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US: Missile shield 'deactivated' until Iran tools up

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US defence secretary Robert Gates, seeking to allay Russian concerns, has suggested that European elements of the planned American missile shield might be built but not "activated" unless a threat from Iran developed.

Ongoing US efforts may in future produce a somewhat functional system of layered defences against ballistic missiles - even intercontinental ones capable of hitting the USA from rogue states such as Iran or North Korea.

The part of the system which (at least ostensibly) has Vladimir Putin's back-up is the so-called Mid-Course Ground-Based Interceptor. This is the only thing which can touch intercontinental warheads as they soar through space, after boost and prior to re-entry. The Pentagon has claimed successful tests in recent years, but hasn't yet introduced complications such as decoys and countermeasures to its trials.

The space interceptors and accompanying tracking radars need to be based somewhere not too far from the flight path of hostile warheads. In the case of any future Iranian weapon aimed at the US, this means putting at least some of the kit in Eastern Europe - specifically in the Czech Republic and Poland.

Moves to site ten interceptors and a radar in these places have provoked a storm of protest and belligerence from Vladimir Putin's Kremlin, amid allegations that America seeks - right now - to build a shield capable of knocking back a strike by Russia's strategic-rocket forces.

This is basically rubbish. The US cannot mount boost-phase attacks on Russian rockets, which is the only (possibly) cost-effective way of picking off multiple-warhead ICBMs. It can't defend very much of its home territory against plunging warheads, either. Mid-course space intercept is horrifyingly expensive - each interceptor is itself a biggish triple-stage rocket, not much cheaper than an ICBM - and it would have to eliminate not just thousands of warheads flying through space, but perhaps tens of thousands of decoys too.

Even if the US could emplace interceptors carrying huge numbers of working, effective kill-vehicles in Eastern Europe, and could find some way of picking Russian warheads out of their cloud of accompanying chaff and decoys, Putin or his successors could still rip the heart out of the USA using missile submarines shooting from unknown locations. (It is true, lurking Russian subs have often been shadowed unawares by US and British forces, but it would be far from impossible for Russia to raise its game here - certainly in the timeframe of a real US space shield.)

The real Kremlin concern is almost certainly the expansion of US/Western influence into Moscow's client-state/buffer zone, and associated undermining of Russian prestige and clout. It may not really be so much the Czech and Polish bases that are causing problems as other US demands; for instance that Kosovo's independence from Serbia be recognised, or that Russia stop selling advanced weaponry to Iran. The disproportionate missile-shield anger may be just Russia seeking to acquire/manufacture a new bargaining chip to be swapped in other negotiations.

Hence yesterday's public US offer, intended to offer a face-saving route for Russia and also - perhaps - to somewhat reduce the value of the chip.

"We would consider tying together the activation of the sites in Poland and the Czech Republic with definitive proof of the threat, in other words, Iranian missile testing and so on," Mr Gates reportedly said.

This does seem fairly meaningless, to be honest - roughly equivalent to saying the radars will be mostly switched off until the US says different.

Even so, there are signs that Russia may be up for anything it can present as a US concession - or perhaps that other quieter deals have been reached on other matters. After Mr Gates' remarks yesterday, the Guardian quotes an unnamed Russian official as saying:

"We believe that the outcome of the talks is promising. We think a number of ideas the Americans raised in Moscow merit careful consideration. For example, we believe there is a need for a joint discussion of the Iranian missile threat."

Watch this space... ®

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