Wednesday, May 30, 2007

US ABM shield - a part of something bigger

With Russia's recent launch of its new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with multiple warheads, the debates about European and World security along with the US ABM shield setup in Eastern Europe have heated up. Yesterday at a meeting of G8 foreign ministers, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov traded barbs with his US counterpart Condoleeza Rice, the New York Times reports:

The idea that this somehow would degrade Russia's strategic nuclear deterrent is just ludicrous, and the Russians know it's ludicrous,'' Rice said. ''There isn't any military person who can imagine this system with a few interceptors and a few sensors and a few radars able to intercept the Russian deterrent.''

Lavrov took issue with that Wednesday.

''For us this is not ludicrous at all, and I hope our American partners will respect our analysis which we have presented to them in a very professional and detailed way,'' he said.

But how "ludicrous" are Russian concerns? The US planned shield in Eastern Europe by itself will not have a drastic attempt on shifting the balance of power between Russian and US nuclear deterrent capabilities, but recent analysis by a number of Russian military analysts have suggested that the US system is part of a bigger plan to counter Russia's nuclear capabilities. Although, I keep repeating that I am not a military expert, and thus cannot confirm or reject outright such analysis, its appearance as a headline in Russia's Izvestia and its very detailed analysis makes certain logical points. For most it may appear as an unlikely scenario, I hope so. I will summarize the excerpts from the analysis below.

The military analyst polled by Izvestia cite that with Russia having close to 650 missiles with 2000 nuclear warheads, any global ABM shields are useless to counter such threats, meaning the only viable way to counter an enemies capabilities is having a system to destroy them instantaneously. When the US ABM system becomes fully operational (not just in Eastern Europe) it will have the capability to destroy 250 missiles launched by an enemy, meaning the first preventive attack would have to destroy most of the remaining 400 missiles (in the case of Russia).

Due to Russia's vast territory, and a large spread of ICBM launchers, the only viable way of singlehandedly destroying most of the ground-based warheads is via guided missiles; the US Tomahawk missiles with a radius of 2500km have the ability to reach most of Russia's territory from areas where US naval forces have been detected or are currently stationed.

The US military concept adopted in the late 1990-s "Forward from the sea", according to the military expert, has the exact capabilities to make a lightning strike at Russia's remaining warheads. The system includes US Tomahawk missiles (range of 2500km); eight nuclear submarines with the ability to operate in the Arctic sea (carrying close to 1000 guided missiles); eight destroyers (DDG-85) with more than 4000 Tomahwak missiles (it is unclear whether this refers to all such ships or to those eight). The combined firepower on all US navy ships will reach 7000 units by 2010, giving the ability for the US to cover virtually the entire Russian territory.

The ABM system the US is building has two parts: one the Aegis 6.1 ensures the security of ground units, seaports, and navy units, and has the capability to destroy missiles at close range; the second Navy Area TBMD will unite all navy observation units, ground based locators, naval based ABM systems. These systems are set to destroy missiles soon after their launch when the missile does not yet have capabilities to maneuver. The systems to be installed in Poland and the Czech Republic are components of this system.

So what does this all mean. According to the military expert, if the US positions its groups of destroyers with Tomahawk missiles in the North Atlantic (Norwegian and North seas), the Pacific Ocean (Bering and Japan sea); and the Arctic, and synchronizes the launch times so that all of the Tomahawks reach Russian missile launch sites within 2.5-3 hours, and follows up by an attack by the Strategic Air Forces on the military bases in Russia, while locating and destroying any undestroyed missiles launched from Russia from its ABM complexes, the country will be decapitated in four hours (and such capabilities will come into play within the next few years).

This is why Russia has been protesting against the deployment of the US ABM system in Eastern Europe and has been threatening to use these systems as a target for its short range missiles. The only viable Russian response to an aggression as the one listed above would depend on the ability to track down the first Tomahawks launched from the Arctic, and within 10-15 minutes to destroy the US ABM systems in Eastern Europe, and the naval based ABM systems in the Atlantic and the Pacific, paving a clear way for a counter attack. Next, as the military expert argues, Moscow would have to "ask" Washington to self-destruct the launched missiles before a "nuclear winter" begins.

A second military expert confirms this view by citing Russia's recent development of mobile ICBM missile launchers, which could be undetectable to potential US strikes, such as the Topol M (pictured) and new navy destroyers. The rapid construction of the S-400 complex whose specific aim is to counter Tomahawk-type attacks also fits into this concept.

But most experts conclude that the chances of such a conflict taking place are extremely unlikely. The US is aware of Russia's circulating atomic submarines with the ability to strike any part of the Earth at any point in time. Yet the clear benefits that the US derives from establishing such an ABM system are the ability to gain an advantage in a nuclear conflict, with the ability to counter an attack from Russia, for example, better than Russia could counter an attack by the US. This advantage takes time to grow, but at some point it may become obvious to both sides who has the greater nuclear potential. Although never to be used, it is a mutually acceptable diplomatic tool of last resort. Russian president Boris Yeltsin used it to warn Russia was still a superpower and should be let in to regulate conflicts back in 1998 (preceding the Yugoslav crisis).

Many observers today forget about the current US ABM complexes in Alaska and other places, that are a supplement to the planned systems in Eastern Europe. It is rather naive to think that hundreds of billions of dollars are spent by the Pentagon to create a defensive mechanism against a threat that does not exist (rogue states) and to extend it beyond US borders on such a scale. This train of thought also means that Russia's actions are countering those of the US, event though one is biased into using the "shield" aspect of the US system while forgetting that one's ability to shield oneself means an ability to attack without being scarred, an invaluable tool in today's race for military superiority.

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