In Polish it is called “tarcza antyrakietowa,” or anti-missile shield. But therein lies a fine irony. “Tarcza” also means target, which is what some fear the country will become if the mooted ten missile interceptors and the accompanying US military presence required to service them are installed. The Polish translation of US Defence Secretary Robert Gates’s reassurance might also be seen as telling: “Tarcza będzie wymierzona w potencjonalnych agresorów z Bliskiego Wschodu i z Azji południowo-Zachodniej…” (The shield will be aimed at potential aggressors from the Middle East and South West Asia.) “Wymierzyć” means aim, direct, mete out, strike.
The stated purpose of the anti-missile shield, or National Missile Defense (NMD) system, then, is to protect the US from nuclear strikes from ‘rogue states’, though according to unnamed NATO officials cited in the Financial Times (April 2nd) it “could help” protect much of Europe too. The alleged inability of states like Iran and North Korea to fire missiles as far as the US has led some to suggest that the real target of the shield is Russia. As far back as 2002 Francis Boyle was suggesting that the true purpose of the NMD was not to protect the US from rogue states but to mop up “any residual Russian or Chinese strategic nuclear weapons that might survive a US offensive first-strike with strategic nuclear weapons systems.”
We have come to live in a world where – just as ministries of war have become ministries of defence or national security – defence is offence. One objection raised by Russia is that the missiles stationed in Poland and the Czech Republic, directed by the NMD radar, will be able to strike deep into Russian territory. Gorbachev dismantled a radar station in Krasnoyarsk for this very reason (Guardian April 11th). The Americans, meanwhile, claim that the interceptor missiles will not have nuclear warheads, relying instead on kinetic energy to knock out the incoming nuclear missiles (Gazeta Wyborcza, April 20th). A perhaps more fundamental objection is that if the system could neutralize Russia’s nuclear deterrent it would mean the end of the “stability” guaranteed by mutually assured destruction. The Polish magazine Nie (37/2006) cites an article in Foreign Affairs to the effect that the USA may soon be in a position to destroy the Russian and Chinese strategic potential in a first strike, putting us back into the 1940s when the US had a nuclear monopoly.
However, others argue that the shield would be useless against the massed nuclear missiles of Russia. The Guardian (April 11th) reports that four interceptors would be required to destroy just one incoming missile. Then there is Russia’s SS-27 Topol M missile, which can be manoeuvred after launching and therefore cannot be stopped by the NMD. Russia has 48 of them and plans another 69 in the next ten years (Nie, 07/2007). Nie, one of the few media outlets doing anything more than presenting the official line (such as it is), also outlines some of the system’s spectacular failures (12/2007). Tests in December 2004 and Febuary 2005 ended in a “fiasco.” One test had to be postponed four times because of weather conditions and problems with radio contact. Professor Theodore Postol of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology wrote in a letter to the White House that the system could not distinguish missiles from decoy balloons and that the Ballistic Defence Organisation had falsified data and analyses. (See Boston Globe) Postol himself appear to be in no doubt that Russia is the shield’s target: (Common Dreams)
But if the system is so helpless in the face of Russian nuclear might why are the Russians objecting so strenuously? For objecting they are:
“Russia: shield risks splitting Europe” (PAP (Polish Press Agency) April 4th)
“Russia: shield will start arms race” (PAP April 5th)
“Russia: Duma to oppose shield” (PAP April 5th)
“Russia: Duma to pass resolution condemning shield” (PAP April 5th)
Dziennik newspaper (April 24th) quotes Russia’s minister for Defence as saying: “We regard the missile shield as a serious destabilising element, which could have a significant influence on regional and global security.” I will not pretend to understand Russia’s motivation – that’s what the Economist is for – but Nie, once again, puts the issue this way: how would the US react to a Russian shield stationed on Cuba?
Also, it is conceivable that the shield works, or one day will. In an elaborate disinformation campaign – one might speculate – the US has given to understand that the system poses no threat to Russian attack capabilities (Gates has said as much). Even if this were not the case, a Russian strategist, putting his country’s security first, might be inclined to assume the shield does work and plan accordingly. Indeed, the Russian deputy minister for defence admits that the ten interceptor sites do not threaten Russia now but asks if in six years time the silos might be upgraded. Among possible Russian responses to the shield, the Guardian (April 11th) suggests: missiles upgrade, the use of mobile launchers and moving nuclear submarines to the north pole where they would be hard to detect. Of course, America can advance the same argument: Iran (the Axis of Evil, etc.) is years away from an intercontinental ballistic missile but no responsible person is going to sit around waiting for them to catch up. And so the ratchet effect works, pushing us further into John LeCarré’s looking glass world. Of one thing we can be fairly certain: it cannot be assumed that all sides are telling the truth. Only on April 24th did the Russian military for the first time admit that a missile fired from Iran at America would pass over northern Poland (Gazeta Wyborcza, April 25th).
Whatever about what might happen if missiles start getting fired, the shield is already having effects in Europe. In early April Kurt Beck, chairman of coalition partner SPD in Germany described the plan as a step back into the cold war. He was joined by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the foreign minister, who launched what the Financial Times – in an attempt to portray the dissent as domestic political squabble – described as a “virulent” attack on the initiative (April 9th). Earlier, in February, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Mykola Azarov also came out against the shield, not being keen on having a nuclear target next door. He also drew the Cuba analogy (Nie, 07/2007). However, latest reports indicate that NATO has been brought round, though “different allies have different levels of enthusiasm” according to one unnamed NATO representative quoted in Gazeta Wyborcza (April 20th).
My fellow monkey, Padraig McGrath, points to the lack of debate on the shield in the Czech Republic but the activity there is feverish compared to the somnolence that has settled over Poland. The ministry for defence’s homepage has some dozen or so very general, superficial articles that mention the shield. I gather from perusing them that the Polish minister for defence is insisting that Poland will agree to the shield only if it increases Poland’s security. However, an earlier (September 2006) article states that although the Polish government is aware of the “high risk” involved, it wants to go ahead and the only obstacle is the parliament (http://www.wp.mil.pl/artykul_wiecej.php?idartykul=2262). Conspicuously lacking from the official organs of information is an issue raised by Padraig McGrath: if a nuclear missile directed at America is shot down surely that will irradiate the country below – i.e. Poland. Why should Poles have to suffer for the enmities of the US? Or perhaps a missile destroyed in this way would not cause much damage down below? In the absence of any meaningful information from the people taking this decision on behalf of Poland one is reduced to such speculation. Reporting in the press is mostly limited to “they-said-we-said,” and since “we said” only banalities like “security is important” there is not too much to be gained there. Nie has called for a referendum in the matter but has been joined only by Przegląd magazine.
The benefits to the country are unclear, though perhaps in the course of the hard bargaining to come the government will extract investment, new technology, money from the US. For the moment at least, Robert Gates has ruled out equipping Poland with Patriot 3 missiles to protect from short to medium range missiles. This may be no great loss even if you accept that possessing military hardware is a good thing in itself: Theodore Postol has written that the success rate of their predecessors in the Gulf War may have been as low as zero percent – despite extravagant official claims to the contrary.
The drawbacks are somewhat clearer. Whether the system works or not Poland will be drawn closer into collusion with the less than overwhelmingly popular foreign policy of the United States. Relations with Russia are likely to be damaged. One way to avoid affronting Moscow might be to situate the interceptors in Russia. If no one in the US brass has thought of that yet, I’d like to claim the credit.