by Taylor Dinerman
Monday, June 9, 2008
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece published on Tuesday, June 3, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) suggested that the missile defense system that the Bush Administration wants to install in Eastern Europe is unneeded and that it is an obstacle to enlisting Russia in a program anti-Iran economic sanctions. Thus, since it “drives Mr. Putin to apoplexy” and “ it mocks Mr. Putin’s dream of eventually restoring Russian hegemony over Eastern Europe” it should be “dismantled”. He claims that the threat from Iran’s ballistic missile program is “hypothetical and remote.” One has to wonder exactly what he means by that?
In February of this year Iran launched what is believed to be its first successful test of a suborbital launch vehicle, called the Kavoshgar, from their new space center. Experts believe that it is derived from the Shahab 3 medium-to-intermediate-range rocket program, which is already in production and has enough range to hit all of Israel—and a good part of the rest of the Middle East—with a healthy-sized warhead.
Iran’s missile and space launch vehicle development program has been making slow but steady progress over the last twenty years. During the so-called “War of the Cities” (February–March 1988) during the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam’s Iraq fired about 70 modified Scuds, mostly at the capital Tehran. Iran retaliated with a few Scuds procured from Libya and North Korea, but they clearly got the worst of the exchange. The lesson they and other Middle Eastern states learned was that ballistic missiles, even with conventional warheads, could be a powerful political weapon. This has been underscored by the use of ballistic missiles and rockets in the 1991 Gulf war and in the 2006 Hezbollah war.
Short of overthrowing the Tehran regime there is simply no way to stop Iran’s missile and nuclear programs. Sanctions, whether supported by Russia or not, are useful, but they cannot eradicate the missile program any more than mass starvation can eradication the one in North Korea. These projects are continuing, slowly and with mixed success, but they are moving forward probably with considerable cooperation between the two states. North Korea claimed that its first Taepo Dong 1 launch in 1998 was a space launch vehicle test; few people, probably including Senator Schumer, believed this claim.
It now seems obvious that the 1998 launch was a step towards the development of the Taepo Dong 2 rather than a test of an operational vehicle. The North Koreans failed to successfully launch what is believed to be a Taepo Dong 2 last year, but there are no signs that either they or Iran have slowed down their efforts. No one is the West (and probably in North Korea or Iran) really knows when these missiles will be available in operational condition. It may be next year or it may not be until the middle or the next decade.
According to the US Missile Defense Agency (MDA) the European sites in the Czech Republic and in Poland will not be ready to install their first Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) missile until 2011 at the earliest. There are only ten GBIs planned for deployment in Europe, but thanks to Russia and to the anti-American left in Europe these have taken on a symbolism out of all proportion to their military weight. Stopping one or two missiles aimed at Germany, the UK, or maybe the US east coast is probably the best that anyone can hope you in the 2011–2015 time frame.
There have been a number of doubts expressed about this program (see “Missile defense in 2006: now more controversial than ever”, The Space Review, January 30, 2008). It would indeed be better to defend both Europe and the US homeland using space based systems. However this has now become a test of will between Washington and Moscow, all to familiar to those who remember the Cold War, if the US fails to deploy these interceptor it will be seen as a major defeat for the US and its allies.
What Senator Schumer proposes is probably unacceptable to Russia. He proposes to bribe them with two or three billion dollars to replace the trade they would lose by imposing sanctions on Iran. This would involve cutting off Russian military sales and Russia has been keeping its troubled weapons industry running thanks to sales to unsavory clients such as Tehran. The premium prices paid for these systems can partly be used to finance Russia’s renewed military build up. I’m sure neither Senator Schumer nor the US Congress wants to get into the business of directly paying to upgrade Moscow’s military industrial complex.
Sometime within the next decade, unless the regime is overthrown and a new pro-Western government is installed in Tehran, we are likely going to face an Iran armed with nuclear-tipped missiles aimed at Europe and at the US homeland. Economic boycotts and “tough” diplomacy are not going to do much against a regime that is unpopular at home and is convinced that their God has given them a divine mission.
At the same time it should be kept in mind that Iran’s government is probably partly bluffing. They are depending on the nature of politics in the west and especially in America to magnify their military power well beyond its real capability. Senator Schumer and the Bush administration should both remember the lessons of Sputnik and the missile gap.
The reaction to Russia’s launch of the first Earth-orbiting satellite in 1957 was far beyond what the Eisenhower Administration expected. The nearly hysterical reaction of the US press and public to the news became a major asset to both the Soviet Union and to the Democratic Party. Russia was able to bluster and threaten the non-communist world with a small number of operational missiles and was able to create the impression that they had a force of workable ICBMs, which gave them considerable leverage during the Berlin crises of that period. The fact that until sometime in 1961 they had no missiles that could hit the US and had only a few which could hit targets all over Western Europe was not known.
In the US the claim by the Democrats that Eisenhower had allowed a missile gap to develop was a way for the to get to the right of the GOP on the national defense issue. It contributed to the idea that the nation had become lethargic and needed vigorous new leadership to get out of the rut it had gotten stuck in. JFK and many other democrats had been informed that the missile gap was mostly a fiction, but that did not stop them from using it as an effective political tool.
There is every reason to be careful judging the intelligence information coming out about Iran’s nuclear and missile program. There are also good reasons to doubt everything the Iranians say about it. What is not to be doubted is the need to prepare for this possibility by building as effective a missile defense system as possible.