A ccording to Rick Lehner, spokesman for the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, the U.S. missile defense system would protect Central European countries “from a limited intermediate to long-range ballistic missile attack from the Middle East and also from a limited long-range missile attack from North Korea.”
This offered protection, however, provoked among some Central European nations debates about who exactly would protect them and whether the threat really is serious enough to require that type of protection.
Earlier this year, Washington asked Prague and Warsaw to take part in its anti-missile defense system by hosting radar and missile bases. The United States is considering locating a a base with 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar system detecting missile threats in the neighboring Czech Republic.
Washington officially asked the Czech government Jan. 19 to start talks on whether a radar part of the U.S. missile defense base can be built in the Czech Republic. If the talks were a success and the Czech Republic approved the plan, the radar could start operating on Czech territory in 2011. The base should be operated by 200 experts at the most, including both civilians and military personnel, and would monitor an area at a range of 6,000 kilometers to 7,000 kilometers .
Originally, the Czech government agreed to host both the missile base and the radar station. However, with 65 percent of the Czechs opposed to the idea of the missile base, the Czech government has decided to limit its participation to hosting only the radar. However, even the radar base has become an issue of intense scrutiny. According to a poll conducted by Ivan Gabal Analysis & Consulting agency for the Czech Foreign Ministry in December 2006, 38 percent of Czechs do not want the Czech Republic to participate in the U.S. missile defense system.
The center-right government of Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek supports the U.S. request for the installation of the radar base, but it has been unable to clearly state the advantages, if there are any, of such a move to win the public support.
Meanwhile, the opposition to the government’s decision is growing strong. Opponents, led by the Communist Party, have organized a couple of protest demonstrations, while the main opposition party, the Social Democrats, have called for a referendum on the question. Local mayors also have shown reticence about hosting a base nearby due to hostility of most of their inhabitants.
The main sticking point is the official jurisdiction of the proposed radar base. Most opponents reject the idea of a radar base on Czech territory being under sole U.S. command and prefer it to be a part of the NATO collective defense. In particular they criticize the bilateral nature of negotiations between Washington and Prague and the lack of NATO perspective on the proposed defense installations.
The issue of jurisdiction has triggered debates among Czech legal experts as to whether a change to the Czech constitution is necessary. Some lawyers argue that the station would need to be exempt from the principle of state sovereignty, which requires an amendment to the constitution. They add that the situation would be different if the base were built by a supranational organization such as NATO, of which the Czech Republic is a member. The NATO radar base in Nepolisy in east Bohemia, is an example of such base.
Czech government officials and some experts maintain that the constitution provides the legal framework for the situation and does not need to be amended. The Foreign Ministry says the U.S. government never asked for “extraterritoriality” in the radar arrangement and the base would resemble existing U.S. bases in Iceland, Denmark, Bulgaria and Romania.
Coordinating the U.S. missile shield under the overall NATO collective defense would require that all NATO member states agree on the defense system and financially contribute to its construction, which could be a difficult task. NATO member states are divided over cost and reliability of the U.S. missile defense system, as well as its implications on relations with partners such as Russia and China.
The Czech Foreign Ministry has informed the NATO governments about the U.S. request, and they have not expressed any formal objections. For now, that is the highest level of NATO participation in placing U.S. missile defense bases in Central Europe.
Whether under NATO or U.S. command, the missile and radar bases in Central Europe will not make Russia happy . Top-ranking Russian generals have expressed frustration that the Czechs and Poles did not consult Moscow on hosting U.S. military installations and have called them an obvious military threat to Russia. Which makes sense — missile defense systems in the Czech Republic and Poland would allow for interception of Russian ballistic missiles in the active par t, or boost phase, of the flight . No wonder Russia’s strategic forces commander, Gen. Nikolai Solovtsov, stated that Russian military could strike and destroy missile defense bases in both countries, a comment that made the Czech prime minister summon the Russian ambassador in Prague for “consultations.”
Opponents of the U.S. missile defense installations also question the seriousness of the threat and the geographical location of military installations tasked to combat that threat.
“I don’t know why it is necessary to protect oneself against something that is awfully hypothetical and absurd,” said Lubomir Zaoralek, opposition Social Democrat shadow foreign minister .
Assuming that missile defense is truly vital for international security, Russian experts believe that interceptors established on NATO’s southern flank, such as Turkey, would be more efficient in fighting a missile attack from Iran. So does the Greens coalition in the German parliament, who has officially asked the government of Angela Merkel to reject the idea of U.S. missile defense installations in Eastern Europe, pointing out that protection from an Iranian attack should be deployed in the Mediterranean.
The public debates are still in an early stage in the Czech Republic. The next step would be the parliament’s decision on whether or not to hold a referendum on the issue . The decision is to be made by three-fifths majority of the lawmakers. Active debates in Poland have not started yet, but are expected to be heated as well if Washington officially requests to place its missile base there.
The point of the matter is that there is too much resistance among U.S. allies to the idea of the missile defense “shield” in general, and missile defense installations in Eastern Europe in particular. Many of the original NATO members are skeptical about the cost-effectiveness of the U.S. anti-missile defense system and abstain from active participation in it. Many in Central Europe resist the presence of U.S. military bases in their countries and view U.S. missile defense installations on their territories more as a challenge to their security and as a burden, rather than as protection.
For the Pentagon, to continue pushing an unpopular project may bring about unwanted results. The Eastern Europeans may develop a feeling of being “bullied” by Washington — a very sensitive feeling considering still-fresh memories of having been “bullied” by Moscow. These sentiments have already been voiced in Prague and Warsaw.
Also, if the Czech and Polish governments continue to favor the idea of missile defense installations, which is not supported by large portions of their population, they risk losing public confidence and trust. In a situation like this, it seems like it would make sense to prudently and carefully evaluate all pros and cons of the U.S. request before making any commitment.
And there is a chance that after long and thorough debates the mutual decision will be made to seek alternative means of protecting Eastern Europe from hypothetical missile attack from Iran and North Korea — of course, if the threat of such attack exists in reality.
Finally, if such a threat is really there, it is not a fact that the US. “shield” will be an ultimate panacea from “rogue” missiles. As of today, in a total of 11 key tests, only six times did the interceptor missile hit the offensive one. What would be the rate of success for those planned 10 missiles in Poland?
Victor Zaborskiy is the founder of Special Trade Operations Consulting in Atlanta, Ga.