Recently, former C.I.A. director R. James Woolsey warned of President Obama’s underhanded attempts to purchase Russian cooperation on missile defense with sensitive U.S. missile defense technology. Mr. Woolsey argued against ceding critical defense secrets and operational “red button” authority to an unpredictable rival at a time when the United States faces a heightened threat from Iranian intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
Of course, the Obama administration has no intention of giving Russia such red-button rights.
U.S. negotiations with Russia on missile defense cooperation have centered largely on the potential sharing of early warning data on missile launches from other states such as Iran. Under discussion is a Joint Data Fusion Center, which would mitigate the risk of false alarms or miscalculation and allow NATO officers to access early-warning data on missile launches from Russian radar sights along the Iranian border.
Mr. Woolsey’s anxiety about any kind of missile defense cooperation with Russia is surprising in light of the more geopolitically astute assessment he offered in 2009, as one of twelve members of the bipartisan Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States:
“For more than a decade the development of U.S. ballistic missile defenses has been guided by the principles of (1) protecting against limited strikes while (2) taking into account the legitimate concerns of Russia and China about strategic stability. These remain sound guiding principles. Defenses sufficient to sow doubts in Moscow or Beijing about the viability of their deterrents could lead them to take actions that increase the threat to the United States and its allies and friends . . .
. . . Cooperative missile defense efforts with allies should be strengthened and opportunities for missile defense cooperation with Russia should be further explored.”[emphasis mine]
Though only Woolsey can explain his change of heart, we can only assume that at some point between 2009 and 2011 bilateral cooperation became a zero-sum game and the Russian Federation degenerated into the “evil empire” of 1983…
Woolsey paints a picture in which Iran “continues to expand the scale, reach and sophistication of its ballistic missile forces, many of which are inherently capable of carrying a nuclear payload.” While Iran’s missile development programs are a concern, Woolsey misrepresents intelligence reports about how quickly an Iranian ICBM threat is likely to develop. According to Greg Thielmann, a former State Department intelligence official:
“[Woolsey] realizes that the ‘most-likely’ timeline for emergence of an Iranian ICBM continues to slip. He has consequently set aside this inconvenient truth in trying to make his case against the administration’s missile defense policies, which are actually structured to adapt to changes in the threat.”
An accurate understanding of the geopolitical context surrounding European missile defense demands a reassessment not only of Iranian nuclear technology, but also our own. According to Yousaf Butt, a physicist in the High-Energy Astrophysics Division at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, current U.S. missile-defense interceptors can be hoodwinked by simple tactics and readily available technology like inflatable balloon decoys or stormy weather. The harsh reality is that European long-range missile defense remains unproven at best against long-range threats armed with simple decoys or countermeasures.
Despite Woolsey’s opposition, cooperative missile defense efforts with Russia have bipartisan support in Congress, which appears poised to voice its support for the administration’s plans. The FY 2011 Defense Authorization Act, which passed the Senate and House by unanimous consent last December, contains a Sense of Congress on missile defense that includes the following:
“(3) to support the efforts of the United States Government and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to pursue cooperation with the Russian Federation on ballistic missile defense relative to Iranian missile threats.”
In addition, the FY 2012 defense bill written by the Senate Armed Services Committee last week,
“expresses the Sense of Congress in support of efforts of the United States to pursue missile defense cooperation with Russia that would enhance the security of the United States, its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies, and Russia, in a manner that is reciprocal and does not limit U.S. missile defense capabilities. The provision also requires the President to submit a report on the status of efforts to agree on such cooperation, including steps to safeguard classified U.S. information.”
Although discussions between the U.S. and Russia on missile defense have stumbled as of late, cooperation on early warning data would represent a promising leap beyond the traditional geopolitical paradigm of mutual deterrence and potentially open new backchannels in Russian-American strategic relations – a hope that President Reagan first articulated in 1986 at the historic Reykjavik summit.
Woolsey’s misinformed critique seems determined to conjure nightmares about Iranian ICBM capabilities, while ignoring the valuable benefits of U.S. and Russian cooperation on missile defense to combat the Iranian threat. Such cooperation offers a rare and valuable opportunity to improve and strengthen the U.S.-Russia relationship.