By Jonathan Power
January 31, 2019
The number of nuclear weapons possessed by the US and Russia is a fraction of what it was during the height of the Cold War. Successive presidents on both sides, since the time of John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, have feared their destructive power.
Their supposed value, so called Mutually Assured Destruction, known by its capitals, MAD, is in fact valueless. They cannot be used, and nearly everyone accepts that.
Yet they continue to exist and, as President Mikhail Gorbachev and his ally in nuclear arms control, President Ronald Reagan, both said, there is the fear of a false alarm or two errant officers in the silo entering simultaneously their keys which allows the firing of the rocket.
Yet here we are in 2019 with a new American nuclear initiative just announced last weekend. (I doubt that president Donald Trump is in the clutches of Russia. Otherwise, why would he be pushing for such a significant anti-Russian policy?)
The Americans are planning a new deployment of nuclear rockets and the radar to go with them, this time supposedly aimed at Iran but with also the range to reach Moscow.
How can Iran ever be a threat is the first of many questions. Voluntarily, in an agreement negotiated with the Administration of President Barack Obama, Iran has forsaken the technical wherewithal to manufacture nuclear weapons.
Even if it didn’t observe the treaty it has no rockets that could carry a nuclear or serious conventional payload as far as Europe. No wonder the Russians wonder what the NATO plans are all for, and come to a reasonable conclusion- they are meant for them.
The initial defensive screen, according to the New York Times, “rests upon a network of early-warning satellites, a new high-powered X-band radar based in Turkey, and at least one on a Aegis-equipped US warship, deployed in the Mediterranean, capable of shooting down incoming missiles. Two land-based missile defence sites are also planned- first in Romania, and later in Poland.”
When Obama decided to modify this latter part of the deployment, President Vladimir Putin expressed his thanks. But the deployment appears to have crawled on to the agenda again.
Some Russian generals have said that Russia will deploy the nuclear-capable Iskander missiles against any NATO missile sites constructed in Poland and Romania.
To what extent does Russia have a point? Dmitri Trenin, the Russian director of the (American) Carnegie Center in Moscow, “sees US ballistic defence plans as global in scope”. Their concern, he believes is that “strategic defence impacts upon strategic offence, devaluing the deterrent value of Russia’s own nuclear arsenal.”
“Moscow wants both formal assurances and an insight into the system’s parameters, to be confident that the US has no intention of degrading Russia’s own deterrent power, and that the NATO system has no capability against Russian strategic missiles.
Washington’s reluctance to give assurance about either raises Moscow’s suspicions.” Trenin believes that Washington must engage Moscow before both sides get entrenched with their plans.
For all its hostile rhetoric, Russia must be somewhat relaxed as it can see that the kind of missile the US plans to use if attacked is the so-called Standard-3 missile.
Professor Theodore Postol, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, America’s leading scientific university, an expert on NATO’s nuclear policy, says, “All the tests have been characterized by extraordinary efforts to eliminate all objects that could possibly confuse the kill vehicle. For these reasons and others it is overwhelmingly likely that if it is used in real combat it will be a total failure”.
Of course, the paradox is that even when they don’t work, potential adversaries will treat them as if they do. This produces the worst of all possible worlds- no defence but build-ups of offensive weapons to deal with these defences. The missile has only been tested under non-combat conditions”.
For those with long memories we recall Reagan’s “Star Wars” speech. He said the US would deploy weapons in space to shoot down incoming Soviet missiles. This would be a missile shield. Thus nobody would get hurt. 36 years later there is no sign of such a system working.
At the same time Trump has threatened to withdraw from the 1987 INF treaty that eliminates intermediate-range missiles in Europe. So far it’s been a great success.
Trump says Russia is cheating. But American defence experts who have held high positions in the Defence Department and Congress argue that it would be a grave mistake to terminate the treaty.
As for the Russians they see an overlap between the radar and missiles to be deployed against Iran and the weapons banned by the INF treaty.
The Iran dimension of all this could be solved if Trump would again recognize the JCPOA agreement signed by Obama, the UK, France, Russia, China and Iran.
Time is running out for sensible decision making.