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Destruction of missiles applauded

Slovakia cleared another hurdle on its path towards NATO membership on April 27 when the Slovak Army Chief of Staff Milan Cerovský and US Chargé d'Affaires in Slovakia Douglas Hengel signed an agreement to destroy the country's Soviet-made SS-23 Short Range Ballistic Missiles (also known as 'spider' missiles in US terminology). The agreement calls for the disarmament of Slovakia's total of six missiles, all of which are capable of carrying nuclear warheads, on May 10.
Designed to replace the Scud missile, the SS-23 was manufactured by the former Soviet Union in the mid-1980s. The missile has a range of 500 km (310 miles) and is fired from a mobile transporter-erector launcher (TEL) vehicle. If launched from Slovakia, every Slovak neighbour as well as other countries like Germany and Italy would be in range.


SS 23 missiles like this one were stored in Slovakia by the Soviets.
photo: Internet

Slovakia cleared another hurdle on its path towards NATO membership on April 27 when the Slovak Army Chief of Staff Milan Cerovský and US Chargé d'Affaires in Slovakia Douglas Hengel signed an agreement to destroy the country's Soviet-made SS-23 Short Range Ballistic Missiles (also known as 'spider' missiles in US terminology). The agreement calls for the disarmament of Slovakia's total of six missiles, all of which are capable of carrying nuclear warheads, on May 10.

Designed to replace the Scud missile, the SS-23 was manufactured by the former Soviet Union in the mid-1980s. The missile has a range of 500 km (310 miles) and is fired from a mobile transporter-erector launcher (TEL) vehicle. If launched from Slovakia, every Slovak neighbour as well as other countries like Germany and Italy would be in range.

"These missiles have no defensive or strategic importance in the frame of NATO strategy," Hengel told the Sme daily on April 27. "Their elimination is Slovakia's contribution to the effort of preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."

Rastislav Káčer, head of the Section of International Organisations within the Slovak Foreign Affairs Ministry, said on May 3 that this decision would definitely mark a further step towards NATO integration. "Although NATO has not issued an official requirement to destroy the missiles, and although the issue is not even on its agenda, Brussels has noted the decision," he said.

Slovakia now has six SS-23 missiles, all of which are stationed in Martin at the Fifth Missile Batallion. According to Cerovský, the disarmament of the missiles will cost some 16 million Slovak crowns ($360,000). According to a US-Slovak joint memorandum, the US will pay the bill - one missile will be spared and exhibited at a museum.


Nuclear non-proliferation has been a key part of Clinton's policy.
photo: Internet

Illegal missiles

An agreement on the destruction of the SS-23 missiles had first been agreed upon in 1987 between the then US and Soviet leaders Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, through the signing of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. But the Soviets skirted the agreement by stashing their missiles in Czechoslovakia and other former eastern bloc countries. "Those missiles were moved onto the territory of the former Czechoslovakia in secret, and thus were not destroyed under the agreement," said a Slovak military official currently dealing with the issue. "I'm sure the US knew about it from its intelligence sources, but finding an official solution took some time."

According to a study conducted by the American-based Centre for Defence and International Security Studies (CDISS), the INF agreement was supposed to have meant the destruction of all US and Soviet ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 km, including the SS-23. "In total, 73 SS-23s were transferred to the former East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria in the mid- to late-1980s," the CDISS study said.

Although the destruction of the missiles will be open to the media, military officials have been stingy in releasing detailed information concerning the weapons, such as technical characteristics, dates of production and combat capabilities. "The destruction of these missiles doesn't mean that we're releasing classified information to the public. Certain information will still remain a secret," the military source said.

For several years, the US had been urging Slovak governments to eliminate the missiles. "Missile non-proliferation is a top priority of this [US] administration," said Jamie Rubin, spokesman for the US State Department on August 18, 1997. "So we discussed with a number of foreign governments - including Slovakia and Bulgaria - the importance of eliminating such missiles."


The mobile transporter erector launcher vehicle.
photo: Internet

But under the rule of the former Vladimír Mečiar government, Slovakia's response to international urgings to dismantle the missiles was resistance. Milan Tokár, Slovak Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman under the Mečiar government, responded to Rubin's 1997 comments by saying that "the existence of the SS-23 missiles has political, as well as military and technical dimensions. And we hope that we will be able to solve this problem through co-operation with the US government according to our good and friendly relations."

The Slovak Defense Ministry even issued a statement saying that the SS-23 missiles "still carry out their role in the defense system of Slovakia," and that their elimination would be "premature." Slovakia again failed to heed the west in 1998 when it prolonged the missiles' lifespan by three years.

But under a new government which has openly declared its western integration ambitions, the SS-23 missiles - whose lifespans have not yet expired - will finally be dismantled. "We want to destroy them before the expiration of their lifespan as a gesture of our good will," said Slovak Defense Minister Pavol Kanis earlier this year in January.

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