As Americans enjoyed their Independence Day fireworks last year, Lieutenant General Trey Obering, the Pentagon’s Missile Defence Agency chief, was watching the pyrotechnics display that Kim Jong-il was providing thousands of miles away in North Korea.
The air force general thought the launch by Pyongyang of its previously untested Taepodong-2, an intercontinental ballistic missile with the potential to reach the US, could even provide the first live use of America’s ballistic missile defence system.
“We had turned the system on before but it was the first time that there was a credible threat,” says Gen Obering. The North Korean authorities “had put a missile out there that we felt was capable of reaching the US, and they were not telling us what was on top of that missile”.
The Taepodong-2 failed just seconds into flight. But eight months on, what refuses to die down is the controversy over the Pentagon programme itself, in particular its roll-out to eastern Europe. Despite enduring doubts about the scale of both the threat facing the US and the efficacy of missile defence, Washington’s wish to place interceptors for the system in Poland and radars in the Czech Republic has provoked a furious response from Russia and signs of cracks within Nato.
While the US argues that missile defence is essential to deal with the 21st century prospect of rogue states – such as North Korea or Iran – becoming armed with weapons of mass destruction, Moscow protests that the Pentagon’s scheme amounts to a remilitarisation of Europe.
The governments of much of central and eastern Europe are sympathetic to Washington plans, as is Tony Blair: Britain’s prime minister has sought to lobby for the UK to be included in the scheme (it already hosts a radar site). But continental western Europe is much more nervous about the tensions that missile defence has inflamed.
Last month, at a gathering of the transatlantic elite in Munich, Russian President Vladimir Putin lashed out in a polemical speech that resurrected images of the shoe-banging days of Nikita Khrushchev, the former Soviet leader. “Plans to expand certain elements of the anti-missile defence system to Europe cannot help but disturb us,” he said as Robert Gates, US defence secretary, sat just metres away. “Who needs the next step of what would be, in this case, an inevitable arms race?”
Two senior Russian generals subsequently said Moscow might target the two former east bloc countries and withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a landmark arms control agreement. Germany has plunged into the debate too, calling for the US to consult Russia more over the missile defence programme, principally in the Nato Russia Council, a forum made up of Moscow and the 26 Nato member states. “Nato is the best place for discussion of this issue,” Angela Merkel, German chancellor, told the Financial Times this week.
Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg foreign minister, went further by labelling the US plans “incomprehensible”. He told a European Union foreign ministers’ meeting: “We’ll have no stability in Europe if we force Russia into a corner.” Such comments met an icy response from Mirek Topolanek, Czech prime minister. “As for the 18 EU member states who host US military bases, it is not up to them to comment on the existence of such a presence in the Czech Republic,” he observed during a visit to Nato headquarters in Brussels.
Propelled back into the spotlight, Gen Obering has been attempting to reassure Moscow that the European-based missile defence system was aimed at threats in the Middle East such as Iran. In an interview, he says Russia has no reason for alarm. Russia’s large fleet of ICBMs could easily overwhelm the 10 missile interceptors the US hopes to place in Poland. In any event, that would be the wrong location to defend against Russian missiles, because of a lack of “battle space” – the time needed to detect a missile launch, point a radar towards the incoming missile, lock on to it and pass the target information to the interceptor missile for launch. “We would not have chosen Poland or the Czech Republic if our criterion was to try to somehow offset the Russian ICBM advantage,” says the general.
The Pentagon has justified missile defence in Europe on the basis that Iranian missiles may pose a threat to Europe and the US. Some argue that Iran is years away from fielding long-range missiles capable of reaching the US. Gen Obering says merely that the US has to prepare for that day, adding that North Korea surprised many experts when it fired a Taepodong-1 rocket over Japan in 1998.
He says the growing number of countries with long-range missiles means that the notion of mutually assured destruction that helped the US and Soviet Union avoid nuclear war may not always apply. “There may be countries where [deterrence] does not work because they are not operating from the same set of criteria that you are . . . what I would call the nation-state equivalent of a suicide bomber.”
Some non-proliferation advocates agree that the US should proceed with missile defence, while also undertaking stronger efforts to curb missile proliferation. “Even the crude terminal defences we are thinking of placing in Europe should prove to be of some value against the first-generation missiles Iran is developing and this sort of defence will help keep Nato glued together as it faces a series of Middle Eastern and Gulf security challenges in the coming decades,” says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.
In addition to questions about the potency of threats, the Pentagon has also had to rebut charges that the rudimentary system would be incapable of destroying missiles that use counter-measures, such as decoy balloons or multiple warheads. Gen Obering says it is “true to a degree” that the current system is incapable of protecting against complex threats. But he says critics need to recognise that technology has “caught up with the vision”.
He is referring to a 1983 speech by the late Ronald Reagan where the then president launched his Strategic Defence Initiative – more commonly known as “Star Wars” – with the question: “What if free people could live secure in the knowledge...that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?”
Since the Reagan “call for a bold defence”, Congress has provided more than $100bn (£52bn, €76bn) in funding. But as the Pentagon realised the almost impossible task of neutralising any Russian threat with missile defence, the aims of missile defence have been scaled back from the level of sophistication or scale of deployment envisaged by Reagan.
President George W. Bush acted to accelerate missile defence in 2002 when he withdrew the US from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, which had prevented the Pentagon from developing a comprehensive missile defence system. What the Pentagon is now trying to create is a layered missile defence system, deployed across the globe and capable of destroying ballistic missiles in the boost, mid-course and terminal phases of flight.
Some aspects are more ambitious than others. The Missile Defence Agency is pushing Congress to fund an airborne laser and a kinetic energy interceptor that would target missiles in the boost phase – the optimum time to intercept an incoming missile before it is capable of releasing multiple warheads or decoys. To target short- and medium range missiles in the terminal phase, the Pentagon has deployed Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missiles in the US and Japan. It is also developing a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense missile to intercept all but long-range missiles.
However, most of the funding has been funnelled into missile defence systems that would target incoming missiles in mid-course – the longest phase of flight. A ground-based system, which has already been deployed in California and Alaska and may be set up in Poland and the Czech Republic, is the core part of layered defence.
Critics attack the programme on various fronts, including effectiveness, cost – the Pentagon has asked Congress for about $11bn in funding for missile defence in the 2008 fiscal year – and the possibility that it could cause an arms race. Some observe that the systems under development are no defence against short-range rockets, of the sort Hizbollah fired into Israel from Lebanon last year, and cannot cope with cruise missiles, which have proliferated. Another criticism is that the Pentagon should not spend time and resources deploying the system until it has completed much more testing.
While Gen Obering uses the example of Hizbollah’s rocket campaign to underscore the need for preparedness, critics point to the inability of the US and Israel to target these very short-range missiles as evidence that decades of development have come up short.
“Despite the many tens of billions of dollars spent on missile defence and the flagrantly inaccurate claims by proponents of missile defence systems, after 50 years missile defence remains an experimental system that has provided the US with very few tangible results,” retired Lieutenant General Robert Gard and John Issacs of the Center for Arms Control on Non-Proliferation wrote last year.
During his recent public campaign to boost support for missile defence, Gen Obering has attempted to win over sceptics by pointing out that 14 of the last 15 tests were successful. “There is a misconception out there that missile defence doesn’t work and I’m here to say it does work,” he recently told an audience in Washington.
But Ian Davis, co-executive director of the British American Security Information Council, says Gen Obering is conflating the results of tests of different parts of the system, which masks the record of ground-based missile defence, the most important part of the layered system. “GMD...has made intercepts in only six of the 11 attempts,” says Mr Davis. “Furthermore, these intercepts were done under highly scripted circumstances that in no way reflect a real-life situation.”
Similar warnings have been raised by Pentagon officials with responsibility for evaluating the missile defence testing. Last February, David Duma, then Pentagon director of operational testing and evaluation, told Congress that there was “insufficient evidence to support a confident assessment of limited defensive operations”.
Gen Obering says a test last September – the first successful interception in four years – has changed the equation. The Pentagon fired an interceptor from California, which destroyed a missile launched from Alaska in simulation of an attack from North Korea.
Phil Coyle, a former director of operational testing and evaluation during the Clinton administration, dismisses claims by Gen Obering that the test was as realistic as possible – pointing out that the incoming missile did not use decoys or other counter-measures.
“If an enemy uses decoys and counter-measures, missile defence is like trying to shoot a hole-in-one in golf when the hole is going 15,000mph and the green is covered with black circles the same size as the hole,” says Mr Coyle. “The golfer can’t determine which target to aim for.”
Gen Obering says the September test did not use counter-measures because it was intended to ensure that previous problems where interceptors failed to launch had been corrected. Earlier tests dealt fine with decoys, he adds. The next test is expected in May but the MDA has yet to determine parameters. Gen Obering is not swayed. “Just because I cannot handle very, very complex counter-measures, does that mean that I should not deploy a system that can deploy simple ones?”
Additional reporting by Daniel Dombey