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David Miller: Is This the Start of a New Cold War?

National Missile Defence: Is This the Start of a New Cold War?

Even though the Cold War ended over a decade ago, the issues of ballistic missiles and weapons proliferation have continued to gather momentum. The United States government has frequently expressed its concern at such issues and has made no secret that it regards these missiles as a threat to its national security. Given this on- going concern, it comes as no surprise that alarm bells are bringing in Washington over reports that Russia is planning on sell arms to Iran, a country considered a danger to US interests in the Middle East and the stability of the region since the revolution in 1979. If these reports are found to be accurate, then it becomes increasingly likely that the incoming Bush Administration will press ahead with the controversial National Missile Defence programme that has been set in place by President Clinton. This is a programme, which opponents say could lead to a Cold War style arms race in the 21st century.

The National Missile Defence programme, (NMD), stems from the United States perception that while the end of the Cold War reduced the likelihood of a global conflict, the threat from foreign missiles has grown due to increased world-wide proliferation of technology. The US believes that incoming ballistic missiles have the potential to not only carry a chemical or nuclear warhead into US territory, but they threaten their interests and military deployments overseas, as well as the security of allied countries. In its defence of NMD Washington points to six regional conflicts since 1980 in which such weapons where used. With the development of new technology and its proliferation throughout the world, ballistic missiles can be delivered from various launch platforms, including submarine, aircraft, or even mobile devices such as a truck.

The NMD will be controlled from Alaska, and designed to deflect any attack made by what the United States regards as “rogue states”, such as North Korea, Iran and Iraq. North Korea has developed two types of ballistic missile as part of its Rodong programme. The latter type now has the range with which it can over-fly Japan and the testing of the missile caused alarm bells to ring in Tokyo, an important American ally in Northeast Asia. Added into this concern is that these missiles are reported to be capable of carrying weapons of mass destruction and North Korea has throughout the 1990’s been suspected of trying to develop a nuclear weapons programme.

Iraq is another state, which the US regards as being rogue. The Iraqi Scud class of missile was a much talked about element of the 1991 Gulf War and has been the subject of ongoing clashes between Baghdad, the United Nations and the US and Britain ever since Operation Desert Strom ended. Iraq claims that it has destroyed all offensive missile capabilities in accordance with the UN Resolutions but as UN inspectors are not able to visit sites in the country this cannot be accurately confirmed.

Iran is perhaps the principle country of concern for the US out of the three. Iran is believed to have purchased medium range missiles from the North Koreans as well as developing its own programme that may involve longer- range missiles that could reach targets in Western Europe. US – Iranian have remained tense since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Along with the several incidents that have occurred between the two countries, such as the US embassy takeover and continued tension in the Persian Gulf, relations have remained extremely cold. Only in the past two years with a more moderate Iranian regime in power has there been a thaw.

Reports of possible Russian arms and weapons technology transfers to Iran will no doubt raise concern on this matter even further. It is ironic that the Russians themselves have spoken out against NMD. They have proposed a jointly built missile shield and have warned that they will not drop their opposition to the American plan to build a screen saying it violates arms control agreements already in place between the former Cold War rivals. Moscow has labelled the US concerns over the threat of missile attack by rogue states as being exaggerated and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has vowed to scrap all arms control agreements with Washington if NMD goes ahead.

Hence the concern that NMD could trigger a new arms race, especially as China has also expressed vigorous opposition to the plan saying that it will alter the international strategic balance. Russia might accept NMD if the United States agrees to cut back its offensive capability in accordance with improved defence mechanisms, thus restoring the strategic balance.

With the election of George W. Bush to the White House it is likely that NMD will go ahead. During his election campaign he vowed to work on implementing the $60 billion system, even if it meant violating the landmark 1972 Anti- Ballistic Missile Treaty and subsequent accords. This should come as no surprise. Weapons of mass destruction and the growing capabilities of “rogue states” have been recurring themes in US foreign and defence policy since the end of the Cold War and the United States has come to view the world as becoming less stable. The triumph of the Cold War has given way to increased anxiety over low- level threats and possible attack and such concerns have filled the threat vacuum created by the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc. Only domestic budgetary constraints appear likely to halt NMD and all its implications. Maybe the Cold War wasn’t so bad after all.

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