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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.


Obama’s Moscow Summit – Which Way to START? July 5, 2009

Posted by SV in Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Russia, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev are meeting in Moscow to discuss a successor to the soon-to-expire Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).  On the table for consideration (according to U.S. and/or Russian officials) are levels of deployed and stockpiled strategic nuclear warheads, strategic delivery systems (intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, and bombers), and missile defense.  Off the table are nonstrategic (short-range) nuclear weapons, which the Russians hold in abundance.

Truly understanding the situation between Washington and Moscow requires a brief look at the numbers.  The United States deploys around 2,200 strategic nuclear warheads (and ~ 2,500 reserves) on less than 1,000 missiles and bombers.  Russia deploys about 2,700 strategic nuclear warheads (and thousands in reserve) on roughly 650 missiles and bombers.  In nonstrategic nukes, Russia holds a massive advantage (3,000-5,000) over the United States (400-500).  In terms of strategic delivery systems, the U.S. still has decades before most of its systems will need replaced, while many Russian systems will reach the end of their service lives within the next decade, reducing their numbers to around 330.

The Obama Administration, in its rush to conclude the START follow-on by the current treaty’s expiration date on December 5th, is therefore playing into the Russians’ hands.  By pushing for deep warhead cuts (the Russians will not go below 1,500 deployed) and considering a further reduction in the permitted number of strategic delivery vehicles, U.S. negotiators are essentially getting nothing for something.  Since the Russians will have to eliminate many of their aging warheads, missiles, and bombers with or without an arms control treaty, they are trying to maintain parity with the United States through a new START accord.  In return, the U.S. is getting something it would have gotten without having to reduce the survivability and flexibility of its nuclear arsenal.

Until recently, the Obama Administration was seemingly giving credence to Russian objections to a third missile defense site in Central Europe.  Even former Secretary of Defense (and nuclear abolitionist) William Perry (D) stated in House testimony that trading missile defense for Russian promises was absolutely unreasonable.  The president’s special assistant, Michael McFaul, stated last week the U.S. was “not going to reassure or give or trade anything with the Russians regarding NATO expansion or missile defense.”  This is a step in the right direction.  Tying defensive conventional systems to offensive nuclear systems, which President Medvedev is still insisting on, is a relic of the Cold War “mutually assured destruction” thinking.

Therefore, the U.S. approach to the START follow-on has been fundamentally flawed.  By agreeing not to include nonstrategic nuclear weapons in the limits, the U.S. allowed Russia to maintain its biggest geopolitical advantage.  Many experts believe it is these “battlefield” nuke stockpiles that will be the likely source of any future nuclear terrorism or nuclear use by a state (Russia explicitly states they would be used to “de-escalate” an invasion of their homeland).  Furthermore, once U.S. warhead and delivery system levels have been drastically reduced, Washington will little leverage to urge Moscow to reduce its tactical nukes.

The arms control process is also misguided in the link some are attempting to make between a new START and “global zero,” the nuclear abolitionist movement.  The bipartisan Strategic Posture Commission determined that complete nuclear disarmament required a “fundamental transformation of the world political order.”  Guiding a new treaty along what optimists consider a decades-long goal is a recipe for miscalculation and bad decisions.  The Obama Administration needs to take a step back, assess U.S. interests over the long term, and proceed with a modest START follow-on from there.  Idealism is one thing.  Dealing with the Russians about nuclear weapons is entirely different.

Obama’s Foreign Policy Report Card at 50 Days March 11, 2009

Posted by SV in Asia, China, Iran, Japan, Middle East, Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Russia, U.S. Foreign Relations, United Nations.
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A brief look at President Obama’s foreign policy performance over the first 50 days of his tenure in office in no particular order:

Russia: D+

Main issue: There are no mulligans in international relations.

Analysis: At the suggestion of Vice President Biden that the US should somehow “reset” its relationship with Russia after the cooling tensions during the second term of the Bush Administration, Secretary of State Clinton had a red “reset” button made for her Russian counterpart to press.  Never mind that the translation was actually “overcharge” (as if that doesn’t sound bad enough), the issue is in the gesture.  As one should recall, the reason for cooling relations with Russia were mostly due to Russian provocations.  Let’s examine the record: attempted radiological assassination of dissidents in the UK or political opponents in Ukraine, a cyber attack on Lithuania, a coercive shut-off of European natural-gas supplies, and, most significantly, the invasion of Georgia during the “let’s-all-come-together” spirit of the Olympics.  If anyone should be coming to a meeting hat-in-hand and apologizing for past conduct, it should be the Russians.  That being said, improving relations with Russia is a worthy goal.  However, by going about it through new arms control and nuclear reductions treaties, the US is still stating that its relationship with Moscow is based on the number of warheads each country has pointed at the other.

Lesson: The Cold War is over.  Russia is fundamentally weak both economically and demographically.  Keep Moscow happy by making it feel like its opinion matters, even if it doesn’t (i.e., missile defenses).

North Korea: B+

Main issue: Satellite launches? Baloney – everyone knows what North Korean missiles are for.

Analysis: During her Asian tour, Secretary of State Clinton was preempted in her agenda by aggressive statements from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) that threatened new ballistic missile launches.  Rather than discuss global warming and trade, (thankfully) she was forced to put her emphasis on security matters.  Secretary Clinton delivered a tough line by stating that the US would regard any new missile launches as hostile and damaging to the US-DPRK relationship.  She also wisely reassured Japan that the US would honor its nuclear guarantee to Tokyo, staving off talk about Japan becoming a nuclear weapons power.  Standard military exercises involving the US and Republic of Korea (ROK – South Korea) have continued despite routine yet dramatic objections from Pyongyang.  And the US has not (yet) taken the possibility of shooting down a North Korean missile off the table (thank you, President Bush for those missile defenses).

Lesson: Taking a tough line demonstrates resolve to North Korea.  Don’t make regime change the stated policy.  Keep the pressure up, get China and ROK to turn off the spigot of food and energy, and then maybe Pyongyang will disarm.

Iran: C –

Main issue: Once Iran enriches Uranium to 20%, its a matter of weeks until they have the bomb.

Analysis: Admittedly, Obama inherited a bad situation with Iran.  Trying to make the most of it, he has attempted to start up talks in secret and in public to get the Iranians to the table.  With every day that goes by (and especially without IAEA inspectors at Natanz), Iran comes closer and closer to enriching Uranium to the 20% level, after which it takes weeks to months to enrich it to 90%, which is weapons-grade.  What more, then, could Obama be doing?  It is clear to everybody; let me rephrase, to all members of the UN Security Council, that Iran is in clear violation of its Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and IAEA obligations.  With his supposed global popularity, Obama should be trying to get a resolution passed with teeth that mandates immediate inspections of Iranian facilities and places sanctions on Tehran’s critical nodes – oil technology, foreign investment, and nuclear-related equipment.  However, the Iranians continue to stall for time, endlessly playing the great powers off of each other and approaching that necessary enrichment level more and more.

Lesson: The time for open-ended diplomacy is at an end.  Iran needs to be presented with stark choices, juicy carrots or hickory sticks, and realize the threat of force from the global community is real.  Best outcome?  Iran verifiabily limits its nuclear program to civilian power.

China: C +

Main issue: You DO NOT mess with the US Navy.

Analysis: On 8 March 2009, 5 Chinese ships (some of them part of the PLA Navy) shadowed and harassed the USNS Impeccable while it was mapping the ocean floor in international waters in the South China Sea.  The US crew responded by shooting a water hose at the approaching Chinese ships, causing their sailors to strip off their clothes in taunting.  In response to this provocation, Secretary of State Clinton met with her Chinese counterpart and both agree incidents of this kind should be “avoided” in the future.  In the words of a second grader, “well duh.”  What would have been more meaningful would have been if the Chinese had issued an apology for harassing a US Navy vessel in international waters.  The US Navy is the most feared and respected navy in the world because people understand its awesome power.  Letting a state get away with this, and making it seem that both sides were at fault, undermines this image.  As far as the economic crisis goes, the Obama Administration has at least worked cooperatively with the PRC and prevented them from unloading some of their $1.5 trillion in US debt holdings.  So, for not making economic matters worse with our biggest trading partner, they get a C minus.

Lesson: Primacy is a difficult burden to bear, but if you begin to relax it, other states get uppity.  Insist on respect to the US armed services deployed around the world and that any “rogue commanders” are publicly reprimanded.

United Kingdom: A –

Main issue: I know we’re in a recession, but that’s not an excuse for being a cheapskate.

Analysis: Though little covered in the American press, more was made of the exchange of gifts between President Obama and Prime Minister Gordon Brown in the UK media.  While Obama received a pen carved from a 19th-century ship used to suppress the slave trade, Obama’s gift to Brown was a collection of 25 DVDs (I don’t know if they were region 1 or 2) of American classics.  That’s not to denigrate the gift; the films were all undisputably American classics (actually they’re the top 25 from AFI’s 2008 list of the top 100 American films), some of them the best films ever made (see: Casablanca and The Godfather).  Though, I might be worried that Brown would attempt to burn the White House down (a la the War of 1812) if he is subjected to 2001: A Space Odyssey.  On more meaningful matters, the alliance still holds and economic cooperation is continuing.

Lesson: Rookie mistakes are embarassing but seldom have long-term consequences.  I know money’s tight, but show some class in your gift-giving.  Don’t tempt foreign prime ministers to be re-gifters.

Average: C+

Room to improve, but the sooner Obama gets his sea legs and stops making amateurish mistakes, the better for everyone.

Room for One More: Obama Extends the US Nuclear Umbrella to Israel December 11, 2008

Posted by SV in Iran, Iraq, Israel, Middle East, Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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The following post is premised on the statements of unnamed sources in the Bush and incoming Obama Administrations.  The full story can be viewed either here, or as it originally appeared in an Israeli paper, here.

President-Elect Obama has allegedly extended the US  nuclear deterrent to Israel in the case of an Iranian WMD attack.  The security pact also reportedly includes the deployment of new and improved missile defenses to Israel.  While some have already lambasted this as a concession that Iran will develop a nuclear capability or that the US would now be drawn into a nuclear war in the Middle East, it is an excellent decision for many reasons.

First of all, it is almost entirely certain that Iran will eventually acquire a nuclear (peaceful or weaponized) capability.  Israeli air strikes and/or American air/ground attack, while setting back Iran’s program, would not destroy it altogether or damage it sufficiently to delay deployment by decades.  Such action would likely set development back a couple of years (short of a major occupation – unlikely to say the least).  Recognizing such realities, as unpleasant as they may be, it is essential that the US provide both a credible threat to Iran of retaliation and a credible assurance to Israel that the US will not sit idly by while a second Holocaust occurs.

A second major reason this is a good decision is that Israel has been one of the United States’ closest allies.  The United States has already extended nuclear deterrents to a host of other countries, some of which are not as hospitable to us as Israel, such as South Korea or Germany.  Israel, though a nuclear power, does not have the same delivery capability to threaten massive retaliation against the Iranian regime if it were to be attacked.  While it was generally assumed that the US would respond if Tehran launched an attack on Israel, this declaration (if it turns out to be official and accurate) provides a clear consequence to aggressive Iranian action.

It should be noted, also, that a critical reason the Obama Administration will be able to make such a guarantee is due to the eight years of work on missile defense the Bush Administration has conducted.  In fact, many of the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems deployed in Israel were researched, funded, and built with US assistance.  Moreover, Tehran will unlikely be able to keep the US from intervening in a conflict on Israel’s behalf due to the work on missile defenses to protect the US homeland and deployed forces.  If the Third Site in Europe is constructed (dependent on a decision by the Obama Administration), the US will be well protected against an Iranian ballistic missile launched against the US.  Also, terminal-phase missile defenses like the PAC-3 and THAAD will be able to protect regional allies (like Saudi Arabia and Iraq) and US military forces.

Lastly, this decision will not result in the US being “dragged into” a nuclear war, as a senior Bush Administration source reportedly stated (their quote: “”Who will convince the citizen in Kansas that the U.S. needs to get mixed up in a nuclear war because Haifa was bombed? And what is the point of an American response, after Israel’s cities are destroyed in an Iranian nuclear strike?”).  Though it is within the realm of possibility that Iran may actually launch a nuclear missile at Israel, all will not “fade to black.”  Primarily, Israeli ABM-sytems have a great likelihood of striking an Iranian missile down.  Also, their civil defense system and recovery programs are capable and prepared to save a large portion of the population were such a missile to get through (they have, after all, faced this threat before).  Besides, though Israel may retaliate against population centers, the US would be more than capable of disarming any IRBM/ICBM capability Iran possessed within minutes after a strike, using either our air forces in the region or our own low-yield warheads, both of which would limit collateral damage.  Deploying increasing missile defense capabilities, the US can afford to come to the defense of Israel in a nuclear conflict.

That being said, it is possible all of this may be moot if sources were quoted wrong or if Obama does not follow through with this policy.  However, if he does, it will be an important strategic move that will reassure Israel and possibly prevent the IDF from launching a preemptive strike.  It will, however, require him to renege on his primary-era promise of cutting missile defense, as more of it will be needed to adequately defend against Iran.  If he is willing to rise to this challenge, his presidency may be off to a good start.

Defanging Deterrence: The Fate of Missile Defense in an Obama Administration November 10, 2008

Posted by SV in Election 2008, Homeland Security, Nuclear Proliferation, President Bush, President Obama, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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The Obama campaign was consistently centered around the ambiguous theme of change (after “hope”) and successfully marketed it to the American people.  The question now becomes, will this be selective change or drastic change?  After all, while Americans have given President Bush a low approval rating, not only does his approval rise when asked about certain issues, the vote of last Tuesday should not be seen as a total repudiation of Bush Administration policies.  There is, still, wide consensus on a number of issues.  Also, the percentage of people identifying themselves as liberal and conservative remained steady (despite the fact Rasmussen found that Democrats were four times as likely to want to take an exit poll).  So where does President-Elect Obama fit in on missile defense?

In fact, by searching all the transcripts of the Democratic debates, the subject of missile defense comes up once.  And that was by Senator Chris Dodd, who said we need a different set of priorities from missile defense (“investing in the bridges and the highways and the water systems” to be exact).  This is indicative of the Democratic Party’s stance on a vital defense issue.  They know it is popular, according to a Gallup survey in April 2002 (the most recent available), respondents supported the deployment of missile defense by 64% to 30%.  To oppose, cut, or reverse it is, then, a losing issue for Obama.

In the first presidential debate, Obama stated that “we are spending billions of dollars on missile defense.  And I actually believe that we need missile defense…but I also believe that, when we are only spending a few hundred million dollars on nuclear proliferation, then we’re making a mistake.”  Never mind the fact that counterproliferation is much cheaper than missile defense (MD) by definition, his solution is to cut MD and funnel some of the money to inhibiting nuclear proliferation.  Though it sounds like a good idea, proliferation has been kept largely in check (there is no deterring regimes like Iran or North Korea from pursuing nuclear programs with “friends” like Russia or China nearby) by current efforts.

Obama, along with most other Democrats, has stated that MD needed to be “proven” before it is deployed (see the youtube clip).  “Proven” has become a code-word for bringing something back to the drawing board and indefinitely suspending it because there is always the chance it will not work 100% of the time.  So what does this mean for the Missile Defense Agency (MDA)?  Expect to see the airborne laser system scrapped completely, the R&D funding for space-based systems eradicated, and a minimal deployment (less than 30) of ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California.  On a side note, Obama will likely be forced to move ahead with the “third site” in Europe due to Russia’s bellicose rhetoric about placing missiles in Kaliningrad.  To not do so would be international weakness not seen since Kennedy’s meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna.

So far, it seems like the programs Obama would have cut are the ones that are, admittedly, years away from deployment.  But, enter Barney Frank stage left with this quote.  The chairman of the House Financial Services Committee (of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae fame) believes the US can cut the defense budget by an astounding 25%.  Such an unprecedented cut would come not just from ending the war in Iraq but also from MD and other future weapons systems.  Where, therefore, does “pragmatic, centrist” Obama mesh with the most-liberal-Senator-in-the-Senate Obama?

Despite extraordinary progress in the past eight years in the area of missile defense, Obama is likely going to set his “scapel” (or hatchet) to missile defense and bring it down to Clinton-era levels.  How else does he expect to pay for his massive health-care, tax rebates, and auto bailout plans?  “Proven” systems like the Aegis destroyers, SM-3 interceptrs, PAC-3 terminal missile defenses may survive the bloodletting.  But the goal of a layered sea, land, and air-based defense that could intercept missiles in their boost, midcourse, or terminal phases will be gone for four years.  If China or North Korea were looking for the opportune moment to launch an electromagnetic pulse attack or threaten nuclear blackmail, the next four years look pretty promsing to them.  As Obama makes abundantly clear in this primary-era ad (which you must watch), American primacy is not at the top of his priority list.  His pipe dream (or “smack,” since I guess he can afford it now) involves a world without nuclear weapons or rapidly developed combat systems.  Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, Tehran, and Caracus must be euphoric.