Michael KreponBerlin and Moscow

I am a frequent flier and have a plastic, gold “Million Miler” card from United to prove it. None of my business flights have had more meaning than one I took in 1989 to watch people hammer away at the Berlin Wall. I was somewhere else in Europe at the time and hopped a plane to West Berlin. The customs police looked quizzically at a traveler without luggage, not understanding that I was a day tripper, there to soak up history in the making and to collect pieces of graffiti-stained concrete.

Berlin is once again a muscular, vibrant city, particularly around Potsdamer Platz, where the Wall once divided East from West. Germany’s strength is rooted in its economy and alliance ties, not in nuclear weapons or Panzer Divisions. The powerhouse of Europe now has an Army of less than three divisions — down from 102 at the start of the Second World War.

Awareness of history is essential; being its prisoner is both optional and unwise. Moscow is still imprisoned in Cold War thinking about the Bomb and missile defenses. Some in the United States are, as well.

Russia is understandably and acutely sensitive to German power. The means it now chooses to warn Berlin and the West of adventurism are as outmoded as those it once employed to keep Germany divided. The symbolic use of tactical nuclear weapons to protect Moscow’s western front reeks of the Cold War. These weapons, once integral to offensive plans, are now substitutes for Moscow’s declining power and trading material for a future arms reduction agreement.

The Kremlin’s view of missile defenses is also redolent of the past, rooted in fears of the Strategic Defense Initiative’s second coming. Russia is part of a small number of countries that rely on ballistic missiles and implied nuclear threats to shore up their influence and to compensate for multiple weaknesses.

No good comes from lending credence to the Kremlin’s outdated nightmares, which is why I have parted company with those who warn that Moscow is incapable of discerning the intent behind US ballistic missile defense plans. I don’t buy the argument that the Kremlin will invariably perceive BMD, especially in the hands of a Republican administration, as a means to neutralize the Russian deterrent – especially from those who insist that US missile defense capabilities will forever be deficient at discriminating between warheads and decoys.

I understand these arguments – up to a point. No good can come from the ambitions of BMD enthusiasts who seek an escape from deterrence between major powers. There will, however, be no second coming of SDI. Nothing of the sort happened during the George W. Bush administration – not because of the ABM Treaty, which Bush set aside, but because of legislative checks and balances, the Pentagon’s preferences in dealing with unavoidable budgetary trade-offs, and enduring technological constraints. If another Republican administration, staffed by familiar faces, once again seeks missile defenses that are oriented against Russia and China instead of Iran and North Korea, familiar countervailing checks in the United States will again come into play. And Russia will once again seek low cost counters to BMD deployments. China will, too.

A BMD architecture focused against outliers can be differentiated from missile defenses designed to negate the Russian deterrent, even though there will eventually be some overlap between the two. To oppose regional missile defenses because of this overlap is to invite further proliferation. Countries that feel threatened by the North Korean and Iranian missile and nuclear programs are rightly offended by Cold War-like arguments that BMD is destabilizing and will make their neighbors’ bad behavior even worse. Add the argument that BMD will never work properly, even against unsophisticated threats, and the likelihood grows that states that feel threatened will pursue their own hedging strategies. How far they hedge depends, in part, on whether theater missile defenses are part of the mix.

I propose that we accord Kremlin leaders more credit for their powers of discernment, thereby giving them less power to influence the provision of BMD to reassure U.S. allies and friends in troubled regions. I also propose taking a very hard look at the concurrency of current BMD plans. Some interim deployments are clearly needed to address North Korean and Iranian missile programs, but pushing too hard on deployments while concurrently developing weapon systems usually winds up costing doubly for questionable capability. The proposed scope at the back end of phased, adaptive deployments also requires periodic re-evaluation. These steps would constitute favors to U.S. taxpayers, not to the Kremlin.

Moscow’s concerns over missile defenses are purposely inflated, but are deeply rooted. The Kremlin’s concerns obviously matter, but not as much as the concerns of U.S. partners that are on the warning end of ballistic missile and nuclear programs. The reduction of U.S. and Russian stockpiles will continue. In the near term, horizontal proliferation warrants greater concern than Moscow’s complaints.


  1. blowback (History)

    If the Cold War is over, why is America pushing NATO and American bases up to Russia’s borders? I see no signs whatsover of Russian expansionism. On the other hand, I still see plenty of signs of American expansionism!

    As to the relations between Germany and Russia, how would you feel about a country that killed 60 million of your countrymen after a war of aggression that was to some extent encouraged by other countries that had already invaded your territory? How many generations would it take America to start trusting that country again?

    • Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

      Those nations joined NATO because they were forced into the Warsaw Pact. Just as America will suffer in the future for it’s mistakes in the middle east, Russia today is suffering from its mistakes after WWII. You don’t seriously think anyone in the West is stupid enough to make the mistake of Napoleon or Hitler any time soon do you? Both America and Russia seem to have missed a lesson of the Cold War and driven home by the War on Terror. Wars are best won by waging superior peace.

  2. kme (History)

    The use of BMD to actually defend against ballistic missiles is a secondary concern for all of the parties involved: for the US, for the BMD hosts in Eastern Europe and for Russia.

    The primary concern is the deployment of US military members to support the BMD installations. For the US and the host nations like Poland, this cements US presence in Eastern Europe and counters Russian influence in this region. For Russia the presence of a great power’s military on what is historically the invasion highway to the Russian heartland is deeply troubling.

    No-one is really worried about any nuclear missiles, from any origin, actually being shot down.

    • Edward Marshall (History)

      There are negotiations ongoing to remove the NATO tactical nuclear arsenal in Europe and the Russian deployed tactical forces. The main resistance (other than France) is from the Baltic states. They feel (irrationally) that the weapons represent some sort of security guarantee. They don’t. There are no plans to use them.

      It’s something,though, so they want to keep them. When asked what they would really like it is exactly American troops and families stationed there to act as tripwires. It creates a catch-22 where a confidence building measure has the seeds of actually *reducing* confidence in implementation.

  3. Sharif (History)

    I agree with you that Russia’s fears of BMD are exaggerated.

    But so are US claims of missile defense’s effectiveness: if the US really wanted an effective missile defense we would field sea-based boost-phase missile defense as proposed by Garwin for ages.

    So the US gets a false sense of security and the Russians get a false sense of insecurity.

    Next, to find a solution, you have to ask: who created this problem: the missile defense lobbying enterprise — in the US — did. Not the Russians.

    That is the missing piece in your otherwise excellent commentary above — missile defense is not a military initiative else a militarily sound version (sea-based or drone-based boost-phase) would have been chosen. Instead we have the easy to defeat midcourse system that is known not to work: even the DoD Inspector General is now investigating howcome realistic tests with decoys have never been successfully concluded by M.D.A. (TM, Inc.).

    Missile defense has also now taken on a Frankenstein life-force as it has become the raison d’etre to give some meaning to an outdated NATO bureaucracy.

    The NATO angle also needs to be examined.

  4. Sam (History)

    The real Cold War thinking is actually being done on Capitol Hill and Brussels: missile defense is simply a way of perpetuating an us-versus-them mindset w/r/t/ Russians.

    Else we would agree to their proposal of JOINT missile defense system. No, we don’t want that as it will upset NATO’s Cold War bureaucratic reason to exist.

    Why not do what the Russians propose and field a joint missile defense system against Iran? [if indeed the Iran threat is justified, which I doubt and wikileaks concurs].

  5. Kay (History)

    An excellent piece, especially, “..These steps would constitute favors to U.S. taxpayers, not to the Kremlin.” Let’s turn that logic on its head. The taxpayers also include the defense industry and gunning down the BMD plan would undermine their interests in paying the taxes! PAC and other ABMs add money to the U.S. economy. Would the paymasters allow that?

  6. Anon (History)

    I continue to be puzzled at how midcourse missile defense protect us or our allies from Iranian missiles when it can be spoofed by decoys? Why won’t Iranians field more missiles to compensate?



    “So the central conundrum of midcourse missile defense remains that while it creates incentives for adversaries and competitors of the United States to increase their missile stockpiles, it offers no credible combat capability to protect the United States or its allies from this — increased — weaponry.”


    That’s about as succinctly as anyone can put it.

    Why do you (seem to) support missile defense in view of the manifold flaws and downsides and outright monetary waste?

    • Ian (History)

      I think there’s a great answer to this that involves not shooting down Iranian missiles, but deterring Iran from breaking out of the NPT.

      Lets say that the missile defense had only a 50% chance of shooting down an Iranian missile. If you’re Iran, you are going to decide that you need to fire at least two, probably more, to have confidence that your missile would get though.

      Moreover, even after firing a nuclear-armed missile, Iran would presumably want to maintain a deterrent, meaning that at least a further two or more nuclear-armed missiles were required.

      Suddenly, Iran requires not one nuclear-armed missile to have a credible deterrent, but 6-10. The time taken to produce such an arsenal would preclude an overnight breakout, and there should be a high level of confidence that if Iran sets out to produce 6-10 weapons that it would be caught well before completion.

      Overall, that’s a pretty good motivator for Iran not to move beyond hedging.

    • John Schilling (History)


      Your argument really needs numbers attached to it, and the NYT article you cite doesn’t have any either. Missile defense can be spoofed by decoys, if there are enough decoys. The Iranians can build more missiles to compensate, but how many? These aren’t issues that can be addressed by handwaving.

      To try and put numbers on it: The British are known to have spent approximately $7 billion in today’s money, coincidentally equal to Iran’s entire defense budget, developing and testing the Chevaline system. Which provided 13.5 credible radar-only decoys per actual warhead. The Iranians will need radar-and-IR decoys, so assuming the same level of technical sophistication they can probably manage half a dozen or so decoys per warhead.

      Unit cost of a GMD interceptor plus kill vehicle is given as $50 million. New ICBM-class small satellite launch vehicles typically sell for $25 million; if the warhead, RV, and decoys cost the same, then one interceptor costs as much as one ICBM.

      The Gross Domestic Product of the United States is approximately $15 trillion. The GDP (PPP adjusted) of Iran and North Korea combined is less than $1 trillion. If the United States cares as much about defending American cities as the others care about attacking them, and if the Europeans et al completely sit this one out, the United States can match each Iranian and North Korean ICBM with fifteen interceptors. If each enemy ICBM carries one live warhead and six or seven decoys…

      Back when the plan was to build a grand strategic defense system that would render the free world immune to those darned commie nookyuler missiles, decoys were one of several issues that would have rendered the whole scheme highly dubious to say the least. The FAS needs to understand that it isn’t 1983 any more.

      Here and now, the math on decoys is that the United States can effectively defend itself, and maybe its allies, from any arsenal the Iranians can actually field. And the same math says that the Russians and Chinese don’t need to worry about their strategic defenses being degraded in the process, though possibly future Chinese force planning would be somewhat impacted.

    • Anon (History)

      You appear to assume that Iran would necessarily mate nukes with missiles, which is not a good assumption. Iran could break out of the NPT without the necessity of missiles.

      Appreciate the discussion.

    • Sam (History)

      some facts: the Raytheon KVs + associated radars can be spoofed by unintentional “decoys” i.e. chuff, which happened in a recent, 2010, test. Chuff-like “decoys” would be very cheap to make. Wires and other cheap light decoys could be used in parallel.

      Balloons would also be very cheap to make and many could be installed.

      The CIA in 2000 concurred that NK and Iran can overwhelm missile defense.

      Also, Iran has already found a work-around — read: fallacy of the last move — cruise missiles.

      Lastly, there has never been a successful test of *any* missile defense against decoys. An early 1997 test where we knew the decoy signatures actually spoofed the system.

      Many of the successful hits in Aegis were fails since they struck the rocket body: in an ICBM mode there would be no rocket body at all. In IRBM mode the KV would soda-can the rocket body.

      Aegis is not all that relevant for nuclear-tipped missiles.

      In the final instance if even a few nuclear tipped missiles can get thru minimum deterrence is assured for e.g. NK, BMD notwithstanding.

    • Ryan Crierie (History)

      Ian, that’s a great post. May I add a further example?

      Weapons systems of the complexity level of long range ballistic missiles are never deployed singly; they’re grouped together in discrete organizations with fixed tables of organizations, etc.

      For example, a North Korean MRBM regiment has 30 TELs assigned to it along with 120 missiles for the TELs to fire.

      If they want to add another 30 ready to launch MRBMs to their table of organization, they need to add another MRBM regiment; with it’s attendant facilities needed, housing for personnel, etc.

      Militaries tend to be a bit neat about these things; the exception being extremely specialized units, or when the capability is brand new and there’s a mad rush to get it as fast as possible.

  7. alex (History)

    Not sure, where your figure for German army divisions comes from, but the Heer currently has five divisions, not “less than three”, whatever that means. There are two tank divisions, one mechanized division, one airborne and one air-mobile division.

    • blowback (History)

      They seem to be planning on reducing it to three divisions in 2012 according to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Germany_Army_2012.png) although you have to wonder why they have a 1st and 10th armoured division when they could have had a 1st and 2nd armoured division. Does this mean that they intend to reactivate the “missing divisions” at some time in the future?

    • kme (History)

      blowback, that kind of nonsequential numbering is very common in militaries. For example the RAAF recently re-raised No. 452 Squadron. It doesn’t mean that they have 451 other squadrons.

      Perhaps the German 10th Armoured Division has a more notable history than the 2nd through 9th.

  8. joshua (History)

    I’m not sure there’s any easy answer to the dilemmas posed by the combination of missile defense deployments, mistrust, divergent perceptions, etc. And the problem is only likely to become more difficult before long.

    • Sam (History)


      What about stop the deployments — or at least put a freeze at Block IB and no Block II SM-3s ?

      Or, how about admit the Cold War is over and setup a joint missile defense system with Russia, like Russia proposes?

      It is false to say that Russia is opposed to missile defense — they are not: they want real cooperation.

      Sure, there is no solution if we are intent on being inflexible and continue to pander to our own far-right loony fringe.