How the reset was upset

By Yousaf Butt | December 18, 2011

President Barack Obama’s much celebrated “reset” with Russia was upset recently.  In late November, President Dmitry Medvedev announced the end of negotiations on missile defense cooperation, and threatened to withdraw from the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) if the United States remained committed to its missile defense program in Europe. Though it hasn’t quite reached the was upset recently.  In late November, President Dmitry Medvedev announced the end of negotiations on missile defense cooperation, and threatened to withdraw from the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) if the United States remained committed to its missile defense program in Europe. Though it hasn’t quite reached the Khrushchev-shoe-banging stage on the Cold War meter, Moscow’s increasingly strident rhetoric against NATO missile defenses should not be taken lightly —  as US and NATO officials appear to have done lately. Downplaying legitimate Russian concerns will likely only exacerbate the situation and result in the loss of valuable Russian cooperation on important issues including the war in Afghanistan: Russia’s envoy to NATO, Dmitri Rogozin, threatened to cut NATO supply lines to Afghanistan if Washington doesn’t compromise on missile defense.

Most at stake, however, is how Russia could react to a variety of additional foreign policy matters — specifically, it could further increase its deployed strategic arsenal,  end future arms reductions talks with the United States, and decrease its assistance with worldwide counter-proliferation efforts.

Separating fact from fiction. According to Obama’s phased adaptive approach to missile defense, the United States, working with NATO, plans to ramp up the deployment of increasingly sophisticated sea- and land-based interceptors around Europe. And not just a handful — the plan is to have 500 or so interceptors in place by the end of the decade in an attempt to protect NATO countries from future longer-range missiles that could be deployed by Iran.  The main problem is that the faster interceptors — the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block II interceptors due to come on-line in 2018 — would be capable of engaging Russian and Chinese warheads as well.

But senior US officials seem to be seriously misinformed on the technicalities of the issue. For instance, Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher recently stated that “the truth is the system that we have proposed … certainly would only chase the tail of a Russian ICBM or SLBM.”  However, her statement is not accurate: The missile defense system is mainly based on ships, which, of course, can be moved around easily — thus, the system is capable of engaging Russian warheads as they descend toward their target. The faster Block II interceptors will be able to engage Russian warheads on flight paths to the United States. This detail is surely not lost on Russian or Chinese technical analysts, who undoubtedly understand this fact and inform their  governments on the true physics in play.

Further, other variants may raise eyebrows in Moscow: Proposed last year, ArcLight, a program to flight-test a long-range, high-speed strike weapon, would be based on an SM-3 Block II booster together with a hypersonic glider designed to carry a 100-200 pound payload more than 2,000 nautical miles. According to Aviation Week, the weapon “will be compatible with the Mark 41 vertical launch system and capable of launch from U.S. Navy warships and submarines as well as Air Force assets.”

The military reality here is that cautious Russian planners must assume a worst-case scenario: They must treat the missile defense system as being highly effective, even when it isn’t. They must consider the potential for a large expansion in the number of interceptors, unpredicted technical changes in the defense system (such as nuclear-tipped interceptors), and the diversity and scale of future sensor systems.

A commitment to parity. Of course, Russia is not worried that its entire strategic deterrent will be neutralized by the 500 or so interceptors of dubious effectiveness that NATO plans to use. Russia’s main objection is more bureaucratic and legalistic — but no less earnest and important. Washington and Moscow spent a lot of time, effort, and money to shape and ratify New START in which they each agreed to reduce their deployed strategic warheads to 1,550 by 2018. This strict balance, or parity, in strategic warhead numbers is a sacred central tenet of the treaty.

The problem with missile defense is that by even suggesting the possibility — however remote — of neutralizing some Russian warheads, it violates this all-important perception of parity. Any system that could raise uncertainties about the strict equality in strategic nuclear forces agreed upon in a formal treaty is a natural concern to both parties — even if this violation does not affect deterrence. US officials cannot both agree to enshrine parity in a treaty and then downplay Russian concerns when they legitimately complain about its violation.

Geopolitics. Russian concerns go beyond New START commitments. Russia also has geopolitical concerns regarding how the missile defense system — with bases and infrastructure in a number of European nations — may pull its neighbors into the US orbit. Russia has never been comfortable with NATO’s eastward expansion and could view the missile defense project as a cover for NATO encroachment.

And the Russians may have a point: For example, does Poland really fear attack from Iran? The answer is no — in fact, the Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski made light of the fact, stating that “If the mullahs have a target list, we believe we are quite low on it.” Similarly, it is unlikely that Iran has any designs on Bulgaria or Romania. Russian analysts could be excused for casting a skeptical eye on the inflated threat to Eastern Europe from Iran.

Unlikely cooperation. Although NATO invited Moscow to participate in the missile defense project, this process remains deadlocked. In fact, it was highly unlikely that Russia would ever cooperate on the project for two simple reasons: For one, the country does not consider Iran to be a threat; and, two, Russian engineers are well aware of the technical — and conceptual — flaws plaguing the missile defense system, and they are unlikely to spend substantial sums to cooperate on such an ineffective defense against, what is to them, a non-existent threat.

Evaluating the capability of the system. So how would cautious Russian military analysts go about judging the planned system? The answer is straightforward: The interception process can be broken down into two steps. The first step is kinematics, or the question of whether the interceptor can reach the target cluster (including the warhead and any present decoys), given the sensors, interceptor speed, and trajectory. This step can be analyzed unambiguously if the basic interception parameters are known. The second step is kill probability, or whether the interceptor can identify and actually hit the warhead (assuming that it has reached the position of the target cluster in time). This step is highly sensitive to precise details of offensive and defensive systems; it also depends on the exact nature of the combat environment — for example, engagement geometries, closing speeds, the quality of the tracking data, kill vehicle acquisition, homing and divert capabilities, and the presence of any intended or inadvertent countermeasures.

Determining the precise kill probabilities for the myriad circumstances that could occur (even when no intentional countermeasures exist) is impossible and not something on which Russian, Chinese, or even American planners would — or even could — base their analysis. The critical issue for Russian and Chinese analysts is simply whether the SM-3 Block II interceptors could engage their ICBM warheads (the first step of the two-step process). And since an interceptor’s ability to reach the target cluster depends on its burnout speed (the maximum velocity reached), Block II interceptors, with higher burnout speeds than their Block I variants, are a concern.

Thus, if a planned interceptor is capable of simply reaching the target cluster — regardless of whether such an engagement results in an actual interception (or kill) — this will be sufficient to raise red flags in Moscow and Beijing. Evidently it has raised them.

Future conflict management. NATO missile defense plans, even if they never come to fruition, command the attention of cautious Russian analysts and will likely demand a reply from Russian defense polity. Ominously, Russia recently increased its deployed strategic nuclear stockpile. Even though Russian warhead numbers dipped below the New START limits earlier this year, the number is now 16 warheads above the treaty limits.  While the increase is not large, the trajectory of change is discouraging. In fact, the country appears to be increasingly using RS-24 missiles — an intercontinental ballistic missile with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV) warheads — as the delivery platform. These missiles, which were first designed in response to earlier missile defense plans, are beginning to overshadow the use of the single-warhead SS-25 missile that the country has used in the past.

Perhaps Moscow would have increased its stockpile and used more modern missiles anyway, but missile defense certainly makes it easier for the country’s hawks to argue for stockpile increases — now and in the future. And, of course, Russia is only part of the picture: The Strategic Posture Commission reported that, “China may already be increasing the size of its ICBM force in response to its assessment of the US missile defense program.”

Solutions. A sensible way to wind down the missile defense standoff is for NATO, at least, to shelve the fielding of the faster Block II interceptors slated for operation in 2018. This would go a long way toward reassuring both Russia and China that the system will not be capable of neutralizing their nuclear weapons and will not violate the parity written into New START.

And doing so will not affect the performance of the system against any future Iranian ballistic missile threat because both Block I and Block II interceptors have the same Achilles’ heel: They are equally susceptible to decoys and countermeasures. Iranian long-range ballistic missiles with simple decoys could be a threat whether the United States has no missile defenses, Block I interceptors, or even Block II interceptors.

That the planned  missile system can be defeated by decoys was recently underscored in a report written by the Pentagon’s own Defense Science Board: “If the defense should find itself in a situation where it is shooting at missile junk or decoys, the impact on the regional interceptor inventory would be dramatic and devastating!” The report also goes on to state that the sensors currently in place are deficient: the “current Aegis shipboard radar is inadequate to support the objective needs of the … mission.”

So NATO has alienated Russia over a missile defense system that will provide an assuredly ineffective defense against Iran.

If moves are not made soon to assuage the situation, Moscow — to say nothing of Beijing — may further increase its deployed strategic arsenal, end future arms reductions talks with the United States, and decrease its assistance with worldwide counter-proliferation efforts. Such collateral damage from missile defense diminishes US — and global — security and is at odds with President Obama’s vision of a nuclear-weapons-free world.

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