LONDON — Cynicism and hypocrisy are always part of international politics, but in the case of Poland and the antiballistic missiles (ABM) everybody is over-fulfilling their norm.
Nobody involved in the controversy, Polish, Russian or American, believes a single word they are saying about this misbegotten missile defense system, whose principal characteristic is that it doesn’t work — never has, and probably never will. And yet we’re all expected to report what they say as if it mattered.
Washington insists that the ABM missiles are being put into Poland to protect the United States and its allies from Iran’s long-range ballistic missiles (which do not exist) tipped with nuclear warheads (which Iran doesn’t have either). Yet after months of the U.S.-Polish talks on the subject being stalled, suddenly last Wednesday Warsaw agreed to provide a base for the “missile defense system” — because it would infuriate the Russians.
The Poles, who are anxious about Russia’s intentions in the light of recent events in Georgia, want to send a signal of defiance to Moscow and get a permanent American military base of some kind on their soil. They’re not worried about nonexistent Iranian missiles, and if they do occasionally worry about very real Russian missiles, they are not so foolish as to believe that this American missile defense system would actually protect them. It doesn’t work.
So why are the Russians so upset about all this? Why did Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of the Russian general staff, publicly warn Poland last week that hosting the American interceptors could make it the target for a nuclear strike?
The Russians know the interceptors don’t work, but the Russian military, like any professional military force, needs a dramatic foreign threat to justify their demands on Russia’s resources, and for that purely political purpose the American missiles work fine. Russian strategists claim that this system is actually intended to shoot down Russian ballistic missiles, and so undermine Russia’s ability to deter an American attack by destroying its ability to strike back.
Nonsense, of course. Even if the American ABM missiles did work as advertised, 10 launchers on Poland’s Baltic coast are not going to make much difference against Russia’s 848 long-range ballistic missiles, including hundreds that can be launched from submarines. The Russians are only pretending to be worried about the ABM missiles in Poland, although they are seriously annoyed by U.S. military bases there.
The symbolic importance of the U.S. opening a new military base so close to Russia in the midst of the diplomatic confrontation over Georgia is clear to everybody, and Moscow is reacting to that. Even so, to threaten a nuclear strike against Poland sounds a bit extreme — except that in reality it doesn’t mean a thing, and everybody knows that, too.
Poland is already a target for nuclear strikes in the most improbable event of a Russian-American nuclear war. Everybody in the American-led NATO alliance is. Yet they don’t lose much sleep over it, because such a war is so very unlikely. Gen. Nogovitsyn didn’t announce a new policy; he just spoke more frankly than usual about a permanent reality, in the hope of intimidating the more naive sections of the Polish population.
The new American missile defense base in Poland gives all the interested parties a way to make their political points, while having no serious strategic importance whatever.
But why has the U.S. spent between $120 billion and $150 billion on this ludicrous white elephant of a system since President Ronald Reagan first launched the “Star Wars” project in 1983? Precisely because ever since 1983 the missile defense project has provided American senators, congressmen and presidents with the opportunity to pour enormous amounts of money into the pockets of defense industry, in return for much smaller but politically vital campaign contributions by those same companies. The technology can never be made cost-effective, but the project is impossible to kill because so many politicians benefit from it.
How can we know that the technology will never be cost-effective? Because even if the technology could finally be made to work to specifications, the whole notion of ballistic missile defense is ridiculous.
It will always be 10 to a 100 times cheaper to evade ABM defenses by adding decoys and other “penetration aids” to incoming warheads, making them maneuverable, etc. than it is to upgrade the performance of interceptors.
That performance, after a quarter-century’s work, is so poor that only two out of the last five tests worked. And those tests are rigged in the ABM system’s favor, as the defenders knew the incoming missile’s type, trajectory and destination. In more recent tests, they have used no decoys at all in an attempt to get the hit rate up. And yet they have deployed the system anyway, first in Alaska and now in Poland.
This is fantasy strategy in the service of the military-industrial complex, and no strategist in the know takes it seriously. But it does allow the owner to make quite impressive symbolic gestures, albeit rather expensive ones.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.