Obama Scraps the ABM System

This photo shows mobile Patriot missile batteries in Tel Aviv. They are capable of intercepting enemy missiles in flight. Click twice to enlarge. (AP photo/Darko Bandic)

While President Obama’s scrapping of the ABM (anti-ballistic missile) system in Poland and the Czech Republic may appear on the surface to reduce America and Western Europe’s security, it was the right move. Placing ten interceptors next to Russia was a bad chess move because it overextended a critical US military component too near to a hostile territory. It was like moving one’s pawn across a chessboard alone to fight the opponent’s queen. Deadly as the pawn may be, it is no match for the queen.

The ABM system, a defensive military system, also called a “missile shield,” was proposed by President Bush in 2006 and involved placing ten interceptors in underground silos in Poland. A radar tracking system nearby in the Czech Republic would work together with the interceptors. According to the Bush administration, the missile shield was necessary to protect Europe from missile launches from Iran and North Korea. It would also protect from accidental launches (from Russia?). However, from the Russian perspective the question of US intent was moot because the missile shield potentially threatened Russia’s strategic arsenal (its nuclear missiles) due to its location near the Russian border. This made the missile shield a national security “red line” that the US could not pass without receiving an aggressive Russian response.

Had the missile shield been installed in 2012 as planned, there was virtual certainty that Russia would have destroyed the ABM site either by air assault or by overwhelming the interceptors with a ballistic missile attack.* The Poland site was designed to hold only ten interceptors so Russia could have easily destroyed it even if it took eleven or more missiles to do the job. The US could not have protected the ABM site from such an attack and would have only watched their investment get destroyed.

Put simply, the ABM plans were a repeat of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis (in defensive form) with the roles reversed: the US playing the Soviet role and Russia playing the US role. Russia would likely have gained a political win in many parts of the world after destroying a US military site, and the press would compare the American president to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. The ABM crisis was a game of Chicken, and the U.S. was heading for embarrassment.

Russia’s antagonism toward the US is rooted largely in the ABM shield, America’s continued military buildup, and NATO’s expansion since the end of the Cold War. From Russia’s perspective, it wonders why NATO, a Cold War military organization between the US and most Western European states that was designed to resist the Soviet Union, should still be functioning and even expanding into Central and Eastern Europe years after the Soviet Union’s demise. Since 1991 ten former Soviet territories have joined NATO. These include: the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Poland. Each of these new NATO members offers strategic airbases for NATO members, including U.S. fighter planes. The Russian government also wonders why the US continues to maintain Cold War-level defense spending, and believes that it is one of the targets of that spending. In a February 2008 speech, then Russian President Vladimir Putin articulated Russia’s national security concerns:

It’s not our fault. We didn’t start it …funneling multibillions of dollars into developing weapons systems. …Over the next few years, Russia will start production of new types of arms…. We drew down our bases in Cuba and in Vietnam. What did we get? New American bases in Romania, Bulgaria. A new third missile defense region in Poland (see story).**

It is worth noting that Poland linked the ABM shield to Russia. Until the summer of 2008 the missile shield was facing opposition in the Polish and Czech governments because the Russian government was threatening retaliatory action against both states if they agreed to the missile shield. However, after Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August 2008, Poland quickly agreed to the shield suggesting that it believed the shield could also defend them from Russian military action, perhaps by making the US feel some obligation to Poland’s security if its ABM site were on Polish territory, or by discouraging an actual Russian missile attack. This week’s strong reaction by Poland, and even Lithuania, to President Obama’s decision to scrap the missile shield confirms that at least those Eastern European states saw in the ABM shield a source of defense against Russia.***

Proponents of US missile defense in general should not worry about the canceling of the Poland site. The US already has a global missile defense system in place. Interceptor batteries are located around the world on several ground-based sites and on naval ships. Moreover, Turkey recently spent billions of dollars on Patriot interceptors. It could be that the Poland land-based site has been swapped for a mobile ABM system in Turkey.

*Russian leaders said as much and even moved a number of ballistic missiles to their western border in anticipation. See the two AP article’s at: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,252771,00.html and http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/russia-to-deploy-missiles-near-poland-993981.html

** For current Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s identical view see: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/russia-to-deploy-missiles-near-poland-993981.html

*** For Russian threats see: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,252771,00.html For Poland agreeing to the missile shield on Aug. 14, 2008, see: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26203430/ For Eastern European reaction to the scrapping of the missile shield see: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/sep/18/poles-czechs-us-missile-defense-shift-betrayal/