The meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama later this month at the summit of the Group of Eight industrialized countries presents the two leaders with an important chance to achieve a win-win breakthrough on missile defense and accelerate nuclear arms reductions. Putin and Obama must seize the opportunity.
Since 2011, U.S. and Russian leaders have failed to make progress in their ongoing talks on missile defense cooperation and data sharing, largely due to Russian concerns about U.S. plans for deployment of Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) IIB long-range interceptors in Poland by 2022, which some Russian military officials believe might threaten a portion of Russia’s land-based, nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. These concerns have led Russia to resist further progress on offensive nuclear reductions.
But on March 15, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced the effective cancellation of the program, citing congressional funding cuts and significant technical problems. Congress had cut the funding, and the program was plagued with significant technical problems. The Obama administration’s latest budget request contains no funding for the SM-3 IIB missile program, and administration officials have told Congress there are no plans to revive it.
With the decision to terminate the program, there is no other U.S. missile interceptor capability in place or under development for Europe that could plausibly threaten Russian strategic missiles. Moreover, U.S. ground-based strategic interceptors in Alaska and California are limited in number—currently 30, potentially 44 by 2017—and still are not capable of defeating ballistic missiles equipped with countermeasures such as those that Russia deploys.
Instead, U.S. missile defenses will have only a limited capability to counter short- and medium-range missiles from Iran and North Korea and a handful of unsophisticated, long-range missiles that those two states might field in the years ahead.
These realities should open the way to a legally binding Russian-U.S. agreement for the regular exchange of information on missile defense programs. Such an agreement would help Russia verify U.S. claims about its missile defense capabilities and should be accompanied by a joint presidential statement clarifying that the two countries’ missile interceptor programs do not threaten each other’s security.
Sharing of missile defense data is a commonsense, bipartisan idea. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan suggested that both countries abandon the concept of mutual assured destruction by agreeing to eliminate all offensive ballistic missiles within 10 years while researching and jointly developing strategic missile defenses.
In May 2001, President George W. Bush called for “a new cooperative relationship,” including in the area of missile defense. In 2004 the Bush administration began seeking a defense technical cooperation agreement with Russia that would have addressed a broad range of cooperative research and development activities, including missile defense.
The 2008 report of the bipartisan Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States found that the United States should “strengthen international cooperation for missile defense…with Russia.”
The data-sharing agreement now under discussion would enhance strategic stability and opportunities for U.S.-Russian cooperation on missile defense and joint early-warning procedures.
By helping to clarify that U.S. missile interceptors are neither intended to offset Russian strategic nuclear forces nor capable of doing so, an Obama-Putin understanding on missile defenses would also open the door to further cuts in each country’s still massive and expensive nuclear arsenals. Even under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), both sides can deploy up to 1,550 strategic warheads on 700 missiles, submarines, and long-range bombers until 2021.
As Obama and the Pentagon have determined, a nuclear arsenal of this size far exceeds what is necessary to deter nuclear attack from any current or future adversary.
Doing nothing is not in either country’s best interests. Russia has already cut its arsenal below New START ceilings, and the United States no longer needs to maintain the capacity to redeploy large numbers of stored warheads on its oversized missile and bomber force.
A new, rapid round of reductions to 1,000 or fewer deployed strategic warheads for each side with the option of further cuts would help draw China and other nuclear-armed states into a multilateral nuclear arms control process, which Russian and U.S. leaders say is a key goal.
Obama and Putin should effect further cuts through a formal treaty if possible. Otherwise, the two leaders could announce that they will implement further strategic reductions through reciprocal, parallel actions, which could be verified through the existing New START framework.
From time to time, the United States and Russia will have their disagreements on geopolitical issues, but it is past time for Obama and Putin to make progress on missile defense cooperation and accelerate nuclear arms reductions.