Right after I graduated, I interned with the Arms Control Association. It was terrific.

– George Stephanopolous
Host of ABC's This Week
January 1, 2005
Some See Chance for Missile Defense Deal

Tom Z. Collina

Discussions between Russia and the United States on how to resolve their differences over planned U.S. missile defense deployments in Europe, which have been on hold for more than a year as both countries held presidential elections, can now resume, opening the way for a possible deal on an issue that has blocked progress on strategic arms control, some former administration officials say.

The opening for renewed talks comes at a time when new reports on missile defense technology and the Iranian missile program may give President Barack Obama more room to maneuver, the former officials said in interviews with Arms Control Today.

Last March, Obama told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have “more flexibility” to negotiate with Russia on missile defense policy after the November elections. The remark, which was picked up by a microphone that Obama apparently did not know was on, drew strong criticism from Republican lawmakers.

Just after the U.S. election, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said at a Nov. 8 Moscow conference on nonproliferation that he hoped Obama “will be more flexible” on his missile defense plans.

Former Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher said at a Dec. 18 event that, with the elections over, “we can begin to talk again.” Tauscher, who was the administration’s top negotiator in missile defense talks with Russia, did not indicate what the administration’s position might be.

But sharp differences in Congress on missile defense policy are seen as limiting the range of options available to the administration. “Obama has to find a sweet spot that reassures Moscow but does not overly alienate Senate Republicans,” one congressional staffer said, “and that will not be easy.”

Some Senate Republicans, including Bob Corker (Tenn.), who is set to become the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, had sought to prevent any limitations on U.S. missile defense plans as part of the debate on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) in late 2010. They announced their support for New START only after Obama sent a letter to the Senate pledging that the treaty “places no limitations” on U.S. missile defense plans, and specifically promising to field all four phases of the European Phased Adaptive Approach, the administration’s plan for deploying missile interceptors in Europe, depending on “advances of technology or future changes in the threat.” (See ACT, January/February 2011.)

Russia has objected to the latter phases of the planned deployment of missile interceptors in Europe, saying they could threaten its strategic missiles. Russian officials have said they will not take part in a new round of arms control negotiations unless the United States addresses its concerns. Obama is seeking a new treaty with Russia to reduce strategic, tactical, and reserve warheads and is finalizing new nuclear policy guidance to make those reductions possible. (See ACT, June 2011.)

In addition to a new arms reduction treaty, Obama has said on several occasions he will seek Senate approval of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty at some point. “Does Obama want these treaties or not?” the congressional staffer asked in a Dec. 18 interview, adding that Obama cannot break his missile defense promises to the Senate and still hope to win Republican support for these agreements.

Clashing Views

Moscow’s main concern with the Obama administration’s European missile defense plan centers on its latter phases, planned for 2018 and 2021, respectively, which Russia says would threaten its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) based in southwestern Russia. During these phases, the United States would deploy Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) IIA and IIB interceptors in Poland and Romania and possibly at sea (fig. 1). Russia has demanded legally binding assurances that U.S. interceptors would not target Russian ICBMs. It also has called for limitations on the speed, number, and location of these interceptors.

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The administration has rejected the Russian demands, in part because a legally binding agreement that included them would stand little chance of winning support from Senate Republicans. Instead, the administration has offered a political commitment, which is not legally binding and does not require Senate approval, not to direct U.S. missile interceptors against Russian strategic missiles and to cooperate with Russia by sharing early-warning information and flight test data. (See ACT, July/August 2011.)

Another factor for Moscow, according to Philip Coyle, who served from 2010 to 2011 as a senior official in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, is U.S. plans to deploy interceptors in Poland specifically, which “bother Russia mightily.” The Russian concerns are “geopolitical,” he said, noting that U.S. long-range interceptors based in the United States, in Alaska and California, do not appear to concern Moscow nearly as much as the ones in central Europe.

As the basis for a possible compromise on missile defense, Coyle and other former officials point to a September report by a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) committee. (See ACT, October 2012.) That report found it would be more effective to address potential long-range missile threats to the United States from Iran by basing interceptors on the U.S. East Coast rather than in Europe. In effect, the panel’s recommendations would trade the fourth phase of the European system for a new deployment site in the United States.

At a Sept. 11 press conference releasing the NAS committee report, panel co-chairman David Montague, former president of the Missile Systems Division at Lockheed Martin, said that the fourth phase of the planned missile interceptor deployment “should be canceled” as “unnecessary for European defense” and “less than optimal for defense of the United States.” The report said that deployment of missiles with the capabilities planned for the fourth phase would “clearly exacerbate political tensions in the region.”

Instead of fielding the fourth phase in Europe, the NAS panel would deploy other, yet-to-be-developed interceptors on the U.S. East Coast. “With the interceptors on U.S. soil, it would be harder for Russia to object,” Coyle said. “There could be an interaction here between [missile defense deployments on] the East Coast and [in] Europe” in terms of reaching a deal, he said.

An administration official and missile defense supporters in Congress did not respond to requests for comment.

Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee and one of the most outspoken missile defense supporters in Congress, said in a letter to Obama last March that he would oppose any trade of U.S. missile defenses for Russian agreement to arms reductions. “My colleagues and I will not allow any attempts to trade missile defense,” he wrote.

Citing the NAS panel report, the House of Representatives passed legislation last year calling for the deployment of missile defenses on the East Coast by 2015. The NAS committee made clear that its proposed system would not be ready for operation until fiscal year 2019 at the earliest, at a cost of about $20 billion over 20 years. It also said that the system must be capable of distinguishing between real warheads and fake ones, a task that has proved insurmountable so far. The Senate bill had no similar language, and the administration opposed the House language.

As a compromise, the conference report to the fiscal year 2013 defense authorization bill, which Obama signed into law Jan. 2, directs the Defense Department to evaluate three new sites in the United States for missile interceptors, of which two must be on the East Coast, but does not require that interceptors be deployed at those sites.

An additional factor supporting a policy shift, the former officials say, is that Iran, the potential target for the Europe-based system, has been making slower progress than once anticipated toward having the capability to launch a workable ICBM. U.S. intelligence analysts had once predicted that Iran would achieve an ICBM capability by 2015, but a December report from the Congressional Research Service said Tehran’s ability to meet that target date “is increasingly uncertain,” in part because Iran is not receiving sufficient help from China and Russia.

In her Dec. 18 comments, Tauscher said the SM-3 IIB, the interceptor to be deployed in Europe during the fourth phase of the Obama administration’s plan, “only gets deployed if there is a rising threat” from Iran.

Missile defense advocates in Congress also have cited North Korean missile development efforts. North Korea’s Dec. 12 test of its Unha-3 rocket succeeded, for the first time, in putting a small satellite in orbit, a step forward for the program (see page 30). House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, issued a statement after the launch saying that North Korea’s actions “highlight the importance” of the United States deploying a “capable national missile defense program.”

However, Montague said at the Sept. 11 press conference that North Korea’s missile, even once fully developed, “can’t carry enough payload to be of any significant threat,” calling it “a baby satellite launcher and not a very good one at that.”

Russian Flexibility?

Some Russian analysts considered to be close to policymakers in Moscow are exploring options for their country’s missile defense policy. In a Nov. 30 article in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a group that included Sergey Rogov, director of the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies, and Viktor Yesin, former head of Russia’s strategic missile forces, wrote that the United States should not increase its defenses against ICBMs beyond the current capability of 30 interceptors on the West Coast. If missile threats from Iran and North Korea increase, they wrote, the United States “can deploy additional strategic interceptors [in the United States], but the total should not exceed 50-100.”

The Russian experts wrote that deployment of the SM-3 IIB in the fourth phase for the Europe-based system should be “frozen” because the deployment of 48 SM-3 Block IIA missile interceptors in Romania and Poland is sufficient for defending against existing and expected Iranian intermediate-range missiles. They did not call for a legally binding agreement with the United States to limit missile defenses, but instead suggested an executive agreement that does not require Senate approval.