies’ defense.  True, the administration is pledging to deploy some missile defenses, like terminal-intercepts, but this is a far cry from the planned midcourse-intercept system that could have provided coverage of virtually all of Europe.  Terminal systems have a small “footprint” that can only cover smaller areas, like a city.  In a must read letter to the Obama administration, current and former leaders of Central and Eastern Europe basically ask not to be forgotten or sacrificed.  They state “all is not well in our region or in the transatlantic relationship…storm clouds are starting to gather on the foreign policy horizon… [Russia] at a regional level and vis-a-vis our nations, increasingly acts as a revisionist [power].”  They worry that Russia’s intimidation and influence-peddling will lead to a neutralization of their region.

Regarding the missile defense site, they pointedly write that “regardless of teh military merits of this scheme and what Washington eventually decides to do, the issue has become a symbol of America’s credibility and commitment to the region… The small number of missiles involved cannot be a threat to Russia’s strategic capabilities, and the Kremlin knows this.  We should decide the future of the program as allies and based on the strategic pluses and minuses of the different technical and political configurations.”  They conclude on this subject that “abandoning the program entirely or involving Russia too deeply in it without consulting Poland or the Czech Republic can undermine the credibility of the U.S. across the whole region.”  Central and Eastern Europe would know about Russia’s operations.  They lived under their iron boot for generations.

Finally, the Russian problem.  The Russians have protested loudly to the planned third site since it was first announced, despite the fact it is only 10 defensive interceptors that would be incapable of countering one SS-18 or even catching up with its missiles if they headed out over the polar routes.  Once again, our allies understand the situation: “When it comes to Russia, our experience has been that a more determined and principled policy toward Moscow will not only strengthen the West’s security but will ultimately lead Moscow to follow a more cooperative policy as well.”  This would require firmness in negotiations with Putin and Medvedev.

The third site was likely the price the Obama administration figured it could pay to get Russian assistance on sanctions against Iran and in order to conclude the START follow-on.  If anyone is convinced the Russians can exert the leverage to make the Iranians comply with their obligations (forget the UN Security Council, China will still block that), they have not been paying attention.  Short of a crippling cut-off of all gasoline imports or nuclear reactor fuel from Russia, Iran is unlikely to even consider talks about its nuclear program.  As I stated in a previous post, linking the new START to removal of the missile defense site from Europe would be unacceptable.  Linking offensive and defensive weapons is walking right back into the Cold War paradigm the Clinton and Bush administrations did so much to end.

This is perhaps the administration’s worst foreign policy action to date.  It delays deployment of a real capability that could not only defend European allies but also the eastern United States from Iranian missiles.  It cannot be viewed as anything other than backing away from commitments made to Central and Eastern European allies and ignoring their legitimate concerns.  The Senate should reject ratification of the START follow-on treaty and mandate the deployment of the planned missile defenses as the price for their support.  Given this decision and the administration’s likely objection to warhead modernization, it will be hard to get 67 votes to ratify START.

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America’s Nuclear Deterrent 64 Years After Trinity July 16, 2009

Posted by SV in China, History, Iran, North Korea, Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Russia, Science, U.S. Government.
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Today, July 16th 2009, marked the 64th anniversary of the Trinity nuclear test in Alamagordo, New Mexico.  That test brought the world unambiguously into the Atomic Age.  Since that day nuclear weapons have played a critical role in U.S. defense policy, first as the ultimate tool with which to win the Second World War and almost immediately thereafter as a critical tool to deter aggression against the United States and its allies.  This mission became of even greater importance with the Soviet testing of an atomic bomb in August of 1949.

Despite serving as the most powerful deterrent against threats to the U.S. homeland and its allies, and by preventing a massively destructive conventional (or nuclear) war between the major powers, the nuclear deterrent of 2009 is atrophying and declining in reliability and safety.  As the Congressionally-mandated Strategic Posture Commission pointed out in its final report, the current nuclear weapons complex suffers from a lack of funding, a lack of emphasis on maintaining the intellectual base, and an almost hostile attitude by policymakers.  Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Senator Jon Kyl and former Reagan Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle charged the president with neglecting to support a safe, secure, and reliable nuclear deterrent as well as endorsing the unverifiable Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which the Senate rejected in 1999.

As the U.S. nuclear inventory continues to age, life-extension or stockpile stewardship programs continue in their attempt to increase the weapons’ service lives.  However, with each further modification, the weapon design is taken farther from the actual model that was proven successful through testing.  Also, each passing year sees more scientists who had experience with nuclear testing retiring.  Therefore the hands on expertise that was produced through a rigorous and scientific development and testing process is declining precipitously.  Crucial skills and knowledge, some of which may only be understood through testing, are being lost.

Though the proponents of a CTBT argue that it will strengthen Washington’s hand in promoting nonproliferation and tougher sanctions toward Iran and North Korea, there is little evidence to support this.  No matter if every other third-party nation suddenly endorsed U.S. nonproliferation efforts, as long as Russia and China continue to block effective measures, which have been within their interests, no amount of political good-will generated by CTBT ratification will stop proliferation.  Therefore, the CTBT could only bring into question more the reliability of America’s nuclear deterrent.  If the U.S. is to deter aggression and assure its allies (so that they do not develop their own weapons), it will eventually have to test a new, modern, safe nuclear warhead design to replace the Cold War-era stockpile.

If one wants to reach a compromise position, I would suggest following the French example.  France conducted its last nuclear test in 1995, providing it with a modern, reliable, and proven warhead design that would serve French purposes for decades to come.  Within the next year it signed and ratified the CTBT.  The U.S. could develop a Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) that would have  a service life of decades, test it to verify its reliability and effectiveness, and then ratify the CTBT.  Though a skeptic or pessimist may still argue that the U.S. may need to test a new or different design in the future, there is a “supreme national interest” clause in the CTBT that would allow the U.S. to withdraw if it served to further U.S. national security.  International agreements, after all, should only be abided to in order to further the national interest.

Alamagordo brought the world, willing or not, into the Atomic Age, which we remain in.  The Trinity test was the epitome of the scientific process.  Theorize, hypothesize, predict, and finally test.  Testing, as with any military weapon system, is a crucial option to have available.  Theory with testing is science.  Theory without testing is theology.

Trinity Test

North Korea Conducts Another Nuclear Test May 25, 2009

Posted by SV in China, North Korea, Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Russia, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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On 25 May 2009, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) conducted its second nuclear test in three years (as well as three short-range missile tests).  While South Korean security experts currently estimate the test was only several kilotons, Russian defense sources believe it to have been 10-20 kilotons (about equivalent to the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki).  If this latter estimate is indeed true, or closer to the mark, it will signify a marked improvement in the DPRK’s nuclear capability since its October 2006 test.  For the full stories on the test so far, see here and here.

The question arising now is how the international community will respond.  President Obama has stated the DPRK is “directly and recklessly challenging the international community” and that it “constitutes a threat to international peace and stability.”  He further notes that “such provocations will only serve to deepen North Korea’s isolation.”  Thus while there is a clear recognition of the seriousness of these events, there appears to be no clear strategy for responding to them.

This problem cannot be laid entirely at Obama’s feet, however.  During the Bush Administration, Washington placed several clear redlines to North Korean behavior (stop the nuclear program, no more missile tests, and finally no nuclear tests).  When Pyongyang broke every one of these, the U.S. response was to call for a new round of Six-Party talks – which spent half their time trying to get the DPRK to the table.  In fact, it became evident that a clear motivation for North Korea to take these actions was that it received substantial aid (food, energy) in exchange for it showing up at the negotiations.  (If you go farther back, you can blame Former President Jimmy Carter for rushing to North Korea in 1994 to establish the Agreed Framework when the Clinton Administration was about to get really tough with the Kim clan).

Regardless of the history, the United States is now faced with a growing challenge.  Though North Korea has likely not miniaturized its nuclear warheads to the point when they could fit on a missile, it may only be a matter of time.  And though they may have only 6-10 nuclear devices, they may see that as enough to deter U.S. intervention in their attempt to force reunification of the peninsula.

How should the Obama Administration react to these developments then?  Reinforcing the importance of the Six-Party talks is a waste of time.  This should only be pursued if Washington has an absolute guarantee from Beijing and Seoul that they will cut off all aid and assistance to the DPRK.  Emphasizing irrelevant steps like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is also detrimental to U.S. security.  The U.S. has not conducted a nuclear test in over 15 years, and still the DPRK conducts tests – ratification of the CTBT will give the U.S. nothing in its toolbox to deal with North Korea while unnecessariliy constraining U.S. options (especially as its nuclear deterrent atrophies).  So unless President Obama wants to do this same song and dance throughout his presidency (DPRK provocation, 6-Party Talks, DPRK aid), he will have to take forceful and concrete steps now, whatever they may be.  North Korea is one of the most isolated nations in history, sanctions to isolate it further are next to impossible to enact.  Exhibit leadership, consider all U.S. options, for the good of the national interest.