How to avoid a new arms race

US missile defense deployments in Europe, now the nucleus of a NATO system to protect alliance European territory against emerging missile threats, have long worried Russia: After all, an effective missile defense has the potential to undermine Russia’s nuclear retaliatory capability against the United States. And so, to help preserve strategic stability with Russia — and perhaps to enhance its own defenses — NATO resolved at its 2010 meeting in Lisbon to “actively seek cooperation on missile defence with Russia.” For the first time in three years, NATO and Russian defense ministers met on June 8 to assess progress on a comprehensive joint analysis of “the future framework for missile defense cooperation.” Unfortunately, the critical meeting failed to move the two sides any closer to agreement on what cooperation might look like, falling far short of expectations by both American and Russian officials. Nevertheless, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen remained optimistic that, “at the end of the day, we can reach a solution.” But Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov was not so sanguine; he said NATO was “not hearing”  the Russians and warned that if the two sides don’t come to terms, “we’ll just have to develop an arms race.”

And that is how a missile defense system aimed at protecting against a potential future nuclear threat from Iran (and other menacing states) may ironically end up increasing the danger from an established nuclear power. While we hope that Russian threats of offensive nuclear weapons buildup are a bluff, it is entirely possible that Moscow will oppose any future nuclear arms reductions that would substantially improve US and NATO security. By contrast, should Russia cooperate with NATO, it could increase the effectiveness of alliance defenses — and, in the long term, missile defenses that work could pave the way for more dramatic cuts in the world’s nuclear arsenals.

NATO’s system. What forms any NATO cooperation with Russia might take are necessarily uncertain right now because NATO’s missile defense architecture remains largely undefined. American officials concede that the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) will constitute “by far the lion’s share”  of the system, but alliance defenses are potentially quite different from a Europe-based US system.

What we do know is that the NATO missile defense system will consist of nationally owned sensors and interceptors, integrated through a NATO command-and-control network. European members will be able to participate in decisions on the allocation of resources, rules of engagement, and firing doctrine. In addition, US State Department officials have promised to “transfer control”  of US missile defense assets in Europe to the alliance and that the “systems will be operated under NATO auspices, just like any other voluntary national contribution.”

Clearly, defense of all European NATO territory is a much larger mission than originally envisioned for the EPAA: The Obama administration’s missile defense policy was never meant only to protect “allies and partners” but also to enable “them to defend themselves.” In June, Rasmussen stressed that, to be “effective in protecting all European Allied territory, the American assets need to be accompanied by other nations’ missile defense sensors and interceptors.” But alliance members do not yet seem interested in any serious burden-sharing; and Europe’s participation has been constrained by differing perceptions of the Iranian threat.

While NATO missile defenses may be a political reality, their technical feasibility is far from assured. Protecting against short-range battlefield missiles is challenging though not impossible, but defense against long-range missiles — especially those with simple countermeasures like decoys — continues to be extremely problematic. Much of the hardware is still in development or even speculative, and recent US ground-based midcourse defense missile test failures emphasize the uncertainty.

Russian concerns. Regardless of the effectiveness of a NATO system and NATO assurances that its defenses are aimed exclusively at emerging threats, conservative Russian military planners will likely consider worst-case scenarios; that is, they will assume that missile defenses actually have the capabilities their more ardent supporters claim.

When President Obama cancelled the Bush administration’s third-site plan (which called for a radar in the Czech Republic and interceptors in Poland — close enough to threaten Russia’s strategic arsenal) and adopted the EPAA in September 2009, Moscow initially welcomed the change. The EPAA called for sensors and interceptors much closer to, and with ranges more appropriate to, the nominal threat, Iran, making the system less of an immediate risk to Russian intercontinental missiles. Moscow also believed the EPAA would provide more time for negotiations — either to convince the United States to stop development at an early stage or to create a treaty that would ensure NATO missile defenses did not threaten Russian arsenals.

But, today, Washington is gradually moving ahead with deployments — the first US Aegis-equipped ship arrived in the Mediterranean in March and an early-warning radar will be in position by the end of the year. The EPAA also calls for land-based SM-3 interceptors in Romania no later than 2015 and, by 2020, interceptors capable of hitting intermediate- and intercontinental-range ballistic missiles. All of which the Russians view as essentially going back to the Bush third-site plan — only now with a more sophisticated system and an additional decade of experience. According to senior Russian military officials, “[a]round 2020, one party may get an idea that a nuclear parity no longer matters.” The Russians view upgrading the EPAA from its original stage to a point where it poses a threat to Russia’s deterrence as just a matter of time and funding: Both land- and sea-based EPAA missiles could be repositioned to target Russia; plus, SM-3 interceptors evolved from air defense systems and, when equipped with appropriate warheads and deployed near Russia — for example, on the Black Sea — could offer formidable air defense capabilities, providing cover for conventional air attacks. That is, future NATO radars could potentially look deep inside Russian territory, and multi-use interceptors could attack Russian targets at significant range.

Finally, Russia may also be motivated not only by military concerns, but also by a political one: remaining an important player on the European stage. If this is true, then ongoing consultation and openness can only help to supplement concrete cooperation on hardware.

Options for cooperation. NATO-Russian missile defense cooperation could differ in significant ways from US-Russian bilateral deals. Simply being neighbors expands opportunities for tension between Russia and many NATO states, but it also creates possibilities for joint action. President Obama has affirmed that NATO “cooperation with Russia on missile defense could enhance the security of the United States, Russia, US allies, and … other partners.” Some joint activity is underway, but much remains to be done. Options include:

  • Joint threat assessment. An emerging ballistic missile threat concerns both NATO and Russia. A joint threat assessment is a necessary first step toward defining some common objectives — a process Rasmussen says is already underway. A NATO system scaled to the size of an agreed threat — and no larger — would reassure Russia that the system is not directed its way. The problem now is that the United States wants to plan for a future potential threat that is inevitably ill-defined.
  • Joint military operations. NATO and Russia have a history of cooperation on shorter-range tactical defense systems and, in 2010, resolved to resume these activities. Each has deployed tactical systems with some antimissile capability — the US Patriot and the Russian S-300 and S-400. NATO has mechanisms to address interoperability of early-warning measures and data-handling. NATO members Bulgaria and Greece have Russian S-300 interceptors that could serve as interoperability tests cases. Russia has proposed “sectorial” territorial defenses that could leave some NATO countries under the Russian umbrella, an approach so far rejected by NATO. Even so, combined exercises with tactical systems could help build trust and lay a foundation for future cooperation.
  • Joint technology development. Sharing key components between future systems could give Russia direct knowledge of the limits of performance and thereby reassure them that their arsenals are not threatened. Of course, sharing hardware risks revealing sensitive technology — such as air defense, rocket propulsion, or precision-guidance — and simply getting two Western companies to cooperate can be difficult. Jointly developed components uniquely applicable to missile defense might be more acceptable — like a multi-spectral early-warning satellite to detect and track missile launches or an ultra-high-frequency early-warning radar in Russia that would be jointly developed, funded, and operated.
  • Joint information-sharing. Sharing information — rather than hardware — is probably an easier path forward; data-sharing centers are currently being discussed. Russia has potent early-warning radars on its southern periphery, which could significantly increase the warning time for NATO — especially for attacks against North America. In exchange for this information, the Russians could get data from the location and tests of US Aegis missile defense ships, increasing their confidence that the system is not aimed at Russia. (A joint data center has precedent: In 1998, US President Bill Clinton and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to a Joint Data Exchange Center in Moscow “to reduce the danger that ballistic missiles may be launched on the basis of a false warning or attack” — but the agreement was never implemented.) Because many NATO states and Russia are close neighbors with overlapping monitoring areas, a joint NATO-Russian data center would work more naturally than any bilateral center with the United States. Although not yet endorsed by NATO, the two parties could share test ranges and results, allowing a more realistic assessment of each other’s capabilities. Russia is a vast country, with test ranges that smaller European NATO nations cannot match.

NATO and Russia have given themselves until next May to develop a framework for cooperation. While the technical feasiblity of missile defense is still highly uncertain, Russia may feel compelled to react to new defenses anyway. But expanding the missle defense mission to European territory need not exacerbate the dangerous nuclear standoff between Russia and the United States. Cooperation on defenses could reassure Russia that there is no threat from NATO or the United States. And, especially because of the iconic status of missile defense in US domestic politics, NATO, with the United States as one member, may be able to cooperate with Russia in unique and productive ways that the United States alone cannot.

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