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Op-Ed

Beware the Growling Bear and other Predators

Raimondo Salomone, July 30, 2007

Today, the United States and Russia are engaged in a tug of war that is coming close to matching the rhetoric between the two nations from decades ago.

The problem with the nuclear weapons proliferation issue facing the world today is that there is and never will be room for even the slightest error. If any nation, or a non-state actor as they are called, launches a missile, the consequences would be catastrophic.

There has been more than one very close call in the recent past, including the night in 1996 off the coast of Norway when the Russians mistook a fishing boat for a nuclear-armed submarine. Another was in 1988, in the mud-caked woods of West Germany, where I was stationed on the front lines of the Cold War. As a member of a Pershing II nuclear missile launch team, we were the trailblazers in the defense of Europe. Our missiles were aimed at Moscow and were capable of landing in a trash pail in Red Square.

One rainy night, during another field expedition, a sergeant accidentally allowed the tail end of a forty-foot long launch trailer to slide off the road and into a ditch. This forced the missile on the trailer's bed to point its nose up to the sky. Years later, I read a book written by a Soviet defense official who recounted how they locked on the missile, through their satellites and the reports they received said the missile had been erected in what was considered an extremely hostile offensive maneuver. Until we managed, many hours later to tow the trailer out of the ditch, the Soviets had been on a heightened state of alert. It was only until they watched us secure the missile in a hangar did they stand down. A sad fact, among many potentially sad facts in this episode, was that the missile in question was a dummy, used only for training. This was a very close call that brought us perilously close to the type of flash point that would send the world into destruction.

Today, the United States and Russia are engaged in a tug of war that is coming close to matching the rhetoric between the two nations from decades ago. Russia is needlessly antagonizing American sensibilities by refusing to acknowledge that the proposed missile defense system in Eastern Europe will not be aimed at Moscow. They claim the sites will be an aggressive maneuver aimed at spreading propaganda that Russia is again to be feared. The ironic part is that this is just how they want to be perceived. Flush with cash and a revived self worth, Russia is forging a new way in the world, using a seductive mix of charm and arrogance to get what it wants. Reality is that even if the system was aimed at Moscow and points surrounding it, Russia's nuclear and conventional capabilities could overwhelm the billion-dollar system in minutes, if not seconds. The system, if it were to work correctly, is designed to counter only a few projectiles, not to combat an attack of sophisticated weaponry complete with decoys and other forms of anti-detection.

Today's threats are even more dangerous with many nuclear nations and many other rogue entities with no geographic base, no leader to engage and no reasonable agenda to pursue.

China seems intent on entering the realm of superpower with a massive military buildup and a far-reaching expansion of influence all the way to the oilrigs off the coasts of Africa. North Korea will continue to cat and mouse the United States much the same way Saddam did, defying resolutions, circumventing sanctions and placating to deadlines. Their appeasements to this point are only token, easily reversible and not to be trusted. Iran is serious about building a weapons program from the ground up, or underground as need be. They are serious about bolstering their credibility in the Middle East and their standing on the world stage. Israel has weapons they don't acknowledge and in a land of constant turmoil, I imagine the word "nuclear" has at the very least come up in conversations at high strategic levels. Pakistan is a wildcard, with vacillating allegiances and uncertain motivations. The United States has its hands full trying to keep this nation in the fold. Libya has recently renounced their program proving everyone has their price. Yet they still need to be monitored closely, not for a restart, but for the dismantling of equipment, fuel and technology that had been in place. The global market for nuclear paraphernalia is much like a bazaar, with hawkers of all types selling their wares to anyone with the money to buy.

Various smaller nations may or may not have nuclear weapons and that ambiguity is part of the problem. In what used to be a chessboard of slow moving advances and retreats has developed into a checkers match of match of accelerated speed. Terrorist groups are actively pursuing weapons for anarchistic reasons, smaller nations want them for perceived standing and protection and larger countries need them in the event of a worst-case scenario.

NATO nations with nuclear weapons can be expected to follow the lead of the United States unless a regional issue forces tensions to rise to the unthinkable level. Then it's every country for itself. Turkey, one of the most conflicted nations on the planet and an important strategic member of NATO, is such a state that needs to be massaged into keeping the rhetoric ratcheted down.

Through it all, the United States and Russia will continue to dance around the subject, only occasionally dipping a foot, or a claw into the fire. The missile defense system will be built as planned, Russia may mobilize troops closer to their borders and nearer to their former client states and missiles will certainly be repositioned. And forget treaties. Treaties are made to be broken by both sides. Future leaders should hold summits, not fishing trips, and God willing we will all be around to talk about it. When the subject of global warming comes up in conversation, I silently hope to myself that we are around to see if some of it happens.

The big four of the U/N., U.S.A., E.U. and Russia need to keep talking. More talking, less plutonium production, even among the rogue states. Acknowledge their existence, which is most of what they want anyway, accept their right to exist and push, hard, for peace. Conventional weapons, as we have seen, can stun, but they will not crush.

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