Guest Post by Volha Charnysh
Yesterday, U.S. ambassador to Russia John Beyrle urged Moscow to join Washington in building a worldwide missile defense system. Last week, prior to his meeting with Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, Barack Obama was quoted as saying that “cooperative missile defense with Russia has enormous potential” and that the United States “want[s] to work with Russia to be a key player and beneficiary in this global [missile defense] architecture.”
The idea of U.S.-Russian missile defense cooperation is not new, and the initiatives considered today have been pondered for decades. The two countries agreed to “explore opportunities for intensified practical cooperation on missile defense for Europe” in a joint declaration at the May 2002 U.S.-Russia Summit, but their dialogue reached an impasse when George W. Bush unveiled the plan to build 10 interceptor missile systems in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic.
A window of opportunity for Russia’s participation reopened with Obama’s September 2009 decision to deploy a phased adaptive missile defense in Europe. As per the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, U.S. proposals for missile defense cooperation with Russia include integration of U.S. and Russian sensors; joint research and development; joint missile defense testing; joint modeling and simulations; missile defense exercises; and joint analyses of alternative U.S.-Russian missile defense architectures for defending against common, regional threats. After the U.S. change of plans, NATO has also expressed readiness to explore the potential for linking U.S., NATO and Russian missile defense systems and declared missile defense cooperation with Russia its target for the next NATO Summit in Lisbon in November 2010…
Despite its longevity and revived popularity, missile defense collaboration remains a contentious issue, and not only because the technical plausibility and cost-effectiveness of missile defense systems are still being debated. However modest the scope of cooperation in question – primarily technology and information sharing – some in Washington fail to see its potential benefits. For example, Bill Gertz writes in Washington Times that the Obama administration is “secretly working with Russia” on an agreement that may limit U.S. missile defenses.
I argue that missile defense collaboration with Moscow, which has already become an important U.S. partner in confronting nuclear proliferation challenges, would not only help to reduce Russia’s concerns regarding U.S. missile defense plans, but also provide Washington with additional technology and expertise, send a stronger message to regimes developing ballistic missile capabilities, improve the U.S.-Russian bilateral relationship, and open possibilities for further arms reductions.
First, by cooperating with Moscow, which has a wealth of missile defense technology and expertise, Washington could reap important technological benefits. In fact, U.S. firms like Boeing and Lockheed Martin are already exploring the possibilities of joint design and development projects with Russian companies: a Russian liquid fuel rocket engine is used in new U.S. space launch vehicles, while a Russian rear moveable exhaust nozzle is employed in some models of the Joint Strike Fighter.
Washington could both augment its capabilities and save resources by taking advantage of the Kremlin’s 2007 proposal to grant the United States access to the Gabala radar station in Azerbaijan and the Armavir radar station in Russia’s Krasnodar Territory. The Russian radars are much closer to Iranian targets than any potential U.S. installations, and with some adjustments, they could detect missile launches not only from Iran, but also from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. The radars could also be linked to the missile launch data exchange center in Moscow, created by the U.S.-Russian Memorandum Of Agreement in 2000 “to minimize the consequences of a false missile attack warning and to prevent the possibility of a missile launch caused by such false warning,” but never built due to liability and tax issues. The efforts to make the JDEC a reality have intensified with the Obama Administration’s change of plans, and the center could become an important element of the U.S. phased adaptive missile defense in Europe.
Second, U.S.-Russian missile defense collaboration would send a strong message to regimes seeking to develop missile capabilities. For example, Tehran might think twice about developing longer range ballistic missiles if Russia, its long-time economic partner and ally, were integrated into European missile defenses against an Iranian strike. With a stake in the European missile defense system, Moscow might also be more eager to support international sanctions against Tehran and less careless about the technology it exports.
Third, engaging Moscow in a joint missile defense project could only improve U.S.–Russian bilateral relations. Information exchange and joint R&D efforts could increase transparency and trust between Moscow and Washington, thereby deepening their understanding of each other’s capabilities and intentions and reducing the incentives for mutual suspicion. By working with the West to defend Europe, Russia would feel more integrated into the European security architecture. In an indirect way, this would help address the concerns expressed by Moscow in its draft of the European Security Treaty, which failed to elicit a thoughtful response from the West.
Most importantly, missile defense collaboration could pave the way for the next round of bilateral strategic arms reductions. Moscow and Washington have reached their first shaky compromise on missile defense in New START. The treaty’s preamble notes the interrelationship between offense and defense and bars the United States from placing missile defense interceptors in ICBM silos or SLBM launchers – something the United States no longer plans to do. In addition, Moscow issued a unilateral statement that it would consider withdrawing from the treaty if the U.S. develops strategic defenses capable of threatening the Russian deterrent –something the United States also has no intention of doing. However, the most difficult and bitter disagreements over missile defenses lie ahead, and the amount of contention generated by the modest wording in the New START in Washington suggests that the road to further reductions will be closed, unless the United States and Russia are able to collaborate on missile defenses in the future.
Of course, whether the benefits mentioned above actually come to fruition depends on overcoming some important political and technical challenges. However, the two sides concluded far more complicated agreements in far less auspicious circumstances during the Cold War. Today, with the “reset in their relationship and with the possibility of the NATO framework bringing the two countries together on this sensitive issue, the success of the U.S.-Russian missile defense cooperation looks even more likely.
In her January 29 speech at L’Ecole Militaire in Paris, Secretary of State Clinton called missile defense “an extraordinary opportunity for us [the United States, NATO and Russia] to work together to build our mutual security.” It’s time for the two countries to muster enough political will to make this happen.
Volha Charnysh is currently the New Voices Nonproliferation Fellow at the Arms Control Association and will begin a Ph.D. in government program at Harvard University in the fall. The views expressed are her own.