US Deploys Air and Missile Defence System Despite Russian Concerns

Defence Professionals
May 25, 2010
By Nicolas von Kospoth

First US Patriot Battery Arrives in Poland

In the midst of an increasingly improving political environment between the US and Russia comes a signal from the Polish-Russian border that may hamper the basis for dialogue between the two former antagonists. On Monday, the US Embassy in Warsaw confirmed that the first US surface-to-air Patriot missile battery arrived at a Polish military base in the town of Morag, some 57 kilometres south of the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad Oblast on the Baltic shore. The first of these air and missile defence systems will initially be operated by some 100 to 150 US soldiers deployed to Morag. According to the Embassy, this is the first such deployment on Polish soil.

“An American Patriot Air and Missile Defense Battery arrived on Sunday at Morag, home of the 16th Mechanized Battalion of the Polish Land Forces, located in north-east Poland,” the Embassy announced on Monday in a written statement which further said: “The US 5th Battalion, 7th Air Defense Artillery, also known as the Rough Riders, will unload 37 train cars of equipment on Monday.” Within the framework of the US-Polish Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), ratified by Poland in February 2010, the US soldiers will service the battery and will train Polish troops to operate it. As of 2012, the Patriot systems are scheduled to be an integrated element of the Polish air defence forces.

Russian Concerns Remain Despite Western Affirmation of Defensive Purposes

Considered by many as a symbolic move, rather than a tactically relevant effort, the deployment of US air and missile defence systems in Eastern Europe, and in particular so close to Russian territory, has been the reason for many protests from Russian officials. If not as a threat, Russia perceives the basing decision as blatant interference by the West into their sphere of interest and as a sign of a lack of trust towards Russia by the US and NATO.

In Late April, the Russian Foreign Ministry again expressed its unchanged concern with plans for the US to deploy Patriot systems in Poland. According to RIA Novosti, Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko, said: “We are concerned by the misguided anti-missile activities of the United States on the territory of Poland. We do not understand the aims for deployment of Patriot air defence missiles near the Russian border. Such unilateral steps on behalf of the United States cannot but raise our concerns.”

For its part, Warsaw has repeatedly insisted that Morag was not chosen for political or strategic reasons, but simply because it already has a superior infrastructure in place. Furthermore, Washington repeatedly emphasised that the sole purpose of the Patriot systems in Poland is to counter a potential ballistic missile threat from Iran.

The NATO-Russian Approach – The Better Solution?

While the US remains committed to their plans to establish its own missile defence shield in Europe, Russia is hoping for a different signal from Washington. As Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said in mid-May, Russia is still waiting for a reaction from the US administration to Russia’s proposal of participating in the creation of a European missile defence system and is expecting an answer from Washington by the end of the year. Ivanov is seeking a comprehensive co-operation, saying: “We will assess the threats together, evaluate the risks together, and begin creating a defence system together.”

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in late April that Moscow is interested in co-operating with NATO on issues of missile defence. In contrast to the United States’ NATO-independent plans, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has repeatedly promoted the negotiation of a joint NATO-Russian missile defence shield for Europe. In April, NATO foreign ministers agreed, at an informal meeting in Estonia, to begin a dialogue with Russia on cooperation in this security-political field.

Indeed, Russia’s position is comprehensible when considering the possible threat of ballistic missiles launched by a potentially nuclear-armed Iran. The most effective way to counter such a threat is to place detection and anti-missile systems as close as possible to the launching area and to destroy missiles shortly after they have been launched, rather than after the re-entry phase. With regard to the Patriot systems based in Poland, which are officially meant to ward off short- to medium-range missiles, it does not seem to be the best solution to protect the entire eastern, central and south-eastern NATO territory from an Iranian threat. A combination of using Russian radar systems close to the Iranian border and missile defence systems based in south-eastern Europe, Turkey and Russia, as well as jointly operating naval assets from Russia and NATO members in the Black Sea and the Persian Gulf, would appear to be better suited to protect Europe and Russia from a mutually recognised threat.

The door towards such a joint solution has been opened wide by the Obama administration, which reached a hand towards Russia, the latter – under President Medvedev – readily seizing this opportunity. The recently negotiated treaty on the reduction of nuclear arms to replace the START treaty has proven the good will of both sides and the ability of constructive bilateral co-operation. The agreement could also be concluded due to Obama’s decision of September 2009 to scrap plans by the Bush administration on the deployment of missile defence systems to Eastern Europe after a reassessment of the threat from Iran.