Nukes and Missiles: Lightning Strikes Thrice
posted at 4:15 pm on September 19, 2009 by J.E. Dyer
An interesting pattern has developed in 2009. Each time there has been a complacent political moment in which leaders or “authorities” proclaimed that our previous security concepts were predicated on “false” premises or choices, a big dose of incontrovertible reality has whacked that moment in the face.
Obama tried it first with his global denuclearization speech in Prague. The US media duly covered it as a seminal shift in American policy, as if Ronald “Zero Option” Reagan had never been president, and America had not spent the last 26 years getting our and Russia’s nuclear arsenals reduced, and pursuing a missile defense that is designed to obviate nuclear missiles as entirely as possible, so that none of our geopolitics are about nations holding each other at risk with a nuclear threat.
But the truly remarkable adjunct to Obama’s Prague speech was the near-simultaneous launch by North Korea of a rocket with long-range missile applications. This launch came after a six-month period in which Pyongyang openly defied UN warnings and announced its overt determination to resume reprocessing uranium – confirming, in effect, the complete failure of the Six Party talks process (and all its predecessors) to denuclearize North Korea. Obama seized on North Korea’s activity as an example of what he would like to stop with a denuclearization policy. But the disconnect between rhetoric and reality had to be apparent to most of his audience. With the US, and Four of the Five other Parties, as well as the entire UN, officially committed to denuclearizing North Korea, what, exactly, was the hold-up? Were we to believe that a negotiation process that began in 1994 had failed to work because, until April 2009, Obama’s denuclearization policy speech had not yet been given?
The pattern continued in May, when the prestigious East-West Institute, an international think tank, published its joint US-Russian analysis of the Iranian nuclear missile threat. The EWI study’s conclusions did not differ meaningfully from those of US and other Western intelligence agencies. Its bottom line projected Iran being able to deliver a nuclear warhead by ballistic missile into central Europe as early as 2015-17. The study, however, took time out from its technical analysis to give policy advice, the main thrust of which was that the US should scrap its plans for missile defense sites in Eastern Europe, because the threat from Iran was still in the future. (The EWI website now cites Obama’s decision in that regard as a success for the Institute’s study.)
The EWI document was duly talked up by the mainstream media. But it made less of a splash than it might have in the Western press, because its release was overshadowed by North Korea’s second-ever underground nuclear test, followed closely by an unprecedented salvo of missile test launches. Its technical analysis was also thumped hard – within 48 hours of its unveiling – by Iran’s own Sajjil missile launch. The Sajjil program’s success in May directly contradicted one of the study’s key technical findings: that Iran was nowhere near successfully incorporating solid-fuel rocketry in its long-range missile efforts. Solid fuel in a multi-stage assembly is a major advance for Iran’s program, and one the EWI study assessed was several years down the line.
Being twice nailed in a cosmic bullseye has not deterred the opponents of missile defense and prudent global security policy. On 17 September President Obama called his Polish and Czech counterparts, reportedly in dead of night, to inform them that he had decided to abandon the missile defense sites that were to be installed on their territory. Against an Iranian threat that could, by universal estimate, develop as early as 2015, the US missile sites were to be operational in Eastern Europe by 2013. In other words, they were designed to counter the expected future threat by a prudent margin on the timeline. Nothing about this plan would have prevented the deployment of tactical missile defense assets (like Patriot and Aegis-equipped ships) against the shorter-range missiles Iran already has. But Obama justified his decision on the basis of there being exactly such an either-or choice. His premise is, effectively, that we have to give up the future defense capability in order to deploy the current one.
The ultimate prudence of that decision depends heavily on Iran’s nuclear-armed missile threat not developing on the universally-projected timeline. As if on cue, on 17 September IAEA released its report documenting the work Iran is already known to have done on weaponizing a nuclear warhead, and assessing that Iran is already capable of building a bomb. Given the extant US intelligence estimates that continue to predict Iran could test a nuclear device in the period 2010-13, and the progress of Iran’s long-range missile program, which has already beaten the EWI projection in a key feature, these IAEA revelations strengthen the longstanding prediction that as early as 2015, Iran could use a ballistic missile to lob a nuclear warhead into central Europe.
The way things are going in 2009, I would suggest to anyone who wants to downplay the threat of missiles and nuclear warheads, in the hands of Iran or North Korea, that he keep an eye out for a lightning bolt. It has been a long time since I remember policy rhetoric being pursued so relentlessly, and nailed so tellingly, by unvarnished reality.
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