Underestimating Missile Defense

A few days ago the U.S. Navy declared operational its new ballistic missile defense site at Deveselu, Romania, as the first such base in Eastern Europe and the first land-based (Aegis ashore) site in its Aegis program. The very next day the redoubtable strategic thinker, George Friedman, formerly of Stratfor Intelligence, wrote that the deployment was ill-conceived and generally a waste of money. Mr. Friedman’s weighty opinion is worth taking issue with because it represents a school of thought that misrepresents not only missile defense, but Russia’s current military-political designs and capabilities and, most importantly, Eastern European security concerns.

Friedman starts out by denigrating the site’s military rationale by claiming that it is hard to envision a military purpose for it and that, at best, it can “block one of a few” missiles targeted at a larger area. In saying that, he creates the impression that this site is a unique development and the result of an unfortunate “United States fixation with complex weapons designed to handle improbable threats.” In fact, the Deveselu site (25 interceptors) is part of a NATO-agreed ballistic missile defense program with the inscrutable name of European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), which already includes a number of U.S. and allied platforms and hundreds of interceptors with more to come. EPAA, in turn, is part of the mature U.S. Navy Aegis system that has proven highly successful (28 kills out of 34 tests) and is rapidly expanding worldwide by U.S. and allies from 33 ships and 257 interceptors in 2016 to 49 platforms in 2021. As early as 2008, Aegis was able to knock down an inoperable satellite out of the sky, which is just one of the reasons for the hysterical Russian response to Deveselu. There is no doubt, as Friedman notices, that the Romanian site is a powerful political symbol of American support for Eastern Europe, but to deny its military relevance is to misunderstand the nature of Russian vulnerabilities and the threat they represent.

Freidman’s second main argument against ballistic missile defense and the Romanian site is what he considers the extremely low probability of nuclear war and a missile strike on Europe by Russia or anybody else. He argues that only a madman would contemplate nuclear war and that ‘rationality’ had obviated nuclear war, seemingly forever. This flies in the face of considerable evidence that both the Warsaw Pact and NATO contemplated using tactical nuclear weapons during the Cold War, most recently by NATO in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968.

This brings us to the madman scenario. No one can argue that the world has ever lacked madmen from Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot to name a few in the last century to Kim Jong Un, the ayatollahs in Teheran, fanatic jihadists and, arguably, Putin himself at present. Here Friedman clearly fails to make the distinction between madmen and fanatics, unless he can somehow make the argument that a jihadist would be prevented from exploding a nuclear device in a European city, were he able to procure one, by ‘rationality.’ To that extent, his glib aside that Iranian corruption has made aggressive behavior less likely can hardly be taken seriously. The Israelis, who have been told time and again by Tehran that they would be wiped out from the face of the earth, would be wise not to consider Iranian corruption ‘comforting.’

And what is one to make of Putin’s constant rattling of his nuclear sabre, which Friedman does not mention. In recent times, the Kremlin propaganda machine has claimed that Moscow “can turn the U.S. into radioactive ash” and that it is prepared to use the “nuclear scalpel,’ implying first use of tactical nuclear weapons, while Putin himself has said that he may use nuclear weapons against ISIS and boasted that he could have Russian troops “in five NATO capitals in two days.” This does not prove that Russia is prepared to use nuclear weapons, but it does show that brandishing the nuclear cudgel is very much part of his foreign political instrumentarium.

It is exactly things like the ballistic missile defense program that are needed to expose how empty Putin’s aggressive rhetoric really is while reassuring out allies in Eastern Europe of American support. For the reality is that Russia, bellicose threats and all, is increasingly a paper tiger militarily. With its science and industry in a precipitous decline presently, Russia is forced to import between 80% and 100% of its computer equipment, 95% of industrial robots and 100% of advanced metal-cutting machines and tools. According to a defense ministry report from the end of 2015, the percentages of Russian forces equipped with ‘modern’ weapons are as follows: land forces – 35%, navy -- 39%, air force – 51%. And the situation is hardly better with Russia’s nuclear arsenal. There have been numerous reports by Russian nuclear specialists casting doubts on its very functionality, because the plutonium in their warheads has not been replaced in over twenty years.

And it is not likely to get better any time soon. Despite spending over 30% of the state budget on the military, which has already proven unsustainable, Putin’s defense budget is half that of  China and seven times smaller than the American. Over the long run, the greatest threat to the Russian military is the collapse of the scientific establishment. A recent conference on technology at the Higher Economic School in Moscow reached the following conclusion: “Russia has fallen hopelessly behind global science and the saddest part of that is that she still does not realize that fully.”

The Obama Administration has committed numerous grievous errors in its relations with Russia, especially in connection with the ill-conceived reset by Secretary Clinton. Missile defense in Romania is not one of them. 

Alex Alexiev is chairman of the Center for Balkan and Black Sea Studies. He twits on national security at twitter.com/alexieff and could be reached at alexievalex4@gmail.com.