President Obama’s decision to scrap the plan for ten ground based interceptors in Poland linked to advanced radar in the Czech Republic is being predictably traduced by the likes of ‘Ambassador’ Bolton, and his claque in the British media, as appeasement of Russia.In fact, as a detailed article by Defense Secretary Robert Gates makes clear, there were mainly sound technical reasons for Gates himself to change his mind since he initially went along with the proposal. Not only is Gates a former Director of CIA, but according to General David Petraeus, he is the best Defense Secretary the US has recently had, certainly since Caspar Weinberger. It was Gates who encouraged Petraeus to clean up the mess Donald Rumsfeld made of Iraq in the three years after the invasion.
According to Gates, the proposed system would not have been deployed until 2017, because of delays in Czech and Polish ratification procedures. The system was posited on the Iranians developing inter-continental ballistic missiles. All US intelligence suggests that their efforts are dedicated to short and medium range missiles designed to blitz the neighbourhood.
The new proposals are for the deployment, by 2011, of a sea-based SM-3 system, using air and sea based AEGIS X-band radar, followed by a second phase deployment, by 2015, of scores of SM-3 ground based interceptor missiles. The SM-3 is also being upgraded so as to counter any potential intercontinental missiles the Iranians may decide to develop.
In other words, the revised plan enables the US to deploy interceptors very soon, in greater numbers than the system Gates has rejected. Being sea based they will be much nearer to Iranian launch sites. The favour shown the US navy also presumably reflects the cycle of lead services in the US military, evident, within the army when the ‘heavy army’ deployed to invade Iraq in 2003, was supplanted by the ‘light army’ led by Petraeus in the surge. Any hypothetical action against Iran will obviously involve mainly air and sea power.
As Gates points out, his job involves scrapping plans which seemed a good idea, but which then proved too costly or scientifically unfeasible. They include airborne lasers, multiple kill vehicles, and the kinetic energy interceptor. As he says, like missile defence, these all had their own cult like followings.
I’ve just been reading Thomas Rick’s excellent account of the surge in Iraq which was masterminded by Petraeus, with whom I was privileged to have dinner last Thursday night. It involved going in the teeth of opposition from the Joint Chiefs – led by an admiral with no counter-insurgency experience – while Gates himself sacked several generals (including Abizaid, Casey and Sanchez) who simply did not grasp how to fight this kind of warfare.
On the entirely unrelated matter of whether this tilts the Russians towards cooperating with the US over sanctions on Iran, of course, the Russians not unreasonably argued that they have already paid the US in kind by enabling their logistic trail to Afghanistan to run over their territories rather than through the Khyber Pass. They have also decided not to deploy their Iskander system in either the Kaliningrad pocket or Belarus. In other words Obama has to up the ante further to get their cooperation on Iran, which, I’m reliably informed, they regard as a ‘win-win’ situation, hence Netanyahu’s desperate twelve hours trip to the kremlin last week. That’s called driving a hard bargain. Its normal in diplomacy. Only idealists and idiots should be surprised.