Last week, in Prague, President Barack Obama and President Dmitry Medvedev signed a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) called the "New START," which is being widely hailed as "historic," although in reality history may judge it differently.
While the treaty does reduce the number of weapons from an earlier ceiling between 1700 and 2200 under the Moscow Treaty to 1550 for each side, it is obviously not a significant reduction. But, more importantly, it leaves the two largest arsenals at levels that are more than ten times larger than that of nations like France or China. They will have little incentive to reduce their stockpiles. However, that is not my main point here.
The point is, whether it is truly - as President Obama says - a "first step" toward further substantive reductions, or it is effectively a dead end because of the elephant in the room - the US global missile defense system.
Despite the initial positive reaction, upon closer examination the Obama Plan for deployment of missile defense in Europe is actually a change for the worse primarily because the proposed interceptors are mobile - being based on Aegis ships. Compared to ten long-range interceptors planned for deployment in Poland under the Bush Plan, now there could be "scores" of sea- and land-based interceptors. One may recall that the now-defunct Anti Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty prohibited any mobile platforms.
Under what is called the Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA) - the US will deploy in Phase 1 by 2011 BMD-equipped Aegis ships in the Mediterranean to protect portions of Southern Europe from short and medium-ranged Iranian missiles. It will be followed by Phases 2, 3, and 4 with progressively more capabilities and land sites. By 2020, it will have capabilities to intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles. According to the US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, "We are strengthening - not scrapping- missile defense in Europe."
Regardless, the U.S. position was that the Russians should have fewer objections to the new plan because the SM-3 interceptors are for short and intermediate range missiles, and hence would not be a threat to the Russian deterrent.
However, the Russians were not convinced. Of particular concern to them was the presence of the US missiles at their door step in Poland and Romania, and likely on Aegis ships in the Baltic Sea. Russian military experts pointed out that the US could convert them from defensive to offensive weapons with the potential for equipping them with nuclear warheads, which could compromise their deterrent.
So, they continued to raise objections and reportedly balked at further cuts. They said that there should be a direct linkage between offensive weapons and missile defense. In the end, the Russians settled for a simple statement that made reference to the offense-defense linkage. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov pointedly remarked that "Russia could pull out" if it concluded that US missile defense plans compromised its nuclear deterrent - hardly a solid "first step."
Unfortunately, all this fuss has to do with a fictional threat. There is no evidence that Iran wants to threaten Europe for any reason. Iran does not have nuclear weapons and there is no conclusive evidence that it is on a path do so. For forty long years, the NATO countries lived without missile defense when thousands of Soviet nuclear missiles were pointed at them.
The simple fact is if Iran launches one missile toward Europe, it could be obliterated from the face of the earth by the firepower of just a smaller nuclear power like France, let alone the United States. Europe shouldn't get sucked into a costly adventure that can neither enhance security, nor add to peace and stability in the region and only further irritate Russia, which believes that it does not need missile defense because its nuclear superiority over Iran is sufficient deterrent.
The ABM treaty helped maintain global stability for three decades despite two major regional proxy wars between the superpowers in Vietnam and Afghanistan. It may be dead, but the concept is not. Finally, let us not sacrifice a chance for real progress towards disarmament at the altar of the missile defense dogma.
Subrata Ghoshroy is a Research Associate with the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA. He was formerly a Senior Defense Analyst with the Government Accountability Office.
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