Friday, November 30, 2007

New Sparks in Missile Defense

Several new issues have arisen regarding the controversial third missile defense site planned for Europe since Nukes of Hazard's last summary post on the subject. Two weeks ago, a senior Russian general announced a potential retaliatory measure to the site. The following week, Rick Lehner, spokesperson for the Missile Defense Agency, critically responded to comments by Representative Ellen Tauscher (D-CA) on their purpose. And this week, Russia claimed that U.S. proposals aimed at cooperation between the two nations did not live up to the plans that had emerged from earlier discussions.

The "tit-for-tat" cautionary predictions made by many opponents to the sites in Poland and the Czech Republic were brought closer to reality on November 14 when Russian and Belarusian officials warned that Russia could respond by supplying short-range Iskander missiles to Belarus. According to Russian news agency Itar-Tass, Colonel-General Vladimir Zaritsky, a senior general for the Russian Ground Troops, stated, "Any action must have a counter-action, including with the U.S. anti-missile elements in the Czech Republic and Poland." As the New York Times notes, however, while the Iskander missiles would then be under Belarusian command, due to their close relationship "both countries' missile forces are seen as working in unison."

Just over a week later, a different controversy arose - this time from within the U.S. - over the site's purpose. William Matthews had a great article in Defense News on the topic. Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-CA), chairperson of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, put the U.S. Missile Defense Agency on the defensive after she claimed that the sites were for protection from long-range attacks on the United States from Iran, and not specifically to protect Europe. Rick Lehner, spokesperson for the Missile Defense Agency, claimed the system "is designed specifically to defend most of Europe" and would have only a "redundant capability to defend the U.S."

Tauscher also raised some eyebrows when, as Matthews continues, she characterized long-range missile defense systems as "a science project." To her credit, the two-stage missile interceptor planned for Poland has to date been neither built nor tested. While it is quite similar to interceptors already used in the U.S, even these have a mixed-at-best record in their testing phases, failing 5 out of 12 times – a meager 58.3% success rate. Not exactly confidence inspiring.

(Graphic produced by the BBC)

Finally, an additional issue arose this week when Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the U.S. of submitting written proposals that did not live up to agreements made during the October discussions. The U.S. submitted to Russia new proposals for the missile defense program, in an effort to reduce their opposition to the program. However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed that they were "a significant rollback from what American representatives [Gates and Rice] said" in October. He stated, "If by joint work they mean pursuing unilateral plans to install missile defense facilities in Eastern Europe, and inviting us only to help them and provide information we have, that's not what we have in mind when we propose…together conducting analyses to determine threats…and neutralize them," AP reports. The Pentagon disputes this claim, but details of the proposal have yet to be made public.

What all of this will mean for the missile defense system remains to be seen, but these issues may be less relevant if the funds don't exist to pursue the project. An earlier post identified that the 2008 Defense Appropriations bill reduced funding for the European Third Site program by $85 million. In addition, while Congressional Quarterly declared "Missile Defense a Winner in Policy Bill" in the 2008 Defense Authorization bill (still held up in conference) because the cuts to overall missile defense were less than expected (only $185 million less than Bush's requested $8.84 billion), it also cuts funding for the third site by $85 million and blocks construction until agreements are reached with Poland and the Czech Republic.

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