America's Controversial Missile Shield Where Does Germany Stand?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is calling for cooperation. But with whom? The more she talks, the hazier her position on the US anti-missile shield becomes. Her advisors, though, all agree that the project is bad for Europe.

Nobody can say that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is being unclear. In fact, she's made it perfectly clear that she's being obscure on purpose. Speaking last Wednesday at the 80th birthday of Germany's former foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Angela Merkel staked out her position on how she operates politically. It is the same method Genscher, long-time master of the political hedge, liked to use.

In her congratulatory speech honoring the man who was Germany's top diplomat from 1974 to 1992, Merkel told of how she snuck into a press conference Genscher was holding in Moscow in 1990. As an inexperienced deputy government spokeswoman for the soon-to-disappear East Germany, Merkel was hoping to learn from the best how to be vague and cryptic.

Merkel's demonstratively verbose impression of Genscher elicited giggles from the audience: "In my view, the prevailing ambiguousness of his comments and the resulting contentment of the journalists had a particularly large impact on the development of my political education."

Just how well Merkel picked up the art of Genscherism has become particularly evident in recent weeks. Indeed, her steadfast refusal to be pinned down in the trans-Atlantic dispute over the proposed US missile defense shield in Europe is a performance that would do the old master proud.

Where does Merkel stand?

Merkel has been evasive and vague -- and is doing her very best to keep her options open. Being politically cryptic has become her second nature. Last week she said she was deeply convinced "that going it alone doesn't do anyone any good, instead we should always make sure we discuss issues together in good faith to avoid disagreements."

A fine sound bite perhaps, but whom exactly was the chancellor addressing? The Americans, who want to deploy their missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic without input from other NATO allies? Prague and Warsaw, for going along with Washington's controversial plans without consulting with the European Union? Or maybe her junior coalition partner, Social Democratic (SPD) leader Kurt Beck, who made his strong rejection of the missile program very clear in a newspaper on the same day?

Merkel would prefer a "solution within NATO," she's pushing for "open talks with Russia," and she thinks it all should "certainly be discussed." The only thing she hasn't said is whether she's actually for or against the American defense program. So where does the chancellor stand? Merkel refuses to say, leaving a whole raft of questions related to the missile dispute open.

Ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed in February at Munich's annual security conference that Washington was "striving for world domination" and warned against "militarizing space," the US missile defense proposals have split Europe. But even Chancellor Merkel's closest political allies are unable to pin down her exact position on an issue central to German foreign policy.

How does Merkel define Germany's relations with the United States? How close should ties with Russia be? What should Berlin do when the interests of Moscow and Washington conflict? Should it stay neutral or should it take sides? And if yes, whose side? And what does it all mean for Germany's Eastern European neighbors?

Nebulous rhetoric

The questions are fundamental, but Merkel continues to play for time. As long as she doesn't make a choice, no one can say she made the wrong decision. She seems to be taking a page from her mentor, former chancellor Helmut Kohl, who liked to wait out contentious issues until problems had solved themselves or a broad consensus had developed. Just as she was once fascinated by Genscher's obfuscation skills, Merkel was also able to observe how Kohl's nebulous rhetoric often shielded him from any attempts to pin him down.

But Merkel has by now certainly matched their virtuosity in vagueness. If a problem demands a straight answer she normally complicates the issue to such a degree that her position is utterly unclear. In 2002, Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) was consumed with her stand on the US-led invasion of Iraq. But until this day, she has never said whether she believes with hindsight that the war was wrong.

In order to avoid definitive answers she's developed her own language over the years. In response to a question about increasing funding for the German armed forces Merkel-talk sounds like this: "We will have to make the Bundeswehr a focal point in the future, but we can't view the matter outside the context of a proper budget."

Typical Merkel statements can't be seriously disputed by anyone, such as sentences like: "We have the duty to see things in their entirety." Regarding the goals of the European Union, Merkel said it was about "adding a new rationale to the historical rationale." What she actually meant remained unclear.

It's much the same in the missile defense dispute. Merkel continues to push for NATO to discuss it. But what's to discuss? And with whom? And in what time frame? After all, the trans-Atlantic alliance has been talking about missile defense since a summit in Prague in 2002. There have been exhaustive reports prepared and surveys commissioned -- all without concrete results.

Experts want her to oppose the shield

And it remains unclear whether Germany is more interested in talking things through with NATO, or whether Berlin might actually be interested in taking part in a joint missile defense system. The chancellor can't even say which criteria would determine her final decision on the project. She prefers above all not to commit one way or the other -- though the key political, strategic and technological questions have been debated publicly for a long time now. The so-called experts -- even from her own party -- are advising her to oppose it.

Even policy wonks from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, a Berlin think tank with close governmental ties, are critical of the defense project. Rogue states like Iran would still be able to threaten Europe in the event of a conflict "since such defense systems are never 100 percent dependable," argues SWP security expert Oliver Thränert. Europe, therefore, would not be freed from its "strategic dilemma," making a missile defense system "not first priority in light of the expected enormous costs."

Merkel's fellow Christian Democrat and former German defense minister Volker Rühe has called the debate over the missile defense shield "very damaging." The international community is currently sparring with Tehran over its nuclear program "as if Iran already has nuclear weapons. We want to work together to avoid just that."

Merkel's Social Democratic predecessor Gerhard Schröder also considers the missile defense program politically dangerous. The United States is pursuing a "counterproductive containment policy against Russia" that is "anything but in the European interest." The security experts within his chancellery staked out clear positions on the issue way back in May 2000.

In an internal paper -- "US Plans to Build a Limited National Missile Defense" -- the policymakers of the previous German administration were highly critical of the project: "The cohesion of NATO could be affected; moreover such a system even if technologically feasible would not cover the entire spectrum of threats presented by risk states." The security experts also argued "the German government position" should place priority on securing what had already been achieved via arms control measures -- including "alliance cohesion" -- before missile defense.

US President George W. Bush has consistently played down the extremely complicated technological hurdles that stand in the way of an effective missile shield. Since taking office in 2001, Bush has done all he can to resurrect the vision of his conservative presidential role model Ronald Reagan, who startled the world with his "Star Wars" SDI program in 1983.

'This System Is Completely Useless'

An impenetrable shield, partially deployed in outer space, was meant to protect America from enemy missiles, rendering nuclear weapons useless, according to Reagan. The United States has since invested more than $110 billion in that dream. But the results have been less than stellar despite investing such huge sums. Washington still has a long way to go to develop what Reagan envisioned as being a multiple-layered defense that could destroy incoming missiles at any stage of flight.

The challenge is a daunting one. Shortly after an infrared early-warning satellite detects a missile launch, advanced radar systems are supposed to calculate its trajectory. Approximately four minutes later, when the projectile is easily recognizable from its propulsion and would make an easy target with its fuel tanks, the missile could be taken out by laser cannons mounted in aircraft or by speedy intercept rockets deployed in a region close to its launch zone. These two systems, known as the "boost phase defense," are meant to build the first line of protection.

But they remain wishful thinking. Researchers are feverishly working on aircraft deployed laser cannons and early interceptors, but both projects are still far from being realized.

Another problem is that at an altitude of approximately 200 kilometers the propulsion of missiles cuts out, hurtling them into outer space. The relatively tiny targets travel at 25,000 kilometers an hour, making them extremely difficult to track and even harder to hit. "Hit to kill vehicles," 70-kilogram projectiles, launched into space by precise, high-speed missiles are supposed to pulverize the targets at this stage. But attackers could easily make this more difficult by disguising warheads or hiding them in a swarm of similar-appearing decoys.

"This system is completely useless"

Located 150 kilometers south of Fairbanks, Alaska, Fort Greely is a crucial element of America's equally controversial and futuristic homeland defense. Fourteen state-of-the-art intercept missiles wait at the ready in their silos manned by the 49th Missile Defense Battalion of the Alaska National Guard. Two further interceptors are deployed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California to protect America's West Coast. However, these missiles have yet to be tested under realistic conditions. "This system is completely useless," complains physicist Richard Garwin, who had advised the US government on security and defense matters for the past 50 years.

Even a group of independent experts from the Pentagon's Test and Evaluation department is not convinced of the defense system's effectiveness. The ability to shoot down an enemy missile, they say, is still extremely rudimentary. Considerable further testing under realistic conditions is absolutely necessary. Sen. Carl Levin, the influential chairman of US Senate Armed Services Committee, has already warned against investing billions more in the project. "I think it’s a mistake to purchase all of the missiles before we know that they’re going to work," he told reporters last November.

At the same time, Washington wants to deploy 10 specialized intercept missiles in Poland from 2011 onward, Lt. Gen Henry Obering, director of the US Missile Defense Agency, reiterated in Berlin two weeks ago. Combined with a high-powered radar station in the neighboring Czech Republic, the Pentagon is promising to protect the US East Coast -- and possibly even Europe.

But even America's most loyal allies are asking: protection from whom exactly? Aside from Russia and China, none of the more than 20 states that Washington lists as missile producers have projectiles that could pose a danger for Europe or the United States. And except for two countries -- North Korea and Iran -- all either cooperate with the world's only superpower or are even direct US allies. Moreover, Iran is several years from developing long-distance missiles tipped with nuclear warheads and North Korea is essentially the world's nuclear big mouth -- more hot air than real threat.

Hunting non-existent missiles

Pyongyang's Taepodong-2 ballistic missile is estimated to have a range of 4,300 kilometers. When North Korea tested a long-range missile last July, President Bush ordered Fort Greely in Alaska to be put on high alert -- while ignoring hotheaded calls to bomb the Korean launch pad. In the end, Kim Jong Il's missile splashed into the Pacific only 40 seconds after liftoff. Even the military is totally unsure when exactly the self-declared nuclear power will be able to fit reliable projectiles with nuclear warheads.

Iran up till now has only tested missiles with a range of up to 1,600 kilometers. Even the country's supposedly cutting-edge model Shahab-5, likely a derivative of a Taepodong type missile, will most probably not fly much farther than 3,000 kilometers. The radar stations in Eastern Europe would therefore not detect any Iranian projectiles hurtling towards America for some time to come.

Essentially, says retired US Lieutenant General Robert Gard, it is an effort to provide security against Iranian missiles that do not yet exist, using warheads that do not yet exist. Furthermore, he says, the Iranians are fully aware that the US would annihilate them were they to fire missiles at America.

It's no surprise then that this technologically ambitious yet practically questionable defense program is eyed suspiciously around the world. The fear of a new and immensely expensive arms race has kept many close US allies from taking part in Washington's project of the century. They also fear using weapons to solve problems that actually require political solutions and diplomacy. Outside of Europe, only Australia and Japan are making a noteworthy contribution.

More than anything, the steely warning from Russia's Putin at the Munich security conference in early February clearly raised the specter of a new East-West confrontation. US project director Obering was at pains in Berlin to point out that the few intercept missiles would not be directed at Russia and they would anyway be totally insufficient to guard against Mocow's or Beijing's nuclear arsenals, which both have thousands of warheads. But even a German government security advisor understands the reasoning behind Russia's worries.

Expensive arms race

Firstly, the radar station in the Czech Republic is irksome to Russia's military because it could survey large swathes of Russian territory with previously unknown precision. And secondly, the advisor said Russia's superior missile forces could in fact be threatened by the project, since Washington eventually wants to fit the intercept missiles with 30 to 40 "kill vehicles" weighing only one kilogram apiece.

Putin, of course, knows well that his country could not withstand an expensive arms race against the United States. Instead he is threatening to answer asymmetrically, that is, by building new land-based intermediate-range missiles. By forswearing the 1987 INF Treaty, which called for the elimination of US Pershing missiles and Soviet SS-20 missiles, Moscow would no longer be beholden to commitments applying to the two former Cold War rivals.

Ending this commitment would not only give Moscow a way to compensate for the short- and mid-range missiles being deployed pretty much all along the Russian border these days. It would also allow Russia -- once again -- to take Europe hostage.

But according to the Innsbruck-based political scientist Gerhard Mangott, that's something Washington "wouldn't really mind, since it would force the EU states back under the USA's protective nuclear shield and the USA would become the decisive military factor for Europe's defense in the coming decades."

Chancellor Merkel has never commented on these issues and she has yet to indicate whether she'll back the Americans in the end or not. Even her closest associates do not know what she's thinking.

"Very much for it"

Those who want to know need a good memory -- or perhaps a good archive. In a transcript of an interview from July 8, 2000 at 7:10 p.m. with the German news channel N-TV, Merkel, at the time leader of the conservative opposition, apparently hadn’t yet perfected the art of obfuscation. She said it was important to take a position on the US plans for a missile defense system, explaining alertly that she backed "not shutting ourselves off from new defensive systems from the start." Of course, "working with Russia on a basis of trust" was also crucial, "but that doesn't have the highest priority for me."

Chatting further, Merkel said the center-left German government at the time was too preoccupied "with all the possible concerns" without developing its own position. "Compared to that the CDU is much more open about this matter." At that point the interviewer asked if she had a personal opinion about the planned US missile defense system. Merkel's answer: "I am very much for it, and not just for the sake of Alaska and the United States."

By Ralf Beste, Konstantin von Hammerstein, Siegesmund von Ilsemann, and Georg Mascolo

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