Friday, October 22, 2010

'World's most advanced HMS Astute' nuke sub runs aground

HMS Astute was on sea trials when her rudder is thought to have become stuck on a shingle bank between the mainland and the island off the west coast of Scotland. It is believed a crew transfer from the shore to the submarine was being carried out when the incident happened.

Royal Navy vessels and a tug helped free the submarine after an earlier attempt to tow the submarine failed, according to eyewitnesses.

A Navy spokesman described the accident as a "relatively minor incident", while a Ministry of Defence spokesman said: "This is not a nuclear incident. There are no injuries to personnel and the submarine is watertight."

The submarine weighs 7,800 tonnes, equivalent to nearly 1,000 double-decker buses, and is almost 100 metres (328ft) long. Its Spearfish torpedoes and Tomahawk cruise missiles are capable of delivering pinpoint strikes from 2,000km (1,240 miles).

The submarine's nuclear reactor means that it will not need refuelling once in its entire 25-year life and it makes its own air and water, enabling it to circumnavigate the globe without needing to surface.

John Ainslie, co-ordinator of Scottish CND, said: "This is just the latest in a long line of incidents involving nuclear submarines off the west coast of Scotland. These vessels are regular visitors to the seas around Skye.

"The Navy has several submarine trials areas near Raasay and Applecross. Inquiries into previous incidents have shown an appalling lack of common sense and basic navigation skills on these hi-tech submarines."

The grounding of the £1.2 billion Astute hunter-killer comes at the end of a dire week for the Royal Navy which has seen its carrier force halved, Harrier jump jets axed and warship force reduced by almost a quarter.

It is understood that the boat, which is first in its class, ran aground by its stern in a manoeuvre that “went slightly wrong” after it had dropped some sailors ashore in tidal waters off the Isle of Skye.

As the tide rapidly ebbed it is thought the skipper of Astute, Commander Andy Coles, decided not to power it off the obstruction as it would risk damaging the hull that carries some of the most advanced acoustic tiles that make Astute virtually undetectable beneath the seas.

Navy insiders insisted that there was no likelihood of a nuclear reactor leak or any other environmental issue.

No one was injured in the incident that happened earlier today. It came the morning after Trafalgar Day, where sailors celebrated the 205th anniversary of Nelson's victory.

“Astute ran aground by her very stern earlier this morning as she was transferring people ashore,” a Navy spokesman said. “There’s no nuclear issue or no environmental issue that we are aware of and no one has been hurt.”

The submarine, which carries a crew of 98, will now wait until later today for tug boats to pull her off when the tide comes in.

Astute, which was handed over to the Navy by its builders BAE Systems in late August, will then continue her sea trials.

It is not known whether the boat, which can carry up to 38 Tomahawk cruise missiles and Spearfish torpedoes, was carrying any weapons.

At 7,200 tonnes the Astute is the biggest British nuclear attack submarine ever built, although it is half the size of the Trident nuclear submarines at 16,000 tonnes. The boat’s nuclear reactor will never need refueling during its 35 year life.

Amid the gloom of Navy cuts, which will see the Senior Service reduced by 5,000 sailors to 30,000, there was some celebration following publication of the defence review on Tuesday after it was announced the seventh and final Astute-class submarine would be ordered.

However the incident comes on the back of a number of submarine accidents in the last few years.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Iran inaugurates nation's first unmanned bomber

TEHRAN, Iran – Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Sunday inaugurated the country's first domestically built unmanned bomber aircraft, calling it an "ambassador of death" to Iran's enemies.

The 4-meter-long drone aircraft can carry up to four cruise missiles and will have a range of 620 miles (1,000 kilometers), according to a state TV report — not far enough to reach archenemy Israel.

"The jet, as well as being an ambassador of death for the enemies of humanity, has a main message of peace and friendship," said Ahmadinejad at the inauguration ceremony, which fell on the country's national day for its defense industries.

The goal of the aircraft, named Karrar or striker, is to "keep the enemy paralyzed in its bases," he said, adding that the aircraft is for deterrence and defensive purposes.

The president championed the country's military self-sufficiency program, and said it will continue "until the enemies of humanity lose hope of ever attacking the Iranian nation."

Iran launched an arms development program during its 1980-88 war with Iraq to compensate for a U.S. weapons embargo and now produces its own tanks, armored personnel carries, missiles and even a fighter plane.

Iran frequently makes announcements about new advances in military technology that cannot be independently verified.

State TV later showed video footage of the plane taking off from a launching pad and reported that the craft traveled at speeds of 560 miles per hour (900 kilometers per hour) and could alternatively be armed with two 250-pound (113.4-kilogram) bombs or a 450-pound (204.12-kilogram) guided bomb.

Iran has been producing its own light, unmanned surveillance aircraft since the late 1980s.

The ceremony came a day after Iran began to fuel its first nuclear power reactor, with the help of Russia, amid international concerns over the possibility of a military dimension to its nuclear program.

Iran insists it is only interested in generating electricity.

Referring to Israel's occasional threats against Iran's nuclear facilities, Ahmadinejad called any attack unlikely, but he said if Israel did, the reaction would be overwhelming.

"The scope of Iran's reaction will include the entire the earth," said Ahmadinejad. "We also tell you — the West — that all options are on the table."

Ahmadinejad appeared to be consciously echoing the terminology used by the U.S. and Israel in their statements not ruling out a military option against Iran's nuclear facilities.

On Friday, Iran also test-fired a new liquid fuel surface-to-surface missile, the Qiam-1, with advanced guidance systems.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

MoD unveils unmanned fighter jet 'of the future'

LONDON (AFP) – An unmanned jet capable of striking long-range targets has been dubbed the "combat aircraft of the future" by the Ministry of Defence.
The Taranis -- named after the Celtic god of thunder -- was unveiled at a ceremony at BAE Systems in Warton, Lancashire, on Monday.
The £142.5 million prototype is the size of a light aircraft and has been equipped with stealth technology to make it virtually undetectable.
In a press release, the MoD described the Taranis as "a prototype unmanned combat aircraft of the future."
It is built to carry out intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions while its crew stays safely on the ground and can control the aircraft from anywhere in the world.
The unmanned fighter jet can also carry bombs and missiles and, if the trials prove successful, the MoD said it should "ultimately be capable of striking targets at long range, even in another continent."
The current generation of propeller-driven drones -- such as the Predator and Reaper -- are capable of carrying missiles, but these unmanned planes can only be used in areas where the military has air dominance, such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
The first flight trials are due to start next year.
"Taranis is a truly trailblazing project," said Minister for International Security Strategy Gerald Howarth.
"The first of its kind in the UK, it reflects the best of our nation's advanced design and technology skills and is a leading programme on the global stage."
The Taranis was created by the MOD in partnership with BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, QinetiQ and GE Aviation.
"Taranis has been three-and-a-half years in the making and is the product of more than a million man-hours," said Nigel Whitehead, group managing director of BAE Systems' Programmes and Support business.
"It represents a significant step forward in this country's fast-jet capability.
"This technology is key to sustaining a strong industrial base and to maintain the UK's leading position as a centre for engineering excellence and innovation."

Thursday, May 27, 2010

USAF vehicle breaks record for hypersonic flight

WASHINGTON – An experimental aircraft has set a record for hypersonic flight, flying more than 3 minutes at Mach 6 — six times the speed of sound.
The X-51A Waverider was released from a B-52 Stratofortress off the southern California coast Wednesday morning, the Air Force reported on its website. Its scramjet engine accelerated the vehicle to Mach 6, and it flew autonomously for 200 seconds before losing acceleration. At that point the test was terminated.
The Air Force said the previous record for a hypersonic scramjet burn was 12 seconds.
"We are ecstatic to have accomplished many of the X-51A test points during its first hypersonic mission," said Charlie Brink, an X-51A program manager with the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

"We equate this leap in engine technology as equivalent to the post-World War II jump from propeller-driven aircraft to jet engines," Brink said.
The Waverider was built for the Air Force by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne and Boeing Co.
Joe Vogel, Boeing's director of hypersonics, said, "This is a new world record and sets the foundation for several hypersonic applications, including access to space, reconnaissance, strike, global reach and commercial transportation."
Four X-51A cruisers have been built for the Air Force, and the remaining three will be tested this fall.
"No test is perfect," Brink said, "and I'm sure we will find anomalies that we will need to address before the next flight."

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

U-2 Spy Plane Evades the Day of Retirement

The U-2 spy plane, the high-flying aircraft that was often at the heart of cold war suspense, is enjoying an encore.

Four years ago, the Pentagon was ready to start retiring the plane, which took its first test flight in 1955. But Congress blocked that, saying the plane was still useful.

And so it is. Because of updates in the use of its powerful sensors, it has become the most sought-after spy craft in a very different war in Afghanistan.

As it shifts from hunting for nuclear missiles to detecting roadside bombs, it is outshining even the unmanned drones in gathering a rich array of intelligence used to fight the Taliban.

All this is a remarkable change from the U-2's early days as a player in United States-Soviet espionage. Built to find Soviet missiles, it became famous when Francis Gary Powers was shot down in one while streaking across the Soviet Union in 1960, and again when another U-2 took the photographs that set off the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Newer versions of the plane have gathered intelligence in every war since then and still monitor countries like North Korea.

Now the U-2 and its pilots, once isolated in their spacesuits at 70,000 feet, are in direct radio contact with the troops in Afghanistan. And instead of following a rote path, they are now shifted frequently in midflight to scout roads for convoys and aid soldiers in firefights.

In some ways, the U-2, which flew its first mission in 1956, is like an updated version of an Etch A Sketch in an era of high-tech computer games.

"It's like after all the years it's flown, the U-2 is in its prime again," said Lt. Col. Jason M. Brown, who commands an intelligence squadron that plans the missions and analyzes much of the data. "It can do things that nothing else can do."

One of those things, improbably enough, is that even from 13 miles up its sensors can detect small disturbances in the dirt, providing a new way to find makeshift mines that kill many soldiers.

In the weeks leading up to the recent offensive in Marja, military officials said, several of the 32 remaining U-2s found nearly 150 possible mines in roads and helicopter landing areas, enabling the Marines to blow them up before approaching the town.

Marine officers say they relied on photographs from the U-2's old film cameras, which take panoramic images at such a high resolution they can see insurgent footpaths, while the U-2's newer digital cameras beamed back frequent updates on 25 spots where the Marines thought they could be vulnerable.

In addition, the U-2's altitude, once a defense against antiaircraft missiles, enables it to scoop up signals from insurgent phone conversations that mountains would otherwise block.

As a result, Colonel Brown said, the U-2 is often able to collect information that suggests where to send the Predator and Reaper drones, which take video and also fire missiles. He said the most reliable intelligence comes when the U-2s and the drones are all concentrated over the same area, as is increasingly the case.

The U-2, a black jet with long, narrow wings to help it slip through the thin air, cuts an impressive figure as it rises rapidly into the sky. It flies at twice the height of a commercial jet, affording pilots views of such things as the earth's curvature.

But the plane, nicknamed the Dragon Lady, is difficult to fly, and missions are grueling and dangerous. The U-2s used in Afghanistan and Iraq commute each day from a base near the Persian Gulf, and the trip can last nine to 12 hours. Pilots eat meals squeezed through tubes and wear spacesuits because their blood would literally boil if they had to eject unprotected at such a high altitude.

As the number of flights increases, some of the plane's 60 pilots have suffered from the same disorienting illness, known as the bends, that afflicts deep-sea divers who ascend too quickly.

Relaxing recently in their clubhouse at Beale Air Force Base near Sacramento, Calif., the U-2's home base, several pilots said the most common problems are sharp joint pain or a temporary fogginess.

But in 2006, a U-2 pilot almost crashed after drifting in and out of consciousness during a flight over Afghanistan. The pilot, Kevin Henry, now a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, said in an interview that he felt as if he were drunk, and he suffered some brain damage. At one point, he said, he came within five feet of smashing into the ground before miraculously finding a runway.

As a safety measure, U-2 pilots start breathing pure oxygen an hour before takeoff to reduce the nitrogen in their bodies and cut the risk of decompression sickness. Mr. Henry, who now instructs pilots on safety, thinks problems with his helmet seal kept him from breathing enough pure oxygen before his flight.

Lt. Col. Kelly N. West, the chief of aerospace medicine at Beale, said one other pilot had also been disqualified from flying the U-2. Since 2002, six pilots have transferred out on their own after suffering decompression illnesses.

Still, most of the pilots remain undeterred, and the Air Force is taking more precautions. Holding an oxygen mask to his nose, one pilot, Maj. Eric M. Shontz, hopped on an elliptical machine for 10 minutes before a practice flight at Beale to help dispel the nitrogen faster. Several assistants then made sure he stayed connected to an oxygen machine as they sealed his spacesuit and drove him to the plane.

Major Shontz and other U-2 pilots say the planes gradually became more integrated in the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But since the flights over Afghanistan began to surge in early 2009, the U-2s have become a much more fluid part of the daily battle plan.

Major Shontz said he was on the radio late last year with an officer as a rocket-propelled grenade exploded. "You could hear his voice talking faster and faster, and he's telling me that he needs air support," Major Shontz recalled. He said that a minute after he relayed the message, an A-10 gunship was sent to help.

Brig. Gen. H.D. Polumbo Jr., a top policy official with the Air Force, said recent decisions to give intelligence analysts more flexibility in figuring out how to use the U-2 each day had added to its revival.

Over beers at the clubhouse, decorated with scrolls honoring the heroes of their small fraternity, other U-2 pilots say they know their aircraft's reprieve will last only so long.

And the U-2's replacement sits right across the base — the Global Hawk, a remote-controlled drone that flies almost as high as the U-2 and typically stays aloft for 24 hours or more. The first few Global Hawks have been taking intelligence photos in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But a larger model that could also intercept communications has been delayed, and the Air Force is studying how to add sensors that can detect roadside bombs to other planes. So officials say it will most likely be 2013 at the earliest before the U-2 is phased into retirement.

"We've needed to be nimble to stay relevant," said Doug P. McMahon, a major who has flown the U-2 for three years. "But eventually it's bound to end."

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Japan confirms Cold War-era 'secret' pacts with US

TOKYO – Japan confirmed for the first time Tuesday the existence of once-secret Cold War-era pacts with the U.S. that tacitly allowed nuclear-armed warships to enter Japanese ports in violation of Tokyo's postwar principles.

While declassified U.S. documents have already confirmed such 1960s agreements, Tuesday's revelation broke with decades of official denials.

The investigation by a government-mandated panel is part of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's campaign to rein in the power of bureaucrats and make his government, which was elected to power last year, more open than that of the long-ruling conservatives, who repeatedly denied the existence of such pacts.

"It's regrettable that such facts were not disclosed to the public for such a long time, even after the end of the Cold War era," Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada told a news conference, adding that the investigation was meant to restore public trust in Japan's diplomacy.

The panel examined documents surrounding four pacts, including Tokyo's tacit permission that U.S. nuclear-armed warships could make calls at Japanese ports — a violation of Japan's so-called three non-nuclear principles not to make, own or allow the entry of atomic weapons.

There is strong aversion to nuclear weapons in Japan, the only country to suffer atomic bombings — in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.

Speculation about the existence of such secret agreements have been swirling in Japan for years so the panel's findings most likely will simply confirm public suspicions rather than shock or anger people. Some are also aware of U.S. documents about these matters.

Analysts welcomed the move as a positive step toward more transparency in the Japanese government but said it probably won't revive the sagging popularity of Hatoyama's government or affect U.S.-Japan ties, which have grown strained recently because of a dispute about relocating a key Marine base on the southern island of Okinawa.

"It's a good thing for Japanese democracy, given that the previous governments have been telling blunt lies to the public," said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.

"But I don't think it's going to have a short-term impact on the government's popularity," he said. "A lot of people look at this as something that belongs to history."

Under a security alliance with the U.S., some 47,000 American troops are stationed in Japan, and the U.S. protects the country under its nuclear umbrella.

Okada said it was possible that before 1991, when the U.S. stopped carrying battle-ready nuclear weapons, American warships might have had nuclear weapons as they entered Japanese waters or entered Japanese ports.

Reacting to the six-member panel's findings, summarized in a 108-page report, Hatoyama said there would be no changes to Japan's non-nuclear policy.

The panel, led by University of Tokyo professor Shinichi Kitaoka, said that while documents showed that Washington and Tokyo appeared to have differing interpretations about allowing nuclear-armed ships into Japanese waters, it was likely that Tokyo and Washington shared an unspoken understanding permitting them to make port calls in Japan without consent.

The experts also acknowledged that Tokyo and Washington had secret agreements allowing the U.S. to use military bases in Japan without prior consent in case of emergency on the Korean Peninsula during the Korean War.

The panel said it could not find specific evidence showing a secret pact allowing the U.S. to bring nuclear weapons into Okinawa after the 1972 reversion of the island to Japan. But it acknowledged that there was a vague secret agreement over Japan's cost burdens for Okinawa's 1972 reversion to Japan.


Associated Press writer Malcolm Foster contributed to this report.

(This version CORRECTS the spelling of professor's name to Kitaoka, instead of Kataoka.)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

U.S. Marine Walks Away From Shot to Helmet in Afghanistan

MARJAH, Afghanistan—It is hard to know whether Monday was a very bad day or a very good day for Lance Cpl. Andrew Koenig.

On the one hand, he was shot in the head. On the other, the bullet bounced off him.

In one of those rare battlefield miracles, an insurgent sniper hit Lance Cpl. Koenig dead on in the front of his helmet, and he walked away from it with a smile on his face.

"I don't think I could be any luckier than this," Lance Cpl. Koenig said two hours after the shooting.

Lance Cpl. Koenig's brush with death came during a day of intense fighting for the Marines of Company B, 1st Battalion, 6th Regiment.

The company had landed by helicopter in the predawn dark on Saturday, launching a major coalition offensive to take Marjah from the Taliban.

The Marines set up an outpost in a former drug lab and roadside-bomb factory and soon found themselves under near-constant attack.

Lance Cpl. Koenig, a lanky 21-year-old with jug-handle ears and a burr of sandy hair, is a designated marksman. His job is to hit the elusive Taliban fighters hiding in the tightly packed neighborhood near the base.

The insurgent sniper hit him first. The Casper, Wyo., native was kneeling on the roof of the one-story outpost, looking for targets.

He was reaching back to his left for his rifle when the sniper's round slammed into his helmet.

The impact knocked him onto his back.

"I'm hit," he yelled to his buddy, Lance Cpl. Scott Gabrian, a 21-year-old from St. Louis.

Lance Cpl. Gabrian belly-crawled along the rooftop to his friend's side. He patted Lance Cpl. Koenig's body, looking for wounds.

Then he noticed that the plate that usually secures night-vision goggles to the front of Lance Cpl. Koenig's helmet was missing. In its place was a thumb-deep dent in the hard Kevlar shell.

Lance Cpl. Gabrian slid his hands under his friend's helmet, looking for an entry wound. "You're not bleeding," he assured Lance Cpl. Koenig. "You're going to be OK."

Lance Cpl. Koenig climbed down the metal ladder and walked to the company aid station to see the Navy corpsman.

The only injury: A small, numb red welt on his forehead, just above his right eye.

He had spent 15 minutes with Doc, as the Marines call the medics, when an insurgent's rocket-propelled grenade exploded on the rooftop, next to Lance Cpl. Gabrian.

The shock wave left him with a concussion and hearing loss.

He joined Lance Cpl. Koenig at the aid station, where the two friends embraced, their eyes welling.

The men had served together in Afghanistan in 2008, and Lance Cpl. Koenig had survived two blasts from roadside bombs.

"We've got each other's backs," Lance Cpl. Gabrian said, the explosion still ringing in his ears.

Word of Lance Cpl. Koenig's close call spread quickly through the outpost, as he emerged from the shock of the experience and walked through the outpost with a Cheshire cat grin.

"He's alive for a reason," Tim Coderre, a North Carolina narcotics detective working with the Marines as a consultant, told one of the men. "From a spiritual point of view, that doesn't happen by accident."

Gunnery Sgt. Kevin Shelton, whose job is to keep the Marines stocked with food, water and gear, teased the lance corporal for failing to take care of his helmet.

"I need that damaged-gear statement tonight," Gunnery Sgt. Shelton told Lance Cpl. Koenig. It was understood, however, that Lance Cpl. Koenig would be allowed to keep the helmet as a souvenir.

Gunnery Sgt. Shelton, a 36-year-old veteran from Nashville, said he had never seen a Marine survive a direct shot to the head.

But next to him was Cpl. Christopher Ahrens, who quietly mentioned that two bullets had grazed his helmet the day the Marines attacked Marjah. The same thing, he said, happened to him three times in firefights in Iraq.

Cpl. Ahrens, 26, from Havre de Grace, Md., lifted the camouflaged cloth cover on his helmet, exposing the holes where the bullets had entered and exited.

He turned it over to display the picture card tucked inside, depicting Michael the Archangel stamping on Lucifer's head. "I don't need luck," he said.

After his moment with Lance Cpl. Gabrian, Lance Cpl. Koenig put his dented helmet back on his head and climbed the metal ladder to resume his rooftop duty within an hour of being hit.

"I know any one of these guys would do the same," he explained. "If they could keep going, they would."

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Pentagon prepares for a misille attack from Iran

A Ghadr 1 class Shahab 3 long-range missile is prepared for launch during a test from an unknown location in central Iran

Fake "North Korean" missiles have been hurtling over the Pacific toward the U.S. for years, providing test fodder for the Pentagon's missile-defense systems. But next month, the fake enemy missiles flying over the same ocean are going to be "Iranian." The timing of the test, however, has nothing to do with a missile test-fired by Iran on Tuesday. That was a medium-range Sajjil-2 missile capable of targeting Israel or U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf. Next month's U.S. interceptor test will, instead, be aimed at the as-yet-hypothetical threat of an Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), even though such a threat has been deemed by the Obama Administration to be unlikely in the immediate future.

The Administration announced earlier this year that the long-range Iranian threat isn't advancing as quickly as once feared. Recent U.S. intelligence assessments have concluded that "the threat of a potential Iranian ICBM had been slower to develop than previously estimated," Ellen Tauscher, the State Department's arms-control chief, told Congress. Some intelligence estimates say an Iranian ICBM might not happen until 2020. That assessment prompted the President, with Pentagon support, to scrap a land-based interceptor system based in Poland and the Czech Republic and instead to deploy ships capable of shooting down the short- and mid-range Iranian missiles that U.S. intelligence believes pose a more imminent threat — like the sort of missile test-fired by Iran this week.

Next month's missile test not only will be aimed at a threat deemed less than urgent but will also involve tougher technical challenges. Destroying a "North Korean" missile involves hitting it as it zooms from left to right across an interceptor's field of view, but the locations of the "Iranian" missile and the U.S. interceptors require more of a head-on collision. That means the closing speed between the two projectiles will be faster than in previous tests: close to 18,000 m.p.h., compared with 15,000 m.p.h. in prior exercises.

That reduced shoot-down window means the interceptor will have to work more quickly to do its job. "Whenever we have a situation where we're taking on a missile more head-on than from the side, that increases the challenges," Army Lieut. General Patrick O'Reilly, the U.S. missile-defense chief, told a defense gathering sponsored by Reuters on Monday. The test is expected to send an interceptor missile from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at a fake Iranian missile, fired from the Marshall Islands.

The U.S. currently has 23 ground-based interceptors based in Alaska and California, and they could be used against missiles launched — for real — from either North Korea or Iran. "They can go both ways," O'Reilly told Congress in October. "If you look at the earth from the North Pole, you'll see that the closest part of the U.S. to Iran is Alaska." He added that the U.S. has other ways of destroying such weapons, including attacking them during the several days it takes to ready them for launch. "All ICBMs right now associated with Iran and North Korea are pad-launched," added General James Cartwright, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, at the same session. "They're very visible, they're up above the ground, and you can go after them before launch if you so desire. We're not advocating pre-emptive, but it is a physical capability that we possess."

It may, of course, make sense for the U.S. to hedge its bets on what it knows about Iran. Two years ago, the U.S. intelligence community declared that Iran had, in 2003, halted its secret push to build nuclear weapons. But last weekend a document, purportedly from inside Tehran's nuclear program, surfaced in a London newspaper suggesting that Iran has been busy developing the sophisticated devices necessary to trigger a nuclear explosion. Some intelligence officials believe that the undated document was written in 2007 — the same year U.S. intelligence said Iran had frozen its weapons program. Then again, neither the U.S. nor other Western intelligence agencies are able to verify the document's authenticity.

Obama Shelves U.S. Missile Shield: The Winners and Losers

President Obama's decision to shelve plans to station U.S. missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic is being portrayed as a pragmatic response to the threat of Iranian nuclear missiles. In confirming the move on Thursday, Sept. 16, Obama said the U.S. wants to focus instead on deploying "technologies that are proven and cost-effective and that counter the current threat" — that is, Iran's medium-range missiles, rather than any intercontinental ballistic missiles Iran could possibly develop.

But if the move raises concerns in Tehran, it's not because of any impact it will have on Iran's missile capability, but rather because the decision represents an enticement to Moscow to support new U.S. sanctions against Iran. At the same time, Russian officials must be smiling wryly at Obama's explanation that the plan was changed because of revised intelligence estimates of Iran's missile capability — since Moscow had never taken seriously the U.S. explanation that the shield was designed to protect against an Iranian threat. (An interceptor system targeting Iranian missiles would be more appropriately stationed in Jordan than in Poland, after all, and Moscow's vehement opposition to the planned deployment on its doorstep was based on fears that it actually was aimed at weakening Russia's own nuclear deterrent, because the system would be able to intercept Russia's missiles in the so-called boost stage.) Meanwhile, Obama's decision will surely raise alarms in the corridors of power in Ukraine, Georgia and other NATO-inclined countries in the former Soviet bloc, who saw the battle over the missile shield as a litmus test of Obama's willingness to stand up to Russia's efforts to re-establish its hegemony in its post–World War II sphere of influence.

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made it clear from the outset of the Obama Administration that any effort to "reset" U.S.-Russian relations would require that Washington do more to accommodate Russian concerns — first and foremost, its opposition to the missile shield and to NATO's expansion into former Soviet-bloc countries. Soon after taking office, Obama reportedly wrote a private letter to Medvedev suggesting that the missile shield would become unnecessary were Russia to help the U.S. prevent Iran from developing into a nuclear threat. The Russians also made the missile shield a central issue in negotiations with Washington over a new arms-control deal to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. That treaty expires in December, and Obama has made putting a new treaty in place by then a priority of his Russia policy.

But the key nuclear-proliferation concern facing the Administration is Iran, which Western powers suspect is developing a capacity to build nuclear weapons under the cover of its civilian atomic-energy program. Although a new round of talks between Iran and the main international players has been scheduled for Oct. 1, the Administration is not anticipating a diplomatic breakthrough and is at the same time seeking support for new sanctions aimed at pressing Iran to cease uranium enrichment. Russia just last week reiterated that it opposes new sanctions.

Given the link drawn by Obama, soon after he took office, between Russian cooperation on Iran and the missile-defense plan, it's hard not to read the shelving of the missile shield as at least partly a move to enlist Russian support on Iran. It's not at all certain, however, that such support will be forthcoming. Moscow does not believe Iran is currently pursuing nuclear weapons, and its adversarial relationship with Washington will be maintained as long as the likes of Ukraine and Georgia are being considered for NATO membership. Critics in Washington are already accusing Obama of giving Moscow something for nothing.

Even more alarmed than Washington hawks are U.S. allies in former Soviet-controlled territories. Already, the limits of what former Soviet-satellite states can expect from the West was cruelly demonstrated last year, when the U.S. was unable to do anything to prevent Russian tanks from rolling into Georgia to punish that country's military for attacking South Ossetia. The missile-shield decision will confirm fears that Washington's power to roll back Russian influence in the region is waning.

Still, giving up the protection offered by the missile shield is not particularly difficult for the U.S. — for the simple reason that the shield doesn't offer any significant protection. The system that would have been deployed in Poland and the Czech Republic was in every sense a work in progress whose testing had not yet proved any real-world capacity to deal with a hostile missile threat. In that sense, the missile "shield" was every bit as hypothetical as the Iranian missile threat against which it was ostensibly deployed.