The Polish government's decision to allow the United States to build a base to house 10 Ground-based Mid-course Interceptors in its territory infuriated Russia, which has responded with very serious threats against Poland. There has been a widespread discussion in the Russian media, as we have monitored in these columns over the past two years, that Russia may deploy its formidable solid-fuel, short-range, pinpoint-accurate Iskander quasi-ballistic missiles in its Kaliningrad oblast, or region, which juts menacingly into Poland.
The Polish government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk was not surprised by this Russian reaction. That was why, in large part, it held off from making the fateful commitment to host the GBIs for so long. But the major Russian military incursion into the former Soviet republic of Georgia earlier this month concentrated the minds of policymakers in Warsaw wonderfully, and the Polish government approved the GBI base deal.
But it came with a price: The United States had to agree to deploy almost 100 Patriot anti-ballistic missile interceptors in Poland to defend not only the GBI base but also key Polish cities and military installations.
Effectively, the agreement means the United States will deploy a phased, or two-tier, missile defense system in Poland. The Patriot PAC-3s are not designed to intercept and destroy intercontinental ballistic missiles. ICBMs fly far too high and too fast for that to be a practical proposition. But they are a first-class defense system against slower intermediate-range ballistic missiles, which fly at much lower trajectories.
The Bush administration has always denied that it is deploying the 10 GBIs in Poland to either counter or even pose a threat to the Russian Strategic Missile Forces, but that is what Russian policymakers really believe.
At first glance, the idea that only 10 GBIs could neutralize the 4,700-plus warheads of the Strategic Missile Forces, which are currently going through their most massive modernization program in more than 25 years, seems absurd. But the Russians counter that if most of their strategic missile force were destroyed in a pre-emptive first nuclear strike, then those 10 GBIs could have a disproportionately large impact on neutralizing the relatively few Russian missiles that survived to be launched in a retaliatory counterstrike.
On the other hand, Russia does maintain its fleet of nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines and bombers carrying supersonic, nuclear-armed cruise missiles that the 10 Polish based GBIs could not reach.
A key point, however, is that while the GBIs are still being deployed and their program is still developing, the Patriot system is now a relatively venerable and very reliable "mature technology." Earlier Patriot marks defended Israel and Saudi Arabia from Scud short-range ballistic missile attack during the 1991 Gulf War. Much more advanced Patriot marks have now been sold in large numbers to such countries as Israel, Japan and Taiwan, and South Korea has also emerged as a major customer.
The Patriots that will be deployed in Poland will first and foremost obviously be directed to defend against the potential threat of bombardments from the Russian Iskander bases in Kaliningrad. But they also could serve to defend Poland and its Western neighbors, especially Germany, from IRBM attacks as well.
If Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., wins the U.S. presidential election, he has made clear he will push ahead with the GBI deployment and, consequently, send Poland its Patriots as well. However, key foreign policy and national security advisers to Democratic presidential standard-bearer Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois have made it clear he would be reluctant, to say the least, to push ahead with the program. And even if McCain wins, he probably will face an uphill battle to secure funding for both the GBIs and the Patriots in Poland from a Democrat-controlled 111th Congress.
The fact remains that Poland has made a commitment that will greatly strengthen its already existing claim on the United States to defend it against Russian or other threats under Article 5 of the 1949 Washington Treaty. The GBIs may prove to be a crucial line of defense to protect U.S. cities from annihilation by Iranian-fired ICBMs in the foreseeable future -- and North Korea certainly appears to be sharing its so far unsuccessful but ambitious Taepodong-2 ICBM technology with Tehran.
But it should not be forgotten that those 96 Patriot PAC-3s will be a potent new force in the arms balance in Central Europe, too.