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Obering Scoffs At Russian Worries Over European BMD System

By | February 26, 2007

      Alleged Russian fears that a U.S.-provided European ballistic missile defense (BMD) system would threaten Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are baseless and ludicrous, according to Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry “Trey” Obering III, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) director.

      The cold fact is, the European BMD system couldn’t take down Russian ICBMs even if system operators wished to do so, Obering said in remarks at the Foreign Press Center in Washington, an event organized by the State Department.

      Obering spelled out, point by point, just why emplacement of the European BMD system, which hasn’t yet been negotiated with the Czech Republic and Poland, couldn’t possibly threaten Russian ICBMs:

      • Radars in the European BMD system would be geared to the stated purpose, watching for ballistic missiles that might be launched by rogue states in the Middle East. These radars “are not designed against a Russian threat,” he said. The radar “is a very narrow beam radar,” he explained. “It has to be queued.” Even were that to be done, it would be possible to track only “a very, very small percentage” of Russian ICBMs.

      • Numbers count, and it defies belief to accept the Russian assertion that the tiny planned European BMD installation would threaten the massed missile might commanded from Moscow. “You’re not going to counter the hundreds of Russian ICBMs and the thousands of warheads that are represented by that [bristling Russian force] with 10 interceptors in a field in Europe,” Obering observed.

      • Then there is speed. The interceptor missiles contemplated for the European BMD system cannot, as a matter of physical reality, catch streaking Russian ICBMs, Obering told overseas media members. “We can’t do it” with those interceptors, he said. “The interceptors that we would place in Europe are not fast enough to catch the Russian ICBMs. We’re in a tail chase from Poland,” he said.

      But despite the lack of rationality in Russian criticism of the BMD installation, rather than be mollified by U.S. recitation of facts and figures about the very limited BMD capability, Russians have escalated their complaints, making threats against the Czech Republic and Poland.

      For example, Pravda reported that Russian missile forces commander Gen. Nikolai Solovtsov warned that Poland and the Czech Republic risk being targeted by Russian missiles if they agree to host U.S. missile defense bases.

      Daniel Fried, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, expressed amazement at Solovtsov’s comments.

      “We were surprised by those remarks and … found them both incomprehensible and negative,” Fried told the journalists. Such a bellicose threat “makes no sense in the early part of the 21st century, and we assume and hope that the general was not speaking for the entire Russian government.” To be sure, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Viktorovich Lavrov later spoke to the issue “in far more measured and reasonable tones, saying … that Russia would not respond hysterically … to a missile defense system deployed in Europe,” Fried observed.

      The fact is, Fried stated, that the BMD system “is not directed against Russia. The Russians know this. Their technical people are certainly aware [that] what it cannot do is threaten Russia.”

      Both Fried and Obering stressed that the European BMD system isn’t targeted at Russia, but instead is aimed at countering missiles from other nations, with Obering specifically citing Iran.

      The International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, a United Nations watchdog entity, reported that Iran failed to meet a Thursday deadline for swerving away from its path towards processing nuclear materials in a uranium enrichment program.

      As well, Obering noted that the U.S. and Russia have a “stable relationship” going back many decades, based on deterrence. That was a reference to mutual assured destruction, or MAD, in which neither Russia (formerly the Soviet Union) nor the United States would attack the other, because that would invite an annihilating nuclear response from the other country. Russians “are deterrable” by the massed might of the vast U.S. nuclear arsenal, Obering stated. “They have been deterred,” and there is no reason to believe that Russia wouldn’t likewise be dissuaded from launching missiles against the Czech Republic or Poland. He reiterated that the European BMD system wouldn’t be designed to counter any Russian attack on the Czech Republic or Poland emanating from Russia.

      Obering also confronted concerns expressed by some in Europe that if the BMD system executed a successful intercept of a missile from the Middle East, the hit would shatter the enemy weapon, raining lethal debris on civilian populations in Europe.

      Not so, Obering stated.

      First, if an incoming enemy missile contains a warhead that is a weapon of mass destruction, the number of Europeans who theoretically might be harmed or killed by falling debris would be minuscule compared to the vast wave of deaths that would ensue if that enemy missile weren’t intercepted and continued on to hit a target in Europe, Obering reasoned.

      “You could have tens of thousands of casualties” if an enemy missile struck a target in Europe, Obering said.

      But first one must back up and examine whether there would be an appreciable probability of debris striking Europeans, and the answer is, chances are almost nonexistent, Obering stated. “Debris pieces from the intercept itself are very, very small,” he said. “Even from some of the largest targets, you have pieces that don’t survive more than eight inches in length.”

      That means that “the probability of [a] casualty on the ground, even in some of the most densely populated areas, from many of that debris is very low,” perhaps ranging from one in a thousand to one in 2.4 million, he reported.

      Another worry expressed by some Europeans is that a move to destroy incoming nuclear-tipped missiles from the Middle East might prompt those controlling the missiles to detonate the nuclear weapons while they still are in their trajectories, creating a phenomenon called electromagnetic pulse (EMP). An EMP might last for weeks, knocking out most unshielded items using electricity — computers, electric power grids, heating and air conditioning, lights, and cars, trucks and locomotives needed to bring food to population centers to prevent mass starvation.

      Such fears are misplaced, Obering indicated.

      “If you intercept a nuclear warhead and it detonates … we mitigate that by the very high altitude that we intercept” it, he explained. “Those electromagnetic pulse effects are negligible at the altitudes that we’re talking about in terms of where we intercept and the effects of that EMP on the ground. That’s how we mitigate against that.”

      Yet another concern voiced by some Europeans is whether there might be some ill effects on humans from the x-band radar the BMD system would include.

      Such fears are groundless, Obering said, noting that such radars “are used around the world.” The specific radar that would be installed in Europe would be a used unit that has been operating for years in the Marshall Islands, he observed.

      “There’s people that have been living and working with that” asset, he noted. “There’s no health issue … or health problems with that, and in fact, they’re used … extensively with respect to airplane tracking and that type of thing.”

      The move to create a BMD shield in Europe to take down missiles from the Middle East is mainly to protect Europe and U.S. troops there, not a self-serving plan to protect the United States-North America from enemy missiles, Obering said.

      He noted that if Iran developed long-range missiles, many of them would fail of their own accord before striking targets in the United States. And that aside, it is clear now “the United States could defend its own territory without benefit of these [BMD] systems” to be emplaced in Europe.

      That said, however, Obering expressed clear concern that Iran is moving to develop sophisticated missile capabilities. He found eerie parallels between the North Koreans in the last decade, who suddenly and without warning announced they developed a medium-range, multi-stage missile by firing such a potential weapon in an arc over Japan.

      Today, he continued, Iran states it wishes to obtain the capability to launch a vehicle into space — which just happens to involve developing the same capability required for long range ballistic missiles.

      “I will tell you that what we see happening in Iran is following down that same path in terms of growth and in terms of their stated intent,” he said.

      Obering also was asked by a Japanese correspondent whether China shooting down one of its own satellites recently means that China now can threaten U.S. ballistic missile defenses.

      That isn’t so, Obering responded. As far as U.S. abilities to counter existing and emergent threats, “We have capabilities that we are fielding against the North Koreans and the potential threat from Iran,” he said.

      Regardless of the Chinese demonstrating their anti-satellite power, that doesn’t mean China can defeat the U.S. BMD systems, he added.

      Chinese ASAT prowess “does not present a threat to the ballistic missile defense system that I’ve outlined here with respect our capabilities against North Korea or what we’re building toward for the Middle East,” Obering stated.

      At the same time, he qualified that by adding that “it may do so in the future, but it does not today based on what we have seen them to be able to demonstrate.”

      The United States is beginning to develop a system to counter the Chinese anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities, but there is no intent now to field such a defensive shield, Obering said.

      The United States currently is focused on missile defense against weapons arcing up from North Korea and Iran, rather than U.S. forces now developing and making operational BMD systems to kill Chinese ASAT missiles, at least at this moment, he said. “We have a development program that we can begin to address things like that type of development with respect to China, but that’s not something that we have any plans or intent to field,” Obering stated.

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