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Missile Defense Cooperation: Seizing the Opportunity
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Volume 2, Issue 5, May 24, 2011

U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will meet at the G8 Summit in Deauville, France later this week, where they are expected to talk about cooperation on ballistic missile defense. Cooperation with Russia would strengthen U.S. security by enhancing our capabilities to detect a potential missile launch from Iran.

This issue is central to the future of U.S.-Russian relations and the prospects for another round of nuclear arms reductions after New START, including tactical weapons, and continued cooperation on Iran's nuclear program and preventing nuclear terrorism. The timing is critical; presidential elections are looming in both nations, and the window of opportunity is rapidly closing. Now is the time for an agreement on U.S.-Russian missile defense cooperation, and a bipartisan solution is in the offing.

It is in the national security interests of both countries to transform strategic missile defense from a topic of confrontation to cooperation. Doing so requires reinforcing existing assurances that future U.S. missile interceptor systems to be deployed in Europe will not undermine Russia's security. Although the Cold War has been "over" for 20 years, the two sides have so far been unable to build the trust necessary to move beyond this challenge.

The initial SM-3 interceptors that are now being deployed in Europe as part of the Phased Adaptive Approach are not capable of countering Russia's sophisticated intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). But Russian officials are concerned that more-advanced versions of the SM-3 planned for deployment by 2020 could conceivably shoot down some of Russia's ICBMs, and that more deployments may follow. Russia's leaders, however, have proposed a solution that the United States should embrace.

Russia's Request: "Written Guarantees"
Last week, as reported in The New York Times, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said "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."

This is an important diplomatic opening that deserves a serious response. This approach does not require a legally-binding agreement, nor would it create a new limit on U.S. strategic missile defenses. The Obama administration should pursue--and Congress should support--a written political assurance (between the U.S. and Russian presidents and/or a NATO written statement) that communicates the broader political point: U.S.-NATO missile interceptors do not threaten Russia.

At the same time, Moscow needs to recognize that the planned SM-3 interceptors have limited capability against Russian ICBMs. If, as Moscow may worry, the next U.S. president were to expand the program, even legal agreements can be undone, as we saw when the George W. Bush administration rejected the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002. Political solutions are the art of the possible, and both sides should seek to make as much progress as current conditions allow.

A political statement providing mutual assurances that neither side plans to use missile defense capabilities to "target" the others' strategic forces, combined with an agreement to share missile-launch early-warning information, could form the basis of a missile defense cooperation deal to be finalized when NATO and Russian defense ministers meet in Brussels in early June. There is broad bipartisan support, including from the last two administrations, for such an approach.

Bipartisan Support for Not Targeting Russia
A politically-binding agreement not to target Russian missiles with U.S. missile interceptors would not require Senate approval and has a strong precedent: In 1994, the United States and Russia made a political commitment not to target each other with their offensive nuclear weapons.

Moreover, there has been bipartisan support in the Senate for a limited missile defense mission--that is, one not aimed at Russia--since at least 1999, when the Senate passed the "National Missile Defense Act." That law directs the United States to "deploy as soon as is technologically possible an effective National Missile Defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack (whether accidental, unauthorized, or deliberate)..."

A limited--and unproven--ground-based mid-course defense (GMD) system was ultimately deployed by the Bush administration. The law expresses bipartisan support for missile interceptors against limited attacks by states such as North Korea and Iran, not an all-out, deliberate attack from Russia.

The Bush administration shared this view. For example, President Bush said in April 2008 that his proposed missile interceptor system for Europe was "not designed to deal with Russia's capacity to launch multiple rockets." In February of that year, President Bush said that "It's in our interests to try to figure out a way for the Russians to understand the system is not aimed at them, but aimed at the real threats of the 21st century."

Comparing President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative to the Bush administration's limited approach, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in 2008: "This is not that program. This is not the son of that program. This is not the grandson of that program. This is a very different program that is meant to deal with limited threats. There is no way that a few interceptors in Poland and radars in the Czech Republic can degrade the thousands of nuclear warheads that the Russians have. And there is no intent to do so."

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who served in both the Bush and Obama administrations, testified last summer in reference to the idea of mounting a defense against a full Russian attack: "That, in our view, as in theirs, would be enormously destabilizing, not to mention unbelievably expensive."

The New START resolution of ratification, which was approved last Dec. 22 by a bipartisan vote of the Senate, states that U.S. missile defenses are to "defend against missile threats from nations such as North Korea and Iran," and that U.S. systems "do not and will not threaten the strategic balance with the Russian Federation."

The bipartisan Strategic Posture Commission concluded in 2009 that U.S. missile defense plans "should not call into question the viability of Russia's nuclear deterrent," since this could lead Moscow to take actions that "increase the threat to the United States and its allies and friends."

Current deployments reflect the bipartisan policy that U.S. missile defenses are not aimed at Russia. The United States fields 30 ground-based interceptors (GBIs) in Alaska and California that provide a rudimentary capability against a limited long-range ballistic missile attack. Those interceptors would not be able to stop even a partial attack from Russia, which fields more than 1,000 nuclear warheads on hundreds of sophisticated ballistic missiles. Moreover, the U.S. GBI system has failed almost half of its intercept tests since 1999, including the last two attempts, and none of the tests has included realistic threats such as simple countermeasures. The system cannot be considered effective, particularly against a potential Russian attack.

Bipartisan Support for Missile Defense Cooperation

U.S.-Russian efforts to cooperate on missile defense also have bipartisan support, with roots in the Reagan administration's offer to share missile defense technology with the Soviet Union. In 2004, the Bush administration began seeking a Defense Technical Cooperation Agreement (DTCA) with Russia. This agreement would have addressed a broad range of cooperative research and development activities, including missile defense.

The Bush administration's Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Stephen G. Rademaker said in 2004, "We want missile defense cooperation to be an important part of the new relationship the United States and Russia are building for the 21st century." The Obama administration is now continuing the DTCA talks with Russia to provide a basis for potential sharing of early-warning data regarding missile launches by other states, which could improve U.S. capabilities against Iranian missiles.

The New START resolution of ratification states that the Senate "stands ready to cooperate with the Russian Federation on strategic defensive capabilities," as long as such cooperation does not constrain U.S. missile defenses. The Strategic Posture Commission found that the United States should "strengthen international cooperation for missile defense...with Russia."

Joint Data "Fusion" Center
A NATO-Russia agreement on missile defense cooperation could also include the sharing of missile launch early-warning information. Defense Secretary Gates said in March, "This collaboration may include exchanging launch information, setting up a joint data fusion center, allowing greater transparency with respect to our missile defense plans and exercises, and conducting a joint analysis to determine areas of future cooperation."

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 to NATO on an Iranian missile launch toward Europe.

Under the draft U.S. proposal, the joint data fusion center would allow Russian and NATO officers to have simultaneous access to missile launch data from sensors in NATO countries and Russia, giving both sides a full, real-time picture of potential threats. These centers would combine data from fixed and mobile radar sites, as well as from satellites.

Given that early-warning data sharing would improve the United States' and NATO's ability to detect a missile launch from Iran, it is puzzling that a group of Republican Senators wrote to President Obama April 14 asking for his written assurance that he would not provide any "early warning, detection, [or] tracking" information to Russia. Similarly, the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2012 would prohibit the transfer of such data to Russia. However, Moscow is highly unlikely to provide this information to the U.S. and NATO unless there is a two-way flow of data.

Meeting in the Middle

For missile defense cooperation to succeed, it is in the interest of NATO and the United States to reassure Moscow that future ballistic missile interceptor deployments pose no threat to Russian security. The United States can and should make a political commitment in the strongest possible terms that it will not target its ballistic missile interceptors against Russian missiles. This is consistent with the long-held bipartisan U.S. position--as stated in the Senate's New START resolution and other places--that Moscow has nothing to fear from U.S. missile defenses.  For its part, Russia needs to be open to solutions that do not require the advice and consent of two-thirds of the Senate.

Striking a deal on missile defense cooperation could be a game-changer with the potential to unlock the door to the next round of negotiations with Russia on nuclear arsenal reductions, including tactical weapons, and further strengthen joint nonproliferation and counter-proliferation efforts. --TOM Z. COLLINA