On Looking Into the Poland/Czech US/Russia/Iran ABM Matter

Iran is judged today to be a up and coming mad-as-a-hatter soon-to-be nuclear regime with some short and medium range missile capabilities. Back in 2007 the Bush administration had wrangled some ABM bases in Poland with Radar in the Czech Republic which were at that time designed to knock down long range missiles, of which Iran had none, but of course Russia had (and has) plenty. Russia took umbrage to this and rightfully so, just look at a map, unless you have a much much bigger monitor than I do, you don’t see Poland or the CR on that map at all.

Mr Obama it turns out has been not well served by the conservative current events blogs … although his speeches and on this in fact do have some glaring omissions, in the light of which the conservative commentary does make more sense … but only in the light of those omissions. Here is the text from the Obama speech, although I don’t know how accurately this reflects his actual remarks or whether it has been changed to reflect better in the light of later remarks, i.e., Mr Gates this weekend). This was also released on the same day by WH to the press to accompany the speech. The disservice by the conservative press is that this is touted as a withdrawal of a program, which fails to mention that another is proposed in its place. On the other hand, it is also not mentioned that this plan which is put in its place is likely a paper dragon, i.e., worse than useless.

Mr Obama has (in phase 1) suggested that the Aegis Combat systems and land based SM-3 missiles to replace the land based missiles for the first phase of the replacement. The Aegis does not fire the SM-3, but instead SM-2 missiles are fired from that ship. In the second and third phases, which are quite a number of years off (phase 2 is 2015 and phase 3 is 2018). A salient detail is that the SM-2 has a range of  approximately 100 miles and the SM-3 about 270.

So, if Iran is the threat, where would these bases and ships go? It is clear that these ships would have to be based in the Black Sea. Now, the US does in fact have ships in the Black Sea, if it these ships are intended to block any Iran->Europe missile threat. Possibilities for land bases include Turkey, Iraq, Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania. These countries have quite a variety of closeness regarding their relationships with the US. This would not be just two or three bases, but many dozens perhaps as many as 50 to 100, because to be an effective defense, one would want to deploy in some depth, of two or three layers with overlapping regions of coverage.

The conservative criticism is that this is just rhetoric. That there is no real plan to put up a realistic defense and this is just backing off from what commitments have been presently made, i.e., the bases in Poland, which admittedly were not a likely factor in defending against Iran. This is, in my view, a exaggeration of the plan as presented by Mr Obama and the administration. The plan as presented is very flawed. It is a ABM system in name only, and will almost certainly be insufficient to counter any missile threat targeting Europe. Mr Obama presents no argument for the small scale nature of the deployment as well as the slow unveiling of its protection. For example, there is no reason why a screen of Aegis vessels might not be stationed between Georgia and Istanbul along the Turkish coast and into the Aegean. Land bases in Mosul, Baghdad, and other Iraqi cities would complete the shield. All that could certainly be completed before the end of 2009.

Why would the US want to protect Europe from a regime as described in the opening paragraph? One reason is that if one desires the EU to comply with any economic embargo or sanctions against Iran that will be untenable if Iran is threatening nuclear devices at a vulnerable Europe. If the US puts a credible and working ABM shield, they would be able first convince Western (and Eastern) Europe that the Iranian nuclear threat was contained … by the US. Both factors of that sentence might carry weight, i.e., the protection and by whom.

It is pretty clear from the unveiling of this plan however, noting the sketchiness of the details as well as indications that this plan is really an ABM system in name only, i.e., it is insufficient to really stop any sort of attack. It is a maxim of knife care and use that a dull knife is more dangerous than a sharp one. For similar reasons one might argue that a paper or truly undermanned understaffed ABM deployment is also akin to a dull knife. You might feel safe, but in fact that places you in more danger, trusting to a protection which does not exist.

Here is another viewpoint on this affair that is worth looking at as well.

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  1. Boonton says:

    I have to praise you on a well done post. You dug into the primary sources and explored beyond the simple headlines and talking points and weren’t afraid to point out that that the details don’t line up so well with either sides talking points and ideological pitches.

    I think you’re a bit off in the ranges of the anti-missile missiles. It’s not necessary for these missiles to reach all the way into Iran but simply to reach Iran’s missiles as they fly over bodies of water to reach Israel or Europe. Another point is that pushing into a ship based anti-missile program builds upon our current proven abilities and allows us to quickly set up a defense should trouble erupt in an unexpected corner of the world (say around Cuba, South America, Taiwan or between North Korea and Japan).

    It is a fair point that Obama’s program will take a few years to bring totally online. I think Gates made a good point in his NYT piece, “the enemy gets a vote”. In other words, if Iran knows it only has the resources to, at best, get a handful of ICBM’s off the ground and it knows the US is building capacity to take out 10 or so ICBM’s….it also knows deploying dozens of smaller missiles can allow it to do an end run around the defense we build. Betting the farm on the original ICBM system smells like a replay of the Maginot Line.

    It is a maxim of knife care and use that a dull knife is more dangerous than a sharp one. For similar reasons one might argue that a paper or truly undermanned understaffed ABM deployment is also akin to a dull knife. You might feel safe, but in fact that places you in more danger, trusting to a protection which does not exist.

    On the other hand we are playing in game theory here. The model being used here against Iran is the ‘hail mary pass’. Iran threatens to launch one or two nukes either against Israel or a European city like London or Berlin as a ploy to get its way. No one thinks that even with nukes Iran could ever assemble a force capable of mounting a serious nuclear war. If Iran launched a first strike it would loose the counter strike. Iran therefore would either launch in a fit of insanity (the neocon’s fear) or would threaten a launch in the hopes that the world would opt not to loose a major city on behalf of sanctions or some other policy. The ‘dull knife’, a system that may or may not take down the launched nuke, makes the bluff less potent. If Iran bluffs and the world thinks the system will work Iran will be called on it. Iran then will have to bet that if they launch their missile will get past the system. But either way they must face retaliation which they know they will loose.

  2. Mark says:

    The missile ranges were listed by Wiki. They may be greater or less, depending on security matters confusing specs.

    There are no bodies of water between Iran and Israel, I think. The main part of the bodies of water is the Black Sea between Iran and most of Europe … although for Southern Europe the Aegean is relevant. The US putting significant naval presence in the Black sea is going to be diplomatically problematic. Russia regards that as their pond. Those ex-Soviet states which are trying to exert independence from Russia will likely be cooperative and allow port access. Those which don’t won’t. However, in either case basing Aegis platforms is more a diplomatic matter than a technical one (although I didn’t look for or find the numbers of Aegis ships we have presently or if more would be needed).

    On the other hand we are playing in game theory here.

    Right. The question is however, if a real defence is needed (and I suggest it is not what is being implemented to allow to feel safe in implementing sanctions. I suggest a real ABM system would be better than a dull knife.

  3. Boonton says:

    Looking at a map helps 🙂

    There is the Persian Gulf which is a possible route for a Iran-Israel missile (as well as a route for an Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia. Additionally, since Israel is such a slim country ships stationed on the Med. could help intercept incoming missiles (we are fogetting also that Israel has ground based Patriot batteries and presumably ground based batteries could be installed in Iraq to prevent overflies….if they haven’t already).

    I suspect that all this fuss is not so much about feeling safe implementing sanctions. I think the emphasis on setting up ABM in Poland is partially a neocon view of the Cold War seeking to challenge Russia in its ‘pond’. Russia should not be given a blank check to do whatever it wants in Eastern Europe but I think it’s unrealistic to expect us to be able to do a mini-Cold War with Russia AND at the same time try to manage a global issue of rogue states (terrorism is, IMO, not so much the war of the 21st century….rogue states are the major source of both terrorism and security threats in this day)

  4. Mark says:

    I had noted Iraq as a cite for protection of Israel. ABM systems work better closer to the launch site, as missiles on the rise are slower and after a short period are, well, ballistic. Their apogee is going to be their lowest speed.

    Clearly the Russians saw the Polish based ABM as aimed at them and not Iraq. However, it is not clear that any countries for which Iran targetted ABM made sense (Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iraq) in 2005/6 when this would have been set up would have been receptive or possibilities for such systems. Perhaps Poland and the CR were the only states which said, “OK, let’s do it.” You (and the Russians) can assume it’s the “evil” neo-cons at work and cold war mentalities, but that’s not the only explanation.