Putin Tries to Pull the Missile Rug From Under the U.S.

Munich, Germany — The Russian president’s slick used car deal for America’s missile defense in Europe reminds me of Ronald Reagan’s jab at President Carter, “There you go again.”

In 1980, then-presidential candidate Reagan was debating President Carter about Medicare. Quickly Reagan realized Carter really wanted socialized medicine and not the Medicare bill then being considered by Congress. Reagan smiled, looked at Carter and adlibbed that now famous phrase, “There you go again.”

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, was like Carter when at last week’s Group of Eight summit of industrialized nations in Germany he attacked America’s proposed European-based missile defense as very close to his borders and “aimed at Iranian weapons which don’t exist.” However, he surprised the Americans by proposing the use of a base in Azerbaijan or other locations including southern Europe, on “floating platforms” at sea or “even in Iraq.” Putin’s engagement on the issue is worthy of consideration but keep in mind the former Soviet secret agent really wants a radically different outcome than does America.

On the surface, Putin’s Azerbaijan proposal sounds tempting. Put the radars and interceptors virtually on top of Iran’s launch pads giving American interceptors a much longer arc to chase and destroy any Iranian Shahab ballistic missiles. Politically, the deal is music to the left because it suppresses Moscow’s threat to re-target Cold War missiles on European cities, a threat Putin made earlier last week.

Don’t pop the corks on the champagne just yet, however. This deal is really a Cold War trick Putin learned at the KGB’s cloak and dagger school. The truth is hidden in the understanding of the missile technology.

Stratfor, an intelligence think tank, exposed Putin’s crafty deal in its analysis. Acquiring an intercontinental ballistic missile in flight and knocking it down with an interceptor can take minutes rather than seconds. That’s why placing the radar and interceptors in the Czech Republic and Poland, America’s current proposal, provides sufficient standoff from Iranian weapons to predict the missile’s path and then to intercept.

A baseball field analogy is very helpful to understand the technology, according to Stratfor. Radars based in the Czech Republic should quickly detect an Iranian missile launch, predict the trajectory and then in seconds send directions to the Polish-based interceptors. The interceptors need time to launch, acquire and destroy or “catch” the Iranian vehicle aimed at American shores. That’s like an outfielder who sees the ball hit and rise into the sky and then positions himself in just the right place to make the catch.

Now apply the baseball analogy to Azerbaijan. Placing the radar and interceptors in that tiny Caspian Sea country is like trying to field a hard hit ball either from a few feet in front of home plate or worse from behind the catcher. The fielder has virtually no time to react. In fact, depending on the placement of Iran’s launch pad, any American interceptors based in Azerbaijan might have to be a lot faster than they are now because Iran could launch their missiles from sites in that country’s far northwestern corner thus putting our interceptors in their rear view mirror.

The baseball analogy only partially explains why Putin’s Azerbaijan-based American missile defense alternative is a winner for Russia. Basing the missiles in an out of the way corner of Central Asia preserves Russia’s missile threat against Europe and then there is the matter of state secrets. Positioning sophisticated American missiles and radars on a Russian-controlled facility makes our high technology vulnerable to intelligence collection.

There are other effects associated with Putin’s proposal. It further confirms for Iran’s Persian Gulf neighbors the need for missile defense and puts a cork in the mouth of some Democrat antagonists.

On May 17, 2007, General Henry “Trey” Obering, the director of the Missile Defense Agency, spoke to an audience that included representatives from Central Asia. The representative from Azerbaijan, who was sobered by the general’s assessment of the Iranian missile threat asked, “Where can we buy missile defense?” Similarly, a representative of the Kingdom of Bahrain asked much the same question. It appears that all the talk about mad Iranian mullahs with missiles which could be armed with nuclear weapons has prompted a Mideast rush on anti-missile systems, furth er destabilizing the region already racked by Islamist insurgencies.

Until recently, some Congressional Democrats and presidential candidates have been downplaying Iran’s missile threat. Putin’s offer gives Bush’s Europe-based proposal credibility and silences some Democratic naysayers. Now, the debate is becoming not whether we should have a missile defense to counter Iran but where and what kind of system should be sought.

At the G8 meeting, President Bush should have responded to Putin’s missile deal with a Reaganesque answer. He didn’t.

Bush should have said something like, “Valimir, my friend, why don’t we just split the missile defense baby?” The United States should go ahead with plans to install the radar system in the Czech Republic and the interceptors in Poland. Then, working with the Russians, we can add a radar system and a recently developed U.S./Israeli ballistic missile defense system in Azerbaijan. Arrow, which is a proven short-range anti-missile system, could be used against Iranian missiles during the missiles’ boost phase. Any Iranian Shababs escaping Arrow’s reach can then be acquired and destroyed by our proposed European system.

Of course, Putin, European leftists and the Iranians lose on this deal. Russia’s leverage on European security is diminished, European leftists continue to cower in the corner for fear of retargeted Soviet-era missiles, Iran’s ballistic capabilities are further eroded, and Russia is denied easy access to America’s crown jewels of missile technology. Sounds like a win-win deal for the good guys. This is a deal the Gipper would applaud.