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– Hans Blix,
former IAEA Director-General

U.S. Reaffirms Europe Anti-Missile Plan
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Wade Boese

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s June 7 proposal to share radar data on missiles with the United States might be an earnest offer, a cynical ploy to undercut U.S. plans to base anti-missile systems in Europe, or both. Regardless, U.S. leaders say they will continue their current missile defense approach despite strong Russian opposition.

Meeting with President George W. Bush in Heiligendamm, Germany, Putin volunteered the “joint use” of the Russian-leased Gabala radar in Azerbaijan. Putin implied the radar could be used to peer south into Iran, which the United States estimates could develop long-range missiles to strike all of Europe or the United States before 2015. Washington claims its plan to station 10 strategic ground-based midcourse interceptors in Poland and an X-band radar in the Czech Republic is to protect against a growing Iranian threat and poses no danger to Russia.

Putin further suggested that if an actual threat materialized, interceptors could be deployed in southern Europe, Iraq, or on naval ships instead of in Poland, where Moscow contends interceptors could reach into Russia. The interceptors endorsed by Putin would be technically different than those planned for Poland. Instead of aiming to collide with warheads in space, the alternative interceptors would be designed to destroy missiles in their boost phase, when a missile’s rocket engines are still burning shortly after launch.

Although U.S. officials expressed surprise at Putin’s proposal, this is not the first time he has made it. Putin floated essentially the same concept in June 2000 when President Bill Clinton was weighing deployment of a nationwide U.S. defense. (See ACT, July/August 2000. )

Washington rejected the proposal then, in part, on the basis that the technology was not available. The United States currently has programs that might produce ship- and land-based interceptors for boost-phase testing around 2014. (See ACT, June 2007. )

Bush welcomed Putin’s ideas as “interesting.” The two leaders agreed experts from both sides will explore the Russian proposal.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials maintain they will not pause their current effort. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal June 8 that “we’re going to continue to work this with Poland and the Czech Republic.” Engaging with Russia, she added, “doesn’t mean that you are going to get off course on what you’re trying to do.”

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates informed reporters June 14 that the United States saw Putin’s proposal on the Gabala radar as “an additional capability” and not a substitute for the proposed Czech-based radar. The Gabala radar is a Soviet-era early-warning radar designed to spot and track missiles shortly after launch, while X-band radars are supposed to provide more precise flight-tracking data and pick a warhead out of a target cluster flying through space.

The U.S. reaction was not what the Kremlin wanted. Talking to reporters June 8, Putin stated, “[W]e hope that no unilateral action will be taken until these consultations and talks have concluded.” Similarly, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in a Moscow press briefing the next day declared, “[I]t is necessary as a minimum to freeze all the actions in deploying missile defense elements in Europe for a period of at least the study of our proposals.”

Russian officials assert there is no urgency to field anti-missile systems in Europe. They project a long-range Iranian missile threat as at least 15 to 20 years away. Even if Tehran moved more rapidly, Putin claimed June 7 that a three- to five-year lag would occur between the initial test and deployment of long-range missiles, permitting time for defenses to be erected.

Indeed, Putin’s Gabala radar proposal is about sharing data with the United States in order to form a common or joint assessment of Iran’s capabilities. Before initiating any possible defense schemes, such as Putin’s boost-phase concept, there should be mutual agreement about the threat, a Russian government official told Arms Control Today June 14.

Putin suggested as much June 8. “We propose carrying out a real assessment of the missile threats for the period through to 2020 and agreeing on what joint steps we can take to counter these threats,” the president explained to reporters.

The same day, Anatoly Antonov, director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Department of International Security and Disarmament, stated, “Only after concrete answers are obtained to questions about the nature and trends of missile proliferation should it be decided whether and what military-technical means are needed to repulse this threat.” He later noted that missile defenses should be “the last resort…when all the alternative measures have been exhausted.”

Moscow’s apparent assumption is that data from the Gabala radar will support their position that Iran poses no near-term threat, obviating U.S. plans. “Joint use of the information which this radar station obtains makes it possible…to give up the plans of deploying missile defense elements in Europe,” Lavrov said.

If the United States does not abandon or alter its current missile defense plans for Europe, Russian officials say there will be consequences. On June 8, Putin reiterated warnings that Russia would “target” the Polish and Czech anti-missile sites if they are built.

Putin’s comments followed a May 29 flight test of what Russian officials claimed was a new multiple-warhead ICBM capable of penetrating defenses. Referred to as an RS-24 by Russian officials, the missile is apparently a modified version of Russia’s most modern missile, the single-warhead Topol-M.

In a Jan. 1 data exchange, Russia claimed a total force of 530 ICBMs, of which 44 are silo-based Topol-Ms and three are mobile Topol-Ms. The United States currently deploys 500 silo-based ICBMs but plans to cut 50 of these missiles. (See ACT, May 2007.)

Washington has sought to soften Moscow’s hostility by publicly expressing interest in missile defense cooperation with Russia. But Putin June 4 derided U.S. offers as empty, saying they entail Russia providing missiles “as targets [that the United States] can use in training.”

Putin asserted that day that if Washington did not change course, Moscow would be bound to respond and could not be held responsible for the result. “We will absolve ourselves from the responsibility of our retaliatory steps because we are not initiating what is certainly growing into a new arms race in Europe,” Putin said.

 

Nuclear Talks Waiting on the United States

U.S. and Russian negotiators have put on hold talks on measures to succeed a landmark nuclear weapons reduction treaty while the Bush administration figures out its positions. But U.S. lawmakers are already starting to volunteer their advice.

The 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) is scheduled to expire Dec. 5, 2009. It slashed deployed U.S. and Russian strategic forces from more than 10,000 warheads apiece to 6,000 each and established an extensive verification regime. U.S. and Russian experts met for the first time in March to share ideas on what to do after START’s expiration. (See ACT, May 2007. )

Neither side is advocating exercising START’s five-year extension option. However, Moscow desires a new agreement capping both nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles, while Washington opposes such a formal approach, preferring a loose collection of confidence-building measures.

Arms Control Today has learned, however, that the two governments have agreed to prepare positions for future discussion on at least four issues: information exchanges, facility visits, missile launch notices, and noninterference with national technical means such as satellites. A second U.S. and Russian experts meeting reportedly is waiting on the Bush administration to complete this process and put together a proposal.

A June 18 McClatchy Newspapers report attributed the delay to Washington infighting. The U.S. intelligence community is keen on preserving intrusive mechanisms to keep tabs on Russia’s nuclear arsenal. But this position conflicts with that held by administration officials who say such measures are burdensome and unnecessary because Russia is no longer an enemy.

In a June 21 statement, Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, sided with the intelligence community. Recommending that START verification and transparency measures be extended, Lugar noted that “the predictability and confidence provided by treaty verification reduces the chances of misinterpretation, miscalculation, and error.”

Similarly, Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), chair of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, stated at a June 11 Arms Control Association event that “the intelligence community has expressed concern with losing the verification component provided by START.” Tauscher recommended that U.S. and Russian leaders approve a “bridge agreement that will extend START” until a new agreement can be negotiated.