Sunday, April 19, 2015

Putin's Missiles

It's good. It's not magic.
So relations between Russia and the West are quite tense these days, so it should come as no surprise that the Putin government is going to take every opportunity to tweak the US. And sure enough, on the heels of the Iran Nuclear framework agreement, the Russian President announced that he was releasing the S-300/SA-20 air defense missile batteries, a sale that was blocked due to UN sanctions by then President Medvedev in June of 2010. But that's not really what I want to talk about here. I have been consistently appalled by the dishonesty, the misinformation and the gross inaccuracy of the reports around this transfer, not just in the media but by government spokespeople.

The inaccuracies fall into two general categories. First is the hysteria, most often implicit, that these missiles will make Iran a greater 'threat' to her regional neighbors, and second is the hyperbole attached to any discussion about the capability of the SA-20 system.

We can deal with the first category very quickly. Air defense systems cannot represent a threat to another nation. They are designed to defend against air attacks - they don't have a capacity to damage another nation's cities or militaries. This is the great irony of the generalized hysteria over Iran's potential purchase of advanced air defense systems. It makes it harder to launch an unprovoked air attack on Iran - that's essentially the complaint. We threaten them every day with aggressive war, and if they respond to those threats by trying to improve their defenses, do we really think it's a reasonable response to get all butthurt?

The second issue is much more interesting. SA-20s are truly modern air defense systems. They use a variety of modern radars and the missiles have powerful multi-spectral sensors and thrust vectoring that permits them to maneuver with their targets. They DO represent an increased risk to non-stealthy attackers. But that's not the entire context. We're being told that these systems would make it impossible to attack Iran. That's utterly ridiculous hyperbole. Modern doctrine is entirely premised on the reduction of enemy air defenses before the bombing campaign begins in earnest. The west has a variety of assets, from cruise missiles to stealth bombers to drones to Wild Weasels to detect, locate and destroy air defense radars and missiles. And that's the weakness of all these systems - in order to detect and target attackers, they have to radiate. Electronic warfare aircraft receive, categorize and pinpoint these emitting radar systems, and any of a number of systems will be released to destroy them in seconds. Even a mobile system like the SA-20 never has a chance to move. Once it lights up its search and track radar, its life expectancy is less than sixty seconds.

So in our desperate attempt to portray Iran as some kind of rapacious, marauding nation, an equivalent to 1938 Germany, we describe a defensive system as an offensive threat, we claim that an ability to deter unprovoked attacks is an aggressive stance, and then we claim that these systems, if delivered, would simply prevent any attack on Iran no matter what the motivation. The world we live in has become so dishonest, and so violent, that nothing makes any sense anymore. But sometimes you just have to point out the lies, and think about what they mean.

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