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Missile proposal signals start of defensive arms race, scholar says

Melissa Mitchell, News Editor

Julian Palmore
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University of Illinois Photo
   Julian Palmore, a professor of mathematics and arms control expert, does not believe any U.S. missile defense system will be sited in Europe.

Released 6/14/2007

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — On the eve of the Group of 8 summit that took place in Germany earlier this month, the world watched anxiously as the U.S. and Russian presidents engaged in a rhetorical sparring match over plans by the United States to roll out a third missile defense system, this time in Europe.

Such a system would be intended as a foil to incoming nuclear missiles launched from Iran or other locations, presumably in the Middle East. The United States already has similar systems in Alaska and California.

However, when push came to shove, in a subsequent meeting between George Bush and Vladimir Putin – who had initially threatened to point Russian missiles at Europe if the United States moved ahead with plans to put a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic – the Russian leader countered with a surprise proposal to locate the U.S. system at an alternative site further from Russia, in Azerbaijan.

“It seems with the tentative agreement reached on June 7 at the G8 meeting that there will not be a new offensive arms race but rather a new defensive arms buildup to install missile defense worldwide to meet as yet unseen and undeveloped threats of missile proliferation,” said Julian Palmore, a professor of mathematics and an expert in arms control at the University of Illinois.

“The Russian leader raised the possibility of the European missile defense system being acceptable to Russia if the radars were based in Azerbaijan rather than the Czech Republic. Whether this agreement holds or not when details are discussed in July in Kennebunkport (Maine) remains to be seen.”

In fact, a lot remains to be seen and worked out – probably over a long timeline, according to the U. of I. professor.

Palmore has engaged in continuing discussions on the topic of locating missile defenses in Europe at international conferences at Wilton Park in Steyning, West Sussex, United Kingdom. He is involved in the planning of a 2008 meeting there, with the Wilton Park director, on “Missile Defense and the Transatlantic Alliance.”

“Putin’s proposal was an out-of-the-blue offer and is being greeted with skepticism,” Palmore said. “It’s just a feint – a ploy to start talking in serious ways.

“It’s like a boxing match where the opponents are just touching gloves.”

Before the U.S. would build a missile defense system in Azerbaijan – or anywhere else in Europe, for that matter – a number of other key obstacles would need to be addressed, negotiated and circumvented.

“The two principal concerns on basing a third U.S. missile site in Europe,” Palmore said, “are the issues of command and control and technology transfer.” Both, he said, were discussed in 2004 and 2005 at meetings held by the U.S. State Department at Wilton Park.

“For example,” he said, “if a threat were to develop by a missile launched from the Middle East and an interceptor were launched from Poland, who commands the launch and where does the debris fall, since it certainly will impact somewhere?”

The other big question remaining is, “How can European countries participate in this venture with the strict regulations in the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, which prevent an abundance of technology transfer, including information technology, without stringent safeguards.”

An even more central, underlying problem with building yet another defensive system anywhere is one that Palmore and other arms control and international security experts frequently cite.

“Many believe these systems are a waste. As John Pike, director of has said: ‘Missile defense is a system that doesn’t work against a threat that doesn’t exist.’

“This is less true today than when he said it many years ago since there have been successes with the Navy Aegis cruiser system defending against short-range ballistic missiles, but the ground-based system is largely untested in any realistic setting.”

Nonetheless, with interest growing worldwide in the idea of building missile defense systems – fueled in part by what Palmore calls “the real danger of worldwide ballistic and cruise missile proliferation” – this new, defensive arms race is likely to continue to attract contenders.

“It may be that in the end, missile defense systems will be seen as both necessary and sufficient to counter proliferation,” Palmore said.

But for the time being, he remains unconvinced that the U.S. will succeed in basing such a system in Europe any time soon, especially since the European Union and Great Britain are potentially interested in building their own missile defense systems.

“By the time any missiles would actually be sited in Europe, Bush will be out of office,” he said, noting that the domestic political landscape in the United States could appear very different from today.

“I predict it won’t happen – period.”