In December 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared: “We need to strengthen the military potential of strategic nuclear forces … especially with missile complexes that can reliably penetrate any existing and prospective missile defense systems.” Shortly afterwards, President-elect Trump tweeted that “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” Leaders in both states clearly see a challenge to the existing strategic order posed by missile defense and nuclear modernization.
But this challenge may present an opportunity as well: a heightened awareness of the need for the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the keystone of current US-Russia arms control agreements, which is set to expire at the very beginning of 2021. In addition to his more bellicose tweets, Trump has signaled an interest in decreasing tensions with Russia. His presidency represents a chance to reinvigorate bilateral cooperation on arms control issues.
To be sure, Putin and Trump are not the first leaders from Russia and the United States to be concerned about the high stakes of the nuclear age. At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy wrote to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev that “I have not assumed that you or any other sane man would in this nuclear age, deliberately plunge the world into war which it is crystal clear no country could win and which could only result in catastrophic consequences to the whole world, including the aggressor.” Mutual recognition of this reality eventually prevailed.
The Cuban Missile Crisis put into stark relief the need for some form of arms control between the United States and the Soviet Union. Ten months later, American Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, and British Foreign Secretary Alec Douglas-Home signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, marking the beginning of the arms control era. Nine years later, in 1972, a much more comprehensive pair of agreements—the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM)—greatly reduced the risk of nuclear confrontation.
It was not just the notion that a nuclear war was unwinnable that drove the superpowers to curb the proliferation of their ABM systems. Even before the advent of nuclear weapons, the United States and its allies had begun wartime studies into the feasibility of technology that promised to shoot down incoming German V-1 and V-2 rockets before they hit their targets, but using a missile to shoot down a missile mid-flight was not realistic in the days before high-speed computing. Later, however, as technology improved, the possibility of shooting incoming Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) out of the sky proved tantalizing to both America and the Soviet Union, as it would neutralize the other’s nuclear deterrent. Consequently, when both nations became aware of the other’s development programs, the perception of strategic stability came under threat. Both states were intimately aware of the shortcomings of their own ABM capabilities, yet they feared the other superpower would achieve a breakthrough. This sense of vulnerability drove the United States and the Soviet Union to sign the ABM Treaty.
Thirty years later, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the Bush Administration withdrew from the ABM Treaty. In 2002, the White House considered US-Russian relations as normalized, and Russia no longer represented a significant threat. The administration perceived the new threat to be non-state actors such as Al-Qaida and regimes that had not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, such as North Korea and Iran—who might be deterred by an effective missile defense system. Ultimately, this decision delivered a major blow to US-Russia relations. In response to the US withdrawal, Russia withdrew from the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty II (START II) the same year, a largely symbolic move.
After the American withdrawal in 2002, the Bush Administration invested heavily in ABM systems. In 2007, the Bush Administration began formal talks with Poland and the Czech Republic on the possibility of basing Patriot interceptor missiles in those countries. While the White House proposal was initially met with ambivalence by the Donald Tusk administration in Poland and President Vaclav Klaus in the Czech Republic, the Russia-Georgia conflict of 2008 reversed this reluctance. That year, Poland and the United States agreed to allow ground-based ballistic missile defense interceptors within Poland. In response, the Russian government “objected vociferously.”
President Barack Obama attempted to ease Russian concerns over American interceptors in Europe by eliminating the planned ABM bases in Poland and the Czech Republic. Instead, the administration announced the “European Phased Adaptive Approach” plan on September 17, 2009. This involved four stages, beginning with the dispatch of American warships to Europe armed with AEGIS missiles capable of only short- and medium-range interception. With maximum speeds of only 3 kilometers per second, they would be incapable of hitting Russian ICBMs like the Bulava missile, which travels twice as fast. But the Obama administration’s planned deployment of AEGIS-capable ships in the Mediterranean and Black Sea raised additional Russian concerns about their use. Further, after Obama’s decision to cancel the Bush Administration’s plans, which received broad accolades in the Russian media, the sudden announcement of the new European Phased Adaptive Approach plan was seen by many Russian policymakers as a betrayal.
Anti-ballistic missiles remained a major point of contention during the New START negotiations of the following year. Russian negotiators repeatedly raised the issue of missile defense limitations, but the United States shot down efforts to incorporate any language on ABMs into the new treaty. The Putin administration eventually acknowledged that “current US missile defenses do not threaten Russia’s deterrent” in exchange for concessions on other issues incorporated into New START.
The Russian government, however, made it clear that if NATO deploys “a missile system capable of significantly reducing the effectiveness of Russia’s strategic forces,” then Russia would withdraw from its New START obligations. The Kremlin also argued that not only might such a system potentially blunt Russia’s nuclear capabilities, but it might also function as an offensive weapon that could be aimed at Moscow. But with escalating tensions over the Russian intervention in Ukraine in 2014, NATO allies pushed for the continuation of the European Phased Adaptive Approach plan. On May 12, 2016, NATO officially opened its first land-based missile defense station in Deveselu, Southern Romania. This station was armed with Raytheon SM-3 missiles and also hosted a radar station. In 2018, the next NATO anti-ballistic missile base will become operational at Redzikowo, Poland. In addition, the United States has considerably increased the number of AEGIS anti-ballistic missile equipped ships. By Phase 3 in 2018, NATO will have 32 AEGIS-equipped vessels, accompanied 48 SM-3 IB land-based interceptors. (Phase 4, which would have seen the deployment of higher-speed interceptors that posed a greater threat to Russian ICBMs, was cancelled by President Obama in 2013. This decision was meant to ease Russian concerns and prevent a withdrawal from New START.)
The issue remains highly charged. The European Phased Adaptive Approach program was officially designed against threats from the Middle East, to eliminate any potential “rogue missile” launches or any deterrence power that a new nuclear-armed state like Iran might try to use in reshaping the Middle East. But with the Iran deal forthcoming, Russian President Vladimir Putin argued that the continued existence of the NATO anti-ballistic missile program is clear: “The whole purpose of this system is to reduce the nuclear capabilities of all countries but the USA itself to zero.” Some have argued that Russian rhetoric against the European Phased Adaptive Approach has been political hyperbole for domestic use. But, given the possibility of a future threat to Russian strategic deterrence, withdrawal from New START now seems like a genuine possibility. Consequently, compromise from either side is unlikely, as NATO remains wary of the threat posed by states that have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and is unlikely to dismantle the system that guarantees “damage limitation” from such threats.
Today’s security landscape is remarkably different from the ‘70s. The US decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty in 2002 was largely in response to these changes. When the ABM Treaty was signed in 1972, one primary factor had handicapped the development of successful anti-ballistic missile systems: an effective detection and targeting system. Today, American capabilities in this area are far greater than they were in 1972. Beginning in 1995, the United States conducted yearly tests for its three main interceptor systems: Ground-Based Midcourse Defense, Aegis, and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense. In the first year, these systems failed every test. In 1998, there were two successful tests out of the four conducted. In 2013, six of seven interception tests were successful.
But despite these technical advancements, interceptors remain an implausible threat to the fabric of deterrence. Theodore Postol, a professor of Science, Technology and National Security Policy at MIT, noted that “past, present, and foreseeable missile defense systems are simply unable to discriminate between real warheads and decoys.” In the words of retired Major General Pavel Zolotarev, the development of a reliable ABM targeting system would be “worth the Nobel Prize in mathematics.” As it stands, in the event of a nuclear exchange between Russia and the United States, the interception of even a small percentage of actual nuclear warheads would be an accomplishment. Yet the technological progress of anti-ballistic missile systems represents a future threat to the fragile strategic balance, particularly in the absence of a limitation treaty.
This is a critical point. David Kearn’s Military Expectation Theory argues that arms control agreements are most likely before a system’s technological success makes it a potentially decisive strategic tool. The best time to establish a framework for a new ballistic missile treaty is before such systems become a real threat to deterrence.
There are reasons for optimism. The United States is currently far ahead of the Russian Federation in defensive and early warning technologies, ranging from interceptor missiles to the Upgraded Early Warning Radar system. But while Russia is well along in its nuclear arsenal modernization program, the United States is just beginning to embark on its own trillion-dollar program. Given the American technological lead in anti-ballistic missiles, now is the ideal time for both sides to reach an agreement which could provide strategic clarity and build mutual trust.
There are a number of concrete policies that could initiate this process. Russian expert Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace argued that “the construction of a joint missile defense system could be a way out of” the current strategic deadlock. Russian President Vladimir Putin made a similar argument at the Valdai Club in 2015, proposing a “troika” of the United States, Europe, and Russia identify mutual threats and share command of a network of joint missile defense sites. While NATO member states in Eastern Europe may be reluctant to engage with Russia to this extent, there are intermediate steps that could be palatable to both sides. For instance, President Trump could propose a permanent forum for the exchange of technical information and threat assessments, open communications for radar-site data sharing, and arrange exchanges of military observers.
Seeking cooperation on anti-ballistic missiles will help reverse the deterioration in Russian-US relations. But improved relations are not the only benefit that cooperation will bring. While missile defense systems today do not threaten the fabric of mutually assured destruction, this will not remain the case forever. The technology continues to improve. To avoid a costly new arms race, it is critical to increase bilateral transparency now, in the hopes of reaching a comprehensive agreement later. Strategic stability depends on mutual clarity of capabilities, technologies, and intentions. President Trump has a unique opportunity to “bring sense” to nuclear security by initiating a conversation with Russia on anti-ballistic missiles.
(The authors of this article are members of the Stanford US-Russia Forum (SURF), an independent organization for students dedicated to cultivating cooperation between the two countries via spheres of mutual interest.)