Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Defense: A Historic Opportunity for Missile Defense

International Relations and Security Network (ISN)

NATO and Russia continue to disagree about binding constraints on ballistic missile defense in Europe. One way out of this stalemate could be for Russia and NATO to conclude a new Founding Act on missile defense cooperation that would contain mutual pledges of non-targeting, but will not require ratification.

By Simon Saradzhyan for ISN Insights

Contrary to the initial optimism in Moscow, Brussels and Washington surrounding the NATO-Russia summit last November, the thorny issue of ballistic missile defense in Europe will not be resolved anytime soon. The 9 June meeting of the NATO-Russia Council failed to bridge the gaps between Moscow on one side and Washington and Brussels on the other.

Moreover, as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has said directly, the issue may remain unresolved until around 2020, when, according to warnings from the Kremlin, either the sides will reach a deal or a new arms race will begin as the US starts to field land-based interceptors capable of chasing Russian ICBMs. Medvedev and US President Barack Obama have repeatedly discussed the issue since the US leader unveiled his European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) in 2009, but have so far failed to agree. Their 25 May meeting did not produce a breakthrough either. Although the White House released a statement after that meeting indicating that the Joint U.S.-Russia Report on Assessment of 21st Century Missile Challenges , which Obama and Medvedev ordered in 2009, was "finished", but that statement contained no details of the arrangements. Neither do we know what has happened to the proposed 'Joint Analysis of the Future Framework for Missile Defense Cooperation' that the 9 June meeting of the NATO-Russia Council was to assess.

The lack of progress in negotiations is rooted in the different assessments made by Russia, the US and its European allies of the missile threats they face - and in the different interests they seek to advance through missile cooperation. Russia sees no urgent need to construct a pan-European ballistic-missile defense system, arguing that the continent currently faces no credible ballistic-missile threats - an assessment obviously at odds with Washington's assertions that Iran represents such a threat. Moscow is also concerned that the planned defense systems are too open-ended and may eventually come to undermine the second-strike capability of its strategic nuclear arsenal. Russian generals and diplomats have repeatedly asserted that SM-3 Block IIA and SM-3 Block IIB interceptors - that are to be deployed in Phases III and IV of EPAA in 2018 and 2020 respectively - would be fast enough to chase Russian ICBMs. It thus comes as no surprise that Moscow has been trying to steer the dialogue on cooperation to include binding constraints on the capabilities of EPAA and NATO's Active Layered Theater Ballistic Missile Defense (ALTBM), even as the alliance has offered oral assurances of non-targeting.

For its part, Washington knows perfectly well that it can build a missile defense shield against Iran without Russia, and Obama has already promised US legislators that he will not accept any binding constraints on his EPAA plan. However, both Washington and Brussels continue to pursue Russian engagement (especially in the dialogue on missile defense cooperation) to prevent Moscow from taking disruptive steps in this area. At the same time Washington and Brussels want NATO's missile defense system to remain separate from Russia's, while Moscow has advocated a joint 'sectoral' configuration with what is essentially a dual launch key.

A way forward

To dissolve this impasse, the NATO-Russian assessment of missile threats must first be completed. If the final product has any basis in reality, this assessment will conclude that Iran's program will be able to produce missiles capable of reaching targets not only in Europe but in the US and much of Russia in the foreseeable future. In fact, one thorough and authoritative joint assessment of missile threats put together by a group of US and Russian experts predicted in 2009 that Iran might be able to master independently the "critical technologies" for advanced mobile or silo-based IRBMs and ICBMs within 15 years.

If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, which the US believes it can in one- to- three years if it so decides, this threat will be magnified exponentially. In fact, Iran's existing IRBM program makes "military-strategic sense" only if these missiles are outfitted with warheads carrying weapons of mass destruction, primarily nuclear weapons, according to former-Secretary of the Russian Security Council, Andrei Kokoshin.

While the doomsday scenario of Iranian ballistic missiles hitting western targets may be far-fetched, assuming the regime has a modicum of self-interest, it should not be forgotten that an Iran armed with long-range ballistic missiles would be far more assertive in challenging not only the West but also Russia, given Iran's historical interest in the Caspian region, the South Caucasus and Central Asia. And what if those missiles are tipped with nuclear warheads? Russia - which has no assets capable of intercepting ballistic missiles either in boost stage or mid-course - should keep these possibilities in mind when deciding, with NATO, whether Iran should be listed as a common missile threat.

Once the threat assessment has been completed, Russia and NATO should then work together to build cooperative missile defenses against the identified threats. To do so, Russia and NATO could conclude a new Founding Act on Missile Defense Cooperation. Paraphrasing language from the 1997 Founding Act on NATO-Russian relations, this new document would declare that signatories "have no intention, no plan and no reason" to deploy missile defense assets in Europe in such a way that they would target or intercept strategic delivery vehicles of each other. Such an act would allow signatories to elaborate on what their pledges of non-targeting would actually mean in practice; the US, for example, could commit to limit or refrain completely from deploying SM-3 Block II interceptors in areas (such as the Barents Sea) where they can shoot down Russian ICBMs.

It is worth recalling that the 1997 Founding Act stated that NATO member states have "no reason to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of new members." Although the US and its allies debated with Russia on whether that act was legally binding or required ratification, Washington kept its promise not to deploy nuclear weapons in new member states. A similar agreement on missile defense cooperation, that would entail a promise not to target Russian nuclear forces, would be more likely to reduce Russia's concerns than oral assurances. At the same time, such an act would also preempt attempts by parliamentary opponents in the West to derail cooperation since it would not require ratification.

The general guidelines for the actual configuration of the systems in the new Founding Act could designate Russia and the NATO countries as separate defensive sectors, as Moscow wishes, but should not prevent the US and NATO from deploying assets against missile threats originating, for example, in countries south of Russia such as Iran, as long as those assets are not deployed in significant quantities in the lands and seas of northeastern Europe.

The act should promote the continuous sharing of information from early warning systems, in order to enhance the mid-course interception capabilities of the cooperative missile systems. Russia can contribute its early warning capabilities, including the radar facilities at Armavir and the Gabala facility, which Moscow leases from Azerbaijan. The act should also introduce exchange liaison officers who would shuttle regularly between the command and control centers of the respective missile defense systems. It is hoped that by the time the Missile Defense Cooperation Act is signed, Russian designers will have completed the development of anti- ballistic missile systems equivalent to the US AEGIS Combat System, and can contribute those assets to the project.

Opportunities on both sides

For its part, Russia should avoid imposing artificial barriers in the cooperation act. Even if the yet-to-be-developed SM-3 Block IIBs are in fact deployed in Phase IV of the EPAA (i.e., circa 2020), a few dozen of them would not undermine the capability of Russia's strategic nuclear arsenal, which has some 1,500 warheads on more than 500 deployed strategic delivery vehicles, according to the New START Treaty Aggregate Numbers of Strategic Offensive Arms. Moreover, the Commander of Russia's Strategic Missile Forces, Lt General Sergei Karakayev, has said - and there is reason to believe - that Russia's single-warhead Topol-M and multi-warhead RS-24 ICBMs are "invulnerable" to all existing missile defenses and any that will be developed in the next 15-20 years. And according to Russia's lead designer of ballistic missiles, Yuri Solomonov, US missile defense in Europe is not a threat to Russia's strategic nuclear forces.

While a missile defense cooperation act with NATO would be perceived as a victory by domestic audiences, the Russian leadership would know that the assurances in the act are not legally binding. But the Kremlin would also know also that NATO has so-far kept its promise not to deploy nuclear weapons in new member states, as per the 1997 NATO-Russia Act, which was not binding either. More importantly, Russian leaders would understand, perhaps all too well, that not cooperating would mean less opportunity in the future to influence US decisions on missile defense in Europe, less access to the technological and operational capabilities of US and NATO forces and thus less ability to anticipate and respond to them. The Kremlin would also know that it would have time to prepare an adequate response should the US or NATO decide to expand the system to target Russian ICBM's flying along the North Pole trajectories toward North America.

There are well-grounded reservations in both the US and Russia about the effectiveness of missile defenses, but a US-NATO missile defense built without Russian cooperation may indeed convince Russian leaders to respond with a build-up of the offensive potential. It would also increase what theorists of strategic stability call "crisis instability" - a situation in which one side may be prompted to launch a preemptive first strike for fear that a delayed launch would cripple its capacity to cause unacceptable damage to the foe, which may strike first and then employ robust missile defenses to shoot down as many as possible of any surviving missiles launched in retaliation. If, however, Washington and Brussels agree with Moscow on cooperative missile defenses, such an agreement would pave the way for a substantive, sustainable defense and security partnership of the signatories against common security threats, which include not only emerging missile threats, but also the proliferation of WMD, nuclear terrorism and the failure of states.

Simon Saradzhyan is Research Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center.