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Putting missiles in Poland is absurd

December 22, 2007|By Robert Gary

Think of the huge gains that were made in 1987 when the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty was signed by President Reagan.

Two years later, the Berlin Wall came down, Soviet troops withdrew from Eastern Europe and the Cold War was over. Europeans, Americans and Russians all enjoyed a peace dividend. What if all that could be reversed? If the Russians walked away from the INF Treaty, went back to building and installing more missiles, got into another spending contest with us, created tension, poverty and chaos across three continents ? wouldn't that top the mess in Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan?

So Bush now wants to put 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and high-powered tracking radar in the Czech Republic. Vladimir Putin compares this to when the USSR put missiles in Cuba. The idea of putting anti-ballistic missiles in Poland is an aggressive, absurd and gratuitous provocation.

These missiles would have no real impact on Russia. Ten interceptor missiles are easily defeated if Russia sends 50 missiles in a sneak attack. Deterrence remains the best policy in avoiding attack by rational, sane, civilized nations such as Russia.

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ABM systems could make sense in dealing with Iran and North Korea. But actually, in this case, it's not so. First, the geography is wrong. To intercept a missile from Iran, you don't want to launch from Poland. Second, the timing is wrong. The latest National Intelligence Estimate suggests 2015 as the earliest possible Iran built atom bomb, and there's a long road from building an atom bomb to building one small enough to load on top of an ICBM.

Third, ABM systems are highly unreliable. Anti-missile missiles have occasionally worked under rigorously controlled conditions that are not at all a sneak attack. If you know exactly when the enemy missile is coming, and from what angle, and at what altitude, and if it's got a beacon on it, then yes, it's possible to hit a missile with a missile. Otherwise, probably not.

And fourth, there are six ways to get an atomic device into an American city that are more likely to succeed and more cost-effective than sending it by ICBM.

Right now Iran is in compliance with IAEA safeguards. The International Atomic Energy Agency can go in and take swabs at Iran's nuclear facilities. All it takes is a piece of metal the size of a pollen grain to disclose a bomb-building program. A tiny speck of uranium that is 90 percent U-235 is the tattle-tale particle. Natural uranium is 0.72 percent U-235. To be reactor grade, it has to be enriched to about 4 percent U-235. To be weapons grade, it has to be enriched to 90 percent U-235. There are four possibilities to do this: Centrifugation, gaseous diffusion, liquid diffusion and electromagnetic separation. Bandit countries use centrifugation for two reasons. First, the parts for centrifuges are readily available on the black market. Second, they only need enough U-235 for one bomb.

Plutonium is the other possible bomb- building material, but without power reactors it's very hard to get plutonium. And even with them, getting the material up to 95 percent purity is a major technological feat.

Anyhow, the chance that the Iranians will build a plutonium-based atom bomb anytime before 2025 is approximately zero. They could buy one tomorrow morning at 8 a.m. from at least three places. There are plenty of loose nukes in the world for anybody with a big enough wallet.

To create a safe nuclear power program in an unsafe country such as Iran, it is possible to provide 4 percent enriched fuel rods where the uranium oxide pellets have been intentionally spiked with U-240. U-240 is extremely hard to separate from U-235. It releases one of its neutrons early, so it totally ruins weapons-grade material.

As long as Iran does not break out of IAEA inspections, or successfully run a secret set of centrifuges in a place unknown to IAEA, the Iran-built nuclear bomb is a containable threat. If they do break out, or if they begin a secret cascade of centrifuges, the correct responsive measure is focused industrial disablement ? which means making all of Iran's nuclear facilities 100 percent inoperable, sort of like the equipment at the Smithsonian, except without the nice smiling National Park Service guides.

Seeking to put ABM missiles on Russia's doorstep has the effect of empowering Putin to be more dictatorial in his own country.

We have turned a sort of half-powerful guy into a very powerful guy, especially in light of his newfound oil riches and strategic pipelines to Eastern Europe. It's like a plastic Santa Claus on your lawn ? the fan goes on, the light goes on and there's Russia in its full glory back again, ready for another round of the Cold War.

We can't afford that right now. Everybody except George Bush and Condoleeza "Sancho Panza" Rice knows it. If Hillary gets in, she will scuttle the idea of U.S. missiles in Poland, thus rolling back the final installment of Bush's legacy of global blunders and creating a foundation for hope and progress in our relations with Russia.

Robert Gary is a Hagerstown resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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