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'Son of Star Wars' a phantom menace

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Analysis Russian strategic forces revealed this week that they have successfully tested a new intercontinental nuclear weapon, underscoring their ability to penetrate the developing US missile shield.

"The RS-24 intercontinental ballistic missile will strengthen the military potential of Russia's strategic rocket forces to overcome anti-missile defence systems," the Strategic Missile Forces command said in a blunt statement.

Colonel-General Viktor Yesin also said on Russian television: "It can overcome any potential entire missile defence systems."

According to the Russian defence ministry, the new RS-24 missile was fired from a mobile launcher at the Plesetsk cosmodrome and hit targets nearly 4,000 miles away on the Kamchatka peninsula. The RS-24 was said to be able to carry 10 warheads, each capable of being directed at a separate target.

The announcements were fairly evidently intended as part of a public response to ongoing US missile-defence efforts, dubbed "Son of Star Wars" by the media, and in particular American plans to site interceptor rockets and radars in Eastern Europe.

"We think it is damaging and dangerous to transform Europe into a powder keg and fill it with new forms of weapons," Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly said on Tuesday, during talks with Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates.

Powder kegs full of weapons are never good. But it's hard to see that the Pentagon's relatively modest European plans amount to any such thing. At present, the Missile Defence Agency is looking to deploy just 10 Ground-Based mid-course Interceptor (GBI) rockets in Poland.

Without even considering new RS-24s, the Russian strategic forces could laugh at defences like these. As of January 2006, Russia possessed 927 nuclear delivery platforms and 4,279 strategic nuclear warheads, according to the Russian defence ministry.

Ten measly interceptors - even if they worked with 100 per cent reliability - wouldn't even make a dent in the sort of strike Russia could put into the sky. Even a hundred GBIs beneath the flight path wouldn't be all that big a deal on their own.

It's true that there are other things in the Missile Defence toolbox. In addition to mid-course interception in space, the Pentagon aims to acquire the ability to attack enemy ICBMs as they boost upward from their pads, and also last-ditch mobile or ship-mounted measures which could possibly pick off surviving warheads plunging down through the atmosphere at the end of their journey.

But boost-phase missile busting - under current US plans - requires a presence somewhere near the missile launch location, which isn't likely to be an option for the Americans in the case of Russian launch sites. And terminal defence is a very difficult trick to pull off: a head-on, severely time-constrained interception against a small hypersonic target. It's claimed test success recently against slower, lower-flying Scud-type threats, but not yet against ICBM re-entrants.

No: Russia can blow up America any time it feels like it. There's no realistic prospect of that changing, certainly not as a result of any realistic number of GBIs sited in Europe. Whatever Putin's angry about, it isn't the US missile shield. The Polish and Czech bases really are - as the Bush administration says - only suitable to counter a limited launch, say from Iran. Even that level of capability has yet be proven; but it's believable in a way that stopping a Russian strike simply isn't.

In an Iranian scenario, where a relatively small number of unreliable Shahab/Taepodong-2 ICBMs with clumsy single warheads might be fired, Missile Defence as now planned might actually work, at least to a significant degree.

Airborne Laser jumbos under heavy US airforce escort might get close enough to pick off some missiles as they boosted to orbit: Polish-based GBIs might eliminate surviving reentry vehicles as they soared through space over Europe. Aegis cruisers and THAAD land defences could defend US regional forces and allies from shorter-ranging strikes, and - one day - conceivably guard a few key US locations against ICBMs leaking through the boost and space shields.

China, with a mere 20 ageing ICBMs at present, has much more right to feel threatened by US missile-defence efforts than Russia. But the Chinese are prudently moving to acquire some submarine-based, less vulnerable weaponry; and they'd have nobody to sell bras and iPods to if they nuked the USA, anyway.

The Chinese leadership certainly hasn't felt the need to indulge in the sort of posturing seen from Vladimir Putin in recent days. This sort of thing is fairly routine for him, after all. Could be it's mainly intended for the folks at home. ®

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