BMD Focus: Leapfrog race against death

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst  |  Dec. 8, 2005 at 11:38 AM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 7 (UPI) -- When President Ronald Reagan first unfolded the vision of ballistic missile defense a quarter century ago, his vision was of an "Astrodome defense" -- the high-tech equivalent of an impregnable fortification that could and would protect the United States and other nations for many years to come from the threat of nuclear missile attack.

But at a time when more nations than ever before are jumping onboard the BMD express and joining the United States in developing it, and when the United States and other nations are chalking up successes in developing the necessary technology almost by the week, the strategic and technical reality of BMD is very different. It is real; it is in many respects technically feasible and some aspects of it are already with us -- and have been, in fact, for at least a decade and a half. But that reality is not Astrodome. It is rather the High Frontier equivalent of the great Naval Arms Race before World War I and the Air Power arms race before World War II.

In other words, BMD, not merely as it exists and is today and is conceptualized by Pentagon planners for the foreseeable future, but in its essential nature, is not a secure fortification but a never-ending race against a formidable, evolving and adaptive enemy.

This is already the case in the renewed strategic arms race between the United States and Russia which, as detailed in previous BMD Focus columns, is already developing a pace, complexity and cost on both sides not seen since the last great nuclear missile arms spurt of the Cold War a quarter of a century ago.

But the same dynamic of consistently evolving forces of ballistic missile offense and defense, each seeking continually to leapfrog and negate the most recent advances of each other, can also now be seen in two spin-off nuclear races in different parts of the world: Those between India and Pakistan and between Israel and Iran.

Examples of this ever changing "leap frog" reality in BMD are on every side.

The United States is now giving increasing consideration to boost phase interceptor systems to shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles when they are in their first and hitherto slowest, and therefore most vulnerable, ascent stage after launching.

But Russia and now even Iran are responding to this threat by pushing ahead with the development and deployment as fast as possible of solid fuel missiles that accelerate far faster out of the silo. The latest upgraded versions of Russian land-mobile SS-27 Topol-M and Bulava, submarine-launched ICBMs will therefore be solid fuel-powered. They will also be launched in far lower courses making them, again, less vulnerable to interceptor destruction during flight, and they are being upgraded to carry Multiple Independently Targeted Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) warheads, each of which will also have its own independent maneuvering capabilities to again throw off interceptor missiles.

Tiny Israel with only six million people and giant India, with more than one billion, have also found that developing their own independent nuclear deterrents and pressing ahead with ambitious BMD programs is not going to be enough for them either.

Israel is tiny, and has 70 percent of its small population and 80 percent of its critical infrastructure within a tight radius around central Tel Aviv, a configuration that, as former Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations told United Press International a few months ago, is almost a sitting invitation for a devastating preemptive nuclear attack.

Israel, therefore, has developed nuclear-capable cruise missiles carried on its mini-fleet of three German-built and supplied, diesel powered Dolphin-class submarines or U-boats. This is to give it a survivable second strike capability.

But with such a small fleet, only one out of the three ships may be on station at any one time, and the submergence time of the Dolphins is limited. Israel, therefore, plans to buy at least two more further-advanced diesel-powered submarines from Germany to make its second strike deterrent capability more broad and robust: in other words, more survivable. Germany's new Christian Democratic Chancellor Angela Merkel is believed to be very supportive of the idea.

The Israeli example is also interesting because it does not grow from any sense of despair over Israel's BMD capabilities which, given the small area needed to be defended, are among the most advanced, reliable and densely deployed in the world.

Israel Aircraft Industries and its U.S. partner Boeing have just announced a highly successful test of their Arrow system against a missile target designed to simulate an attack by a Shahib-3 medium range ballistic missile. In contrast to many U.S. tests that, critics charged, were deliberately massaged to make them easier and more achievable than a real interception challenge would be, the Israeli test was deliberately configured to test the Arrow far outside its original performance envelope, at a far lower altitude. It still worked well.

But even so, the Israelis have recognized that the best achievable BMD system in the world cannot offer 100 percent or even 90 percent chance of success, and against the threat of thermonuclear destruction, you only have to miss once. That is why they are still expanding and falling back on the tried old deterrent of Mutually Assured Destruction that kept the Soviet Union and the United States at uneasy peace for so long through the decades of the Cold War.

India, which has enjoyed increasingly close defense ties with Israel over the past five years, has interestingly come up with the same assessment and the same strategic solution as Israel. India has enormous population and vast size -- but its population densities in its largest cities are among the highest in the world, and most of them are in the north of the country, within easy range of Pakistan's formidably capable and accurate missile arsenal.

Therefore, even while India is enthusiastically launching into far-reaching BMD development programs with the United States, it has also bought Scorpene submarines from France that, like Israel's German-build Dolphins, can carry nuclear capable and accurate cruise missiles. They too are opting for old-fashioned, survivable second strike capability.

President Harry S. Truman liked to say that there is nothing new in the world except the history you don't already know: Even in the cutting-edge, High Frontier, 21st century world of ballistic missile defense that is proving to be the case.

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