Monday, November 17, 2008

Obama and Star Wars

Pavel Podvig of Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation writes on Barack Obama's missile defense challenge for The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 11/11/08. He points out that the Russians' recent threat to move nuclear missiles into the Kaliningrad area to counter the stationing of the Star Wars "missile defense" system in Poland has already "presented Obama with his first major foreign policy test - how to handle the issue of missile defense in Europe, the biggest irritant in U.S.-Russian relations."

Podvig explains that Obama has left himself some real flexibility on this issue:

So far, the Obama team has shown great care in dealing with the thorny issue of missile defense in Europe. During the campaign, they deliberately avoided making any critical statements on the European system to avoid alienating Polish voters in battleground states such as Pennsylvania. And now that the election is over, we're hearing that they're telling the eager Polish government that their general position on missile defense--it should be deployed only "when the technology is proved to be workable"--applies to the European part of the system as well. This isn't good news for missile defense in Europe, since its technology is "workable" only in a narrow sense, if at all.

Of course, this story is far from over. If the Obama administration decides not to deploy interceptors and radar in Europe, it opens itself to a charge of yielding to Russian pressure--especially from Republicans, for whom missile defense is a signature issue. The plan to deploy missile defense in Europe also has supporters in Poland and the Czech Republic; both governments seem to believe that the presence of U.S. personnel on their soil would provide them a security guarantee far stronger than NATO membership. Finally, Russia isn't exactly interested in seeing the issue disappear: The system presents no threat whatsoever, but the controversy allows the Kremlin to score lots of rhetorical points. [my emphasis]
This last point is an interesting one. The Russians know, like everyone else who has paid some reasonable amount of attention to this issue, that "missile defense" is a boondoggle on a world-historical scale. Rummy when he was Defense Secretary even changed the standard testing procedures for the system so that it would never have to be proved to actually function as designed in order to be deployed and further developed.

The problem with anti-ballistic missile systems is not some complicated physics issue. The problem is that counter-measures to such a system are far easier and far less expensive than the anti-missile system itself.

But the "missile defense" system doesn't have to be completely cancelled in order to strike a mutually acceptable deal on the European deployments with Russia. Podvig judges the chances to be good that such a deal could be reached, involving a joint US-Russian missile monitoring system based around the Armavir and Gabala radar systems currently in place in Russia.

Assuming the Russians are willing to proceed rapidly with it, a deal like that could be an important early diplomatic "win" for the Obama administration. It would help put realistic nuclear nonproliferation back near the top of the US foreign policy agenda. And it would provide a good opening to phase out that incredible Star Wars boondoggle.

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