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Missile Defense Cooperation Stalls
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Tom Z. Collina

In what might have been the last chance to reach agreement before upcoming national elections in each country, Russia and the United States were unable to strike a deal on missile defense cooperation when their defense ministers met June 8-9 in Brussels. “I think the Russians have a long history of hostility and wariness about missile defense, and so I think we just have to keep working at it,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told reporters at NATO headquarters June 9. The two sides are not expected to meet again on missile defense cooperation until the next NATO summit, in May 2012.

In an unsuccessful attempt to iron out their differences before the defense ministers meeting, Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev met May 26 on the sidelines of the summit in Deauville, France, of the Group of Eight industrialized countries. After the meeting, Medvedev told reporters that missile defense “will be finally solved in the future, like, for example, in the year 2020, but we, at present, might lay the foundation for other politicians’ activities.”

Russian officials had been ratcheting up the pressure on missile defense in advance of the Brussels meeting. In a May 18 press conference, Medvedev said, “If missile defense systems are to be developed—which would mean the disruption of strategic parity—the treaty could be suspended or even terminated.” He was referring to the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which took effect in February. “We are ready to cooperate, and at the same time, we hope that we get assurances that these capabilities are not directed at us,” he said.

At issue are U.S. plans to deploy hundreds of increasingly capable missile interceptors by 2020 at sea and on land as part of the European Phased Adaptive Approach, which NATO agreed to last November to counter the missile threat seen to be emerging from Iran. Russia, for its part, agreed to work with NATO to seek areas of cooperation, such as sharing information on third-party missile launches and joint exercises. The Pentagon has been interested in gaining access to data from Russian radars located northwest of Iran, such as the Gabala radar in Azerbaijan, that could provide useful tracking information on potential Iranian missile launches toward Europe or the United States.

Ultimately, the missile defense cooperation effort stalled, officials said, because the United States and NATO could not convince Moscow that the interceptor system would not undermine Russian security—that is, that NATO would not use the system to intercept Russian strategic nuclear forces. “I still think there are those in Russia who are skeptical of our motives,” Gates said at the Brussels press briefing. Obama’s top adviser on Russia, Michael McFaul, explained the problem by saying, “They don’t believe us.”

Russia will hold parliamentary elections in December and presidential elections next March. The U.S. elections will follow in November 2012. Missile defense is a potent political issue in both countries.

Russia: Do Not Target Us

To gain assurances that the NATO system is not a threat, Russia first proposed a “joint” system in which both sides would have control over any decision to launch interceptor missiles. NATO rejected this plan months ago. “We cannot outsource our collective defense obligations to non-NATO members,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said June 15 in London at a conference on missile defense at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

Moscow then shifted gears and asked for legally binding guarantees that NATO would not aim its interceptors at Russia’s strategic missiles. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told The New York Times May 22, “We do not want any missiles aimed at Russia” and repeated Moscow’s request for “some kind of written guarantees from NATO that the missiles will not threaten Russia.”

NATO formally rejected Russia’s proposal. In June 15 remarks at the RUSI conference, Rasmussen said, “Russia says it wants guarantees. We can give these by agreeing that our systems will not undermine the strategic balance, that they will strengthen each other’s security and not weaken it. But I remain convinced that the best guarantee for Russia is to be part of the process.”

What Russia Wants

The Kremlin appears deeply concerned about the European missile interceptor plan, which envisages more than 500 missile interceptors based on more than 40 ships and two European land bases, in Poland and Romania, and a radar based in southeastern Europe, by the end of this decade.

Russian demands, at first vague, have become more specific over time. In addition to legal guarantees, Moscow’s NATO envoy, Dmitry Rogozin, wrote in The New York Times June 7 that Moscow wants “a common perimeter of missile defense with all ballistic-missile defense capabilities pointed outside the Euro-Atlantic region. It should be geared primarily for areas that could pose threats, and these in reality can only emanate from the south.” In other words, in Russia’s view, there is no justification for interceptors pointed east at Russian territory and, in particular, no need for an interceptor site in Poland, which NATO plans to deploy in 2018.

Russia also reportedly wants an agreement on the total number of missile interceptors that NATO would deploy, as well as on their speed and their deployment locations. Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov said NATO missile interceptors should have a speed limit that would not allow them to intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the Kommersant newspaper reported June 6. “That is why the speed of interceptor missiles should be limited, say to 3.5 kilometers per second,” he said. Additionally, there should be a cap on the quantity of missile interceptors deployed, he told Ekho Moskvy radio. “There should be not 1,000, but 100, 200, or 300 of them, so that they cannot intercept all ICBMs.”

The currently deployed Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) IA interceptors have a maximum speed of about 3 kilometers per second. The next generations, the SM-3 IIA and IIB, are expected to have maximum speeds of 4.5 kilometers per second or faster. Russia is worried that if the SM-3 IIB is fast enough, it could intercept Russian ICBMs.

“The Russian bear sits in its lair, and the NATO huntsman comes over to his house and asks him to come hunt the rabbit…. Why do your rifles have the caliber to hunt the bear, not the rabbit?” Rogozin said June 15 at the RUSI conference, according to Reuters.

U.S. officials say Moscow has nothing to fear because the NATO system could not handle Russia’s fast and vast arsenal. “If we tried to go in that direction it would not work, it would bankrupt us,” James Miller, U.S. principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, told a RUSI panel June 15, Reuters reported.

Moscow also is concerned about where the interceptors are deployed. Russia on June 12 objected to the USS Monterey’s presence in the Black Sea. The Monterey, armed with SM-3 IA missiles, is the first component to be fielded of the Obama administration’s phased approach to European missile defense. The Russian Foreign Ministry warned against “the appearance of elements of U.S. strategic infrastructure in the immediate proximity to our borders.”

Meanwhile, Russia has obtained China’s support to condemn NATO’s missile defense plan, Reuters reported June 15. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which encompasses China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, issued a statement that “the unilateral and unlimited growth of missile defense systems by any state or a group of states can cause damage to strategic stability and international security.”

Questions About Prospects

Russian officials are most concerned about the SM-3 IIB, which, U.S. officials point out, does not yet exist and would not be deployed until 2020, four years after Obama leaves office, assuming he serves two terms. The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has issued contracts to three companies—Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon—to explore concepts for this missile. Because the system is in the early phases of its development, the schedule could slip, or the program could be scrapped by the next administration.

A Defense Science Board task force is reviewing the mission of the SM-3 IIB. The interceptor is supposed to have what U.S. officials refer to as a “limited” capability against ICBMs, which means that it is effective against long-range missiles only in their ascent phase, known as early intercept, before the warhead separates from the missile. After that, the SM-3 IIB might not be fast enough to “catch” the warhead and might not be able to distinguish a real warhead from decoys. Critics say one of the SM-3’s greatest weaknesses is its inability to distinguish real warheads from decoys after their separation from the missile.

A version of the report has already surfaced on Capitol Hill, and its “unclassified conclusion is that MDA’s plans to achieve an early-intercept capability as part of the Phased Adaptive Approach [are] simply not credible,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said during a June 15 hearing of the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee. In response, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen said he had “confidence that we can continue to pursue that path” of the SM-3 IIB, even though “the missile you’re talking about I know doesn’t exist yet.”

In April, a group of 39 Republican senators wrote to Obama asking for his written assurance that he would not provide any “early warning, detection, [or] tracking” information to Russia. That is the type of information Obama had been proposing to exchange. The senators wrote that “any agreement that would allow Russia to influence the defense of the United States or our allies…would constitute a failure of leadership.” The House version of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2012 would prohibit the transfer of such missile defense data to Russia. The Senate version of the bill would allow it.