11:59 GMT +326 March 2019
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    Anti-ballistic missiles: menace and myth

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    MOSCOW. (Alexander Khramchikhin for RIA Novosti) - The United States' plans to build an anti-ballistic-missile (ABM) system in eastern Europe have sparked a heated debate, which is drawing in more and more participants. Meanwhile, some aspects of the controversy are surprising.

    To start with, Moscow's reaction does not seem quite appropriate. It is obvious enough that the deployment of U.S. ABM components in Poland and the Czech Republic does not present any threat to the Russian strategic nuclear forces so far.

    It is common knowledge that ballistic missile trajectories are not straight lines on a map. They fly over the globe in a big arc. Thus, an ICBM launched from northwestern Iran towards New York or Washington will fly over Azerbaijan and Georgia, the Russian Black Sea coast of the Caucasus, the Sea of Azov, eastern and central Ukraine, Belarus, northeastern Poland, the southern Baltics, southern Sweden, Denmark, the North Sea, the Orkneys, the Atlantic Ocean, and between Newfoundland and mainland Canada. The American ground-based interceptors (GBIs) are designed to hit their targets head-on, and for this reason it makes sense to deploy them in Poland. This will make it easier for the GBIs to destroy enemy ICBMs because the angle between interceptor and target will be slight or even zero, lowering requirements for the former's speed and range (the targets themselves would approach the GBIs).

    At the same time, the trajectories of any missiles flying from Russia to the United States (and vice versa) pass over the Arctic. Let's assume the impossible - a Russian first strike on the United States. In that case, north-bound Russian ICBMs would of course be launched earlier than GBIs. The ABM facility in Poland would then have to detect them, calculate their trajectories and launch interceptors to the northeast to catch them from behind. But GBIs have neither the speed nor range to do this. The further to the east the ICBMs start, the more useless GBIs based in Poland would be. The interceptors are supposed to have characteristics similar to the missiles they are meant to destroy. Their speed is about the same. This does not matter when the two missiles are meant to collide head-on, but to overtake a speeding missile, an interceptor must travel several times faster than it. For this reason, the current version of the GBI does not pose a threat even to Russian ICBMs based in the European part of the country, to say nothing of the Urals and Siberia. And of course, the European ABM system is powerless against Russian ballistic-missile submarines. Moreover, Poland is going to accept only 10 GBIs, a figure which pales into insignificance when compared to the Russian strategic nuclear forces. In any case, the American strategic ABM system can hardly be said to exist because many of the GBI tests have failed. On top of all that, bulky radars and GBI launch pads are highly vulnerable to conventional tactical weapons, cruise missiles and front-line aviation.

    Some experts believe that the radar that the Americans are planning to deploy in the Czech Republic is much more dangerous for Russia than the GBIs in Poland. It will cover the country's territory up to the Urals. Its mission is to detect missile launches and feed this information to the anti-missile systems. However, as I have explained above, such systems do not actually exist.

    To sum up, the threat posed by the American ABM system to be deployed in eastern Europe is imaginary. The only bizarre point is that the threat of Iranian ICBMs to the United States is even more far-fetched. Up to this day, the U.S., Russia, and China have been the only countries capable of building their own ICBMs. Iran cannot even cope with producing medium-range missiles. Its technological level will not allow it to build nuclear-tipped ICBMs even in the distant future. Even if we assume that Iran obtains such missiles somehow, why would it wish to attack the United States? For all the peculiarities of the Iranian regime, there are no grounds to think that it consists of suicidal fanatics. It is perfectly obvious that a single strike against the United States would cause, quite legally, a massive retaliation that would completely destroy Iran. There are no goals for which the Iranian leaders would pay such a price. It is hard to believe that Washington does not understand this, and in this context its desire to seek protection against Iran seems very strange.

    There are five explanations of why the United States wants to have an ABM system in eastern Europe, and none are mutually exclusive:

    1. After 9/11, American leaders and society as a whole became so paranoid that they want to counter even mythical threats to national security.

    2. The Pentagon's budget has become so big that to keep it at this level or make it even bigger, the Defense Department and the military-industrial complex are presenting mythical threats as real, demonstrating at the same time their concern for the security of the U.S. taxpayer.

    3. U.S. military and political leaders believe that in the (albeit remote) future, they will develop their ABM system to the level where it would pose a threat to the Russian strategic nuclear forces; now it is important to gain a foothold by deploying useless GBIs.

    4. Washington wants to repeat its successful strategy of the 1980s, when it compelled Moscow to spend huge sums of money to counter a mythical threat. Almost a quarter-century has passed since the United States first announced Star Wars, but for all of its gigantic economic, technological and scientific potential, America has managed to produce almost nothing of what it announced then. It was very easy to understand then that the supposed ABM program was a pipe dream, but the intellectual level of the Soviet elite had dropped so much by that point that it was simply unable to adequately assess the situation. Nobody in America was ever going to make any combat lasers, but Moscow feverishly rushed to parry the threat just to realize shortly afterward that it could not cope with it either economically or technologically.

    Under Mikhail Gorbachev, Russia began "perestroika and acceleration," and only after we dropped out of the race from exhaustion did we go for "the new thinking," with the end that we all know. Today, Washington may well try to at least exhaust Russia with another arms race, if not cause its complete disintegration in the wake of the Soviet collapse. At the same time, the U.S. will unite the rapidly decaying NATO alliance and save its combat potential in the face of "the new threat from the East."

    5. The final possibility is that America does not care much about either Russia or Iran. Rather, it knows that NATO has no future and wants to create a new security system that would be smaller but more coherent. The system should involve those countries that are truly loyal to Washington. The deployment of ABM components is a loyalty test.

    As I have already said, one explanation does not rule out another. I am almost sure that the truth is a combination of several, if not all versions. This is why Moscow is on the horns of a dilemma: should it rush to beef up its armed forces, thinking about the third explanation, or should it pretend that nothing is happening for fear of being trapped by the fourth?

    But these two courses are not mutually exclusive. Russia must not only build up its armed forces; it must largely start building them from scratch. If it adopts a serious strategy for military development that reflects real threats and challenges and ways of responding to them, Russia will even be able to deal with the third option - if it becomes a reality.

    The author is the head of the analytical department at the Institute of Political and Military Analysis.

    The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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