From Europe to Outer Space: Dissecting Obama’s Missile Defense Plan

At NATO’s recent summit in Lisbon, President Obama promoted the missile defense shield that will someday cover all of Europe, including Russia. Critics of missile defense say a European shield is a ruse that’s keeping the West’s true intentions for Russia under wraps. Giving credence to this theory are recent WikiLeaks’ revelations that Washington has been vastly overestimating the ballistic missile capabilities of Iran and North Korea.

Missile defense opponents, such as the Global Network against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, claim the Pentagon’s growing missile defense arsenal is “dual use”, meaning the systems could easily be utilized as space weapons. The Global Network also says NATO’s proposed European shield – armed with US missile defense technology – is unproven and flawed, but has shown the ability to shoot down satellites. A European shield is also a gold mine for aerospace corporations, such as Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. But more importantly a European shield run by NATO is potentially a wolf in sheep’s clothing for Russia itself, even though Moscow pledged during the summit to cooperate with NATO on anti-missile efforts.

In 2009, President Obama scrapped a plan by President Bush to build missile defense interceptor sites and radar installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. The Bush plan had infuriated Russia, mostly because the interceptors could be armed with nuclear warheads and transformed into ballistic missiles with a range of 6,000 kilometers. This claim was also made by American missile defense experts George N. Lewis of Cornell University and Theodore A. Postol of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Under the Obama plan – dubbed by the Pentagon as the Phased Adaptive Approach for Missile Defense in Europe, and pushed hard by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates – US Navy destroyers armed with Aegis interceptors, which can obliterate space-based targets, will be stationed by 2011 in the Eastern Mediterranean, Adriatic and Baltic seas, and with possible future deployments in the North Sea. The Phased Adaptive Approach also calls for land-based interceptor batteries and radar sites, with the first systems set up in Romania by 2015 and Poland by 2018.  Washington is waiting on whether Turkey will approve additional sites, as well.

Furthermore, the Obama Administration has said the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty – which Republicans have argued would limit US missile defense – would have “no constraints on current and planned” missile defense programs.

Russia’s role in European missile shield is not clear, but Russian officials have said publicly Moscow would have authority over one of “the defense quadrants.”

“We look forward to working with Russia to build our cooperation with them in this area as well, recognizing that we share many of the same threats,” said President Obama in Lisbon, alluding that this is the first time in history Russia and the 28 NATO member states will be working together in defense.

But Moscow has said if it is not given equal responsibility it will back out of any cooperation. Bruce Gagnon, director for the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, believes Moscow has good reason to be wary of NATO.

“Russia is not really on-board because NATO is not serious about making them full partners, and in the coming months we will likely see it break down between NATO and Russia,” he said. “Russia had no choice but to call the US-NATO bluff and say, ‘Sure we’ll play along.’”

Gagnon and other peace activist organizations such as No to NATO, which claims NATO’s early 21st century mission is based on intervention and armament, says Russia is feeling NATO closing in on them.

“Russia does view [European missile defense] as a threat because they clearly see NATO expanding eastward after being promised by the US after the fall of the Berlin Wall that NATO would not expand one centimeter eastward,” says Gagnon. “US missile bases in Romania and potential NATO bases in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Georgia, give Russia the clear message that they’re being targeted with these missile defense systems despite the rhetoric about it being about Iran.”

Indeed, NATO and the White House are championing the European missile defense shield partially based on intelligence allegations that North Korea secretly gave Iran 19 BM-25 ballistic missile with a range of 2,000 miles. This intelligence nugget recently went public via WikiLeaks, but since then, missile defense experts have cast doubt on the transfer, openly wondering if the intelligence is bogus so to advance a European missile defense shield.

Gagnon adds NATO and Washington’s dreams for a European missile shield “creates a major customer base for US aerospace corporations” such as Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Raytheon, Boeing.

Ironically, the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance (MDAA), a non-profit or “astro-turfing” effort that seeks to generate support for deployment of missile defense, had this headline on its web page before the NATO summit: “Lisbon in the Sky with Diamonds”.

What also shouldn’t come as a surprise is how President Obama and the once Democrat-controlled Congress – both stuffed with millions in campaign contributions from the aerospace industry – boosted the FY 2011 missile defense budget nearly to the levels of the Bush administration’s “space hawk” days.

“Missile defense is a bi-partisan fraud against the American people,” says missile defense expert Postol of MIT and a contributor to Arms Control Today.

NATO’s plan for the European missile shield includes utilizing the US Navy’s Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system’s interceptor, the SM-3, by making them land-based and mobile. Don’t forget that in 2008 the USS Lake Erie and its Aegis system shot down a malfunctioning satellite as it orbited over Hawaii.

What the SM-3 interceptor has not accomplished, says Postol, is reliability during combat, but this hasn’t stopped Congress and the Pentagon from telling the world the SM-3 is ready to be deployed and capable of shooting down intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Postol scoffs at such claims, saying if North Korea and Iran are capable of launching a Ballistic missile – which they are – then both nations are capable of deploying decoys, such as balloons that look like Ballistic missiles, which fly just meters away from the real war head because in the vacuum of space there’s no air to cause drag.

“Imagine if you will, suitcases close together and flying through the vacuum of space. Which one includes the warhead?” asks Postol. “There’s no way to see through these things, and that’s why they have no argument that says missile defense is reliable.”

Nevertheless, the US military’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has been touting the accuracy of the SM-3 for much of the last decade. Out of ten tests, claimed the MDA, the SM-3 hit its target nine times. But Postol and his colleague Lewis of Cornell University say these tests have been “dumbed-down”. They wrote in Arms Control Today, “There are not multiple objects in the threat volume, there are large fins on the back end of the target missiles, the target missiles are always side-on to the interceptor, and the exact geometry of the target missile is known.”

What’s more, the actual warhead was never destroyed in eight of the ten tests. Postol and Lewis say the warhead may keep its trajectory and potentially reach its target, or in the case of Europe, fall from a high altitude, but fall on the continent, nonetheless.

Postol says MDA’s assertion their European missile defense shield will be “reliable and robust”, claims also promoted by the White House, prompts him to say President Obama “has been misled.”

John Lasker is a freelance journalist from Columbus, Ohio.

Photo from DoD