Editorial: It’s Not Sputnik

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  Space News Business

Editorial: It’s Not Sputnik

posted: 20 February 2009
11:35 am ET






‘s launch of a satellite into orbit Feb. 2 has brought calls from some quarters for accelerating missile defense efforts, including a proposed expansion of the existing territorial shield into

The so-called European site, which would feature 10 interceptors in and a tracking radar in the , was a priority of former U.S. President George W. Bush and was linked specifically to the Iranian missile threat. But while approved in principle by the Polish and Czech governments, and endorsed by NATO, plans for the installations have yet to be approved by the parliaments of the host nations.

U.S. President BarackObama has hedged on missile defense, saying he will invest in systems that are proven to work so long as that does not draw resources away from other key national security priorities. When asked about the European site Feb. 10 during a joint press conference in with Czech Foreign Minister KarelSchwarzenberg, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was vague. She said, in a nutshell, that there are technical issues with missile defense but added that should continue on its current path – presumably one of missile and nuclear weapons development – self defense is an option for the , other European countries and the

Russia, meanwhile, is vehemently opposed to the site, despite Bush administration assurances that it is specifically intended to address the Iranian threat – never mind the fact that 10 interceptors would not put even a small dent in Russia’s nuclear deterrent capacity. In what many see as an early test of the new administration’s mettle, Russia has warned that should the United States move forward with the European shield, it would respond by pointing more of its own missiles at Europe.

‘s launch of the Omid satellite into low Earth orbit aboard a Safir-2 rocket is an unmistakable sign of the Islamic Republic’s growing technological prowess in general, and specifically in ballistic missiles. Coupled with ‘s nuclear ambitions, this certainly is cause for concern. On top of that, the Obama administration must be careful not to appear intimidated by Russian threats, and thus encourage to choose bluster over constructive engagement to resolve differences.

But it does not automatically follow that Mr. Obama should rush ahead with the European site. Omid is not Sputnik revisited; government authorities are unlikely to have been caught completely off guard by this, and remains light years behind the and in military capabilities. Being able to launch a satellite into space, while significant, is not the same as being able to strike a city half a world away with a ballistic missile, let alone one armed with a nuclear warhead, which experts say would have to be much larger than the Omid satellite. Moreover, , despite the incendiary rhetoric of its president, knows full well that lobbing a weapon of mass destruction into United States likely would result in its own annihilation.

Of course, if it is possible to take the first strike option, however unlikely, out of ‘s hands, obviously it would be prudent to do so. For this reason – and because other hostile countries have or are developing long-range missiles – the United States should continue to develop and improve its missile defense capabilities. Mr. Obama and U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden are off the mark when they couch their support for missile defenses by saying they will invest in the technology once it is proven – the only way to prove the technology is to develop it, and that requires investment.

But the European missile shield represents a very large investment at a time when the Pentagon, which already has several costly missile defense development and procurement programs on its plate, is facing an end to the days of double-digit annual budget growth. If and when the Czech and Polish parliaments approve the project, the Obama administration probably would have little choice but to follow through with deployment; the alternative is to leave two important allies to twist in the wind after having stuck their necks out. Until then, however, the administration can afford to bide its time and explore alternative approaches, perhaps in a wider NATO context, so long as it continues to develop and test relevant technologies.