US Missile Shield -- An Analysis
(By IDC Correspondent in USA)

New Delhi, 09 May 2001

Unlike the space-based Star Wars system proposed in 1983 by then President Reagan, which was designed to protect the United States from a massive Soviet attack, Bush’s proposal last week seeks to give Washington the ability to intercept an individual or small number of missiles that might be launched by a rogue state or launched by terrorists, with only rudimentary nuclear and ballistic capabilities. Congressional support for such a defense system had grown after a 1998 report by a commission headed by Donald Rumsfeld, who is now Bush’s defense secretary. Just six weeks after the report was issued, North Korea fired its three-stage Taepo-Dong One missile, which flew over Japan and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.

The Rumsfeld report and the North Korean missile firing prompted the Clinton administration to ask for $6.6 billion in new funding for missile defense research. The democrats had agreed to field such a system only when technically feasible and after reasserting their commitment to negotiate further arms reduction with Russia. After years of research and investment US has yet to produce a defence that can shoot down a single warhead but advances in technology do make the missile defenses at least conceivable in the new century.

The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty forbids deployment of national missile defense systems hence the Chinese outcry that a US missile shield would “violate this treaty, destroy the balance of international security forces and cause a new arms race”. The Tass has called it, “an obvious aim at breaking strategic stability and staking at force and military factors to achieve world dominance.” The general consensus of first reactions from most European countries has been that no unilateral steps be taken to abrogate the ABM Treaty without first replacing it with a new understanding over which they are ready to begin a strategic dialogue.

President Bush has however, confirmed the US intentions of not only to move beyond the constraints of this treaty, but has announced his willingness to unilaterally reduce the American nuclear weapons by as much as 70% and negotiate a new framework for arms control. For this purpose his emissaries are going to all major capitals in Europe and Asia, but excluding China, for high-level exchange of views. No doubt the US decision will inevitably have a major impact on the broader global security environment, on strategic stability and on the multilateral arms control and disarmament process. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has rightly emphasized the need to “consolidate and build upon existing disarmament and nonproliferation agreements, specifically to prevent a new arms race and to maintain the non-weaponized status of outer space”.

It is significant that China has not yet made any major or high-level comment on the US decision. In 1969 when Nixon and Brezhnev negotiated the ABM Treaty they both feared the rising power of China and aimed to eliminate its threat. This started a three cornered play of power politics so that no adversary could totally dominate. The collapse of soviet power in the 90s created a void and the world seemed to move towards a unipolar power phase, but now the triangular diplomacy is coming to fore again. In the cold war, the US irrevocably sought to break the Soviet-Chinese alliance.

Bush has now made a mention of joint defence with Russia but no mention whatsoever is made of or about China, whose 20 or so ICBMs now stand at most risk of being negated. The US missile shield therefore, besides taking care of the few rogue states, would also shape a new strategic bulwark against China. It is to be noted that China’s nuclear missiles are meant to deter American forces from interfering if Beijing decides to act against Taiwan by blockade or otherwise –– hence the US missile shield is being taken by it as containment of its power and designs. China can therefore be expected to fight for an escape from its isolation and make moves to find friends and supporters. On the other hand Russia may possibly view the US missile defence as a technology train that is leaving station. If it does not get aboard, not only will its own shrinking arsenal get negated by the American shield, but its defence industries might miss the bonanza. Yet Putin would also not like to destabilise his relations with China –– of 1.3 billion people and very long common land border.

The immediate endorsement of Bush’s announcement by India has been duly welcomed both by US administration and media. It has been taken as an indication of how much the mutual relations have changed after the nadir in May 1998 when India’s nuclear explosions had created a sense of outrage and led to imposition of sanctions. There is a sense of satisfaction that a strategic and technological inevitability has been readily understood by India which may lead to (a) removal of all sanctions, (b) access to newer technology in nuclear and space fields –– like nuclear reactors for civilian uses, (c) desirable US pressure on Pakistan to rein in militants battling in Indian Kashmir and (d) recognition as an important country for a partnership role in Asian affairs specially in the Indian Ocean region. But all this has to happen without pushing Pakistan over the edge.

The Congress party leading the opposition has cautioned, “India should not fall into the trap of believing it would gain from a Sino-U.S. conflict in Asia''. Any further worsening of their mutual relations must be viewed from India’s own perspective and not from that of the U.S. In security terms, China left out of the NMD consensus with India in it, would increase its offensive capability and embrace Pakistan more closely. On the economic side, the Bush administration might now seek to delay China's entry into the World Trade Organisation, which would have lesser adverse implications for US than India. A China out of WTO will have no regards for international trade regulations in competing for the same markets as India. IDC however, subscribe to Brahma Chellani’s view that –– “ India can partner the US on strategic defence against theatre and long-range missiles and also against international terrorism and to safeguard borders and share intelligence. With Bolshevism dead and democratic Russia no longer an adversary or even a competitor of the United States, it is conceivable that in the years ahead a Washington-Moscow-New Delhi strategic formation may emerge, with India as the go-between. Without a larger strategic blueprint, India will remain boxed in by the China-Pak–Myanmar axis. It is a strategic imperative for us to keep Russia firmly on India’s side while wooing Washington”.

At home in US but for the expected though muted opposition from the democrats, the position is best summarized in the statement by Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, “The only test I should apply is: What enhances our security? not, ‘What does Russia like?’ or what does anybody else like? If ... whatever system (Bush) proposes is going to result in China going from 18 to 800 ICBM’s and Pakistan and India responding to that and Japan becoming a nuclear power in order to be able to catch seven out of nine missiles that could come from North Korea, then that’s a bad deal”. He did, however, endorse a system that would destroy a nuclear missile in the first two or three minutes after it is launched, in its “boost phase,” saying “That doesn’t threaten the Russian arsenal, that doesn’t threaten the Chinese arsenal.”

The proposed missile shield of President Bush prima facie is based on weapon systems that either have yet to be tested or prove they can be counted to shoot down enemy missiles. But it is quite likely that with adequate funding for R & D, the type of systems Pentagon now has in mind, something basic and practical might be put in place by 2004, beginning with several ground-based interceptors based in Alaska and possibly more aboard Navy cruisers, followed later by air and space based sensors and interceptors. The choice now seems to be on less ambitious technologies like ‘theater missile defences’ (TMD) which should not be a cause of great concern to both China and Russia.

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