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Physicists Challenge US Missile Claims

4.3.2008 -
WASHINGTON - A number of top U.S-based physicists have concluded that the Bush administration used inaccurate claims to reassure NATO allies about U.S. missile defense plans in Eastern Europe.

They say the planned Polish-based interceptors and a radar system in the Czech Republic could target and catch Russian missiles, thus threatening Russia’s nuclear deterrent.

That view supports Russia’s criticism of the system. Russia adamantly opposes the plan, and the dispute has helped escalate U.S.-Russian tensions to the highest point since the Cold War.

The Pentagon agency overseeing the missile program, the Missile Defense Agency, rejects the scientists’ claims, saying their analyses are flawed. The United States says the missile system is intended to counter a threat from Iran and could not take out Russian missiles. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has dismissed Russia’s concerns as “ludicrous.”

But the six scientists, whose backgrounds include elite American universities, research labs and high levels of government, said in interviews that Russia’s concerns were justified.

“The claim by the Missile Defense Agency is not correct,” said Theodore Postol, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a longtime missile defense critic. “And it is hard to understand how they could get something so basic wrong.”

The scientists have not disputed another argument used by U.S. officials that the 10 interceptors planned for Poland would be easily overwhelmed by Russia’s vast missile arsenal, leading one supporter of missile defense to conclude that even if the scientists are correct, the U.S. argument holds up.

“I don’t think it changes the basic assertion of the administration that this does not pose a threat to Russia,” said Baker Spring, a national security analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

The Missile Defense Agency’s claims were made as part of an intensive U.S. diplomatic push early this year. President Bush and senior U.S. officials traveled to Europe to persuade allies that Russian worries about U.S. missile capabilities were unfounded.

The trips followed threats by Russia to retarget its missiles on Europe. Some European officials had expressed skepticism about the plans and recommended further consultations with Russia. Public opinion in some countries, including Poland and the Czech Republic, ran against the U.S. plans.

To reassure the foreign governments and the public, Lt. Gen. Henry “Trey” Obering III, director of the Missile Defense Agency, presented slideshows intended to demonstrate that the Europe-based system was designed only to counteract missiles from Iran. The allies have not challenged the agency’s claims.

The physicists told The Associated Press that Obering’s presentations were misleading and inconsistent on key points. Postol, a former scientific adviser to the chief of naval operations, and George Lewis, associate director of the Peace Studies Program at Cornell University, have written a study of the MDA claims.

Congressional testimony by Postol in 1992 helped counter U.S. government claims that Patriot missiles were highly successful in shooting down Iraqi scud missiles during the Gulf War.

Pavel Podvig, a researcher at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, made his own estimates and confirmed Postol and Lewis’ findings. Podvig, a Russian physicist, has been critical of both U.S. and Russian missile defense claims.

Three other physicists also reviewed Postol’s findings and said they found them accurate:

-Richard Garwin, a National Science Award winner who is credited with the design of the first hydrogen bomb. Garwin served on the Rumsfeld Commission, an independent panel appointed by Congress in the 1990s to assess the threat to the United States from ballistic missiles.

-Philip Coyle, a former associate director of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Coyle was assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration in charge of testing weapons systems.

-David Wright, a physicist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nuclear nonproliferation and environmental advocacy group.

The Missile Defense Agency has stood by its claims that the interceptors could not catch Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles.

“The basic fact of the matter is that we would never make a statement like that unless we knew it was true,” MDA spokesman Rick Lehner said.

In one of Obering’s slide presentations, labeled “Missile Defense for U.S. allies and Friends,” an image illustrates the trajectory of a Russian ICBM from a point east of Moscow toward Washington. The slide, which also illustrates the Polish interceptors, says in bold script “Interceptors Cannot Catch Russian Missiles.”

“The reason we selected Poland and the Czech Republic for the potential positions of these assets is because it was optimum for the Iranian threat,” Obering said after a meeting with German officials in Berlin on March 15. “They are not positioned to where we can even catch the Russian missiles with these interceptors.”

The dissenting scientists say that both those claims were incorrect. The interceptors could catch Russian ICBMs, they said, and the interceptors and the radar would be better positioned closer to Iran to counter a threat from its missiles.

Postol concluded that the Pentagon significantly understated the speed that U.S. interceptors could reach when their boosters burned out and overstated how long it would need to track a missile by launching the interceptors.

While all six scientists are skeptical that the U.S. missile defense system can work, they believe that in terms of raw speed, U.S. interceptors in Poland could catch a Russian ICBM launched from western Russia at any part of the continental United States. In Postol’s model, the intercept would occur at a point over the North Pole.

The Missile Defense Agency says the Polish-based rockets would reach a burnout speed of 3.9 miles per second, roughly the speed of the Russian missiles depicted in Obering’s slides. At that speed, the interceptors could not catch the Russian missiles.

But Postol says the interceptors could top 5.6 miles per second.

Responding to Postol’s criticism, the MDA said Postol made assumptions about the interceptors that are based on theory, but in the real world they do not work as well. Not only are the interceptors one-third slower, their rocket motors’ thrust is not as efficient when tested, and to get to Russian missiles they would be going through various stresses that exceed what would be considered normal design.

The MDA presented a chart of rocket motor efficiency from tests and noted that Postol’s estimates did not reflect what happens in the real world.

But Garwin countered that at least one rocket motor was more efficient than a Postol estimate.

Obering claimed in slides that the European system would expand protection from a U.S.-based system to parts of East Asia. Postol said that could not be true if the European interceptors were moving as slowly as the MDA is claiming.

Source: news released by the Associated Press on 27th September 2007, which is fully available at website


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