The Impact of Missile Defense Cuts on U.S.-Russian Relations

4 MINS READMar 19, 2013 | 10:15 GMT
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks at the Pentagon on March 15
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks at the Pentagon on March 15

The United States appears to be scaling back its ballistic missile shield efforts in Central Europe. On March 15, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that the United States would cancel the fourth phase of its European Phased Adaptive Approach missile defense plan and "restructure" the Standard Missile-3 Block IIB program — a highly advanced interceptor expected to shield against intercontinental ballistic missiles. Essentially, Hagel was announcing that development of the interceptor, a central component part of the fourth phase, would be scrapped.

There are several possible reasons for the move, most notably U.S. hopes for a thaw in tensions with Russia, which fiercely opposes the entire missile defense plan. Washington needs Moscow to cooperate on a range of issues, and talks between the two countries have stalled in recent months. But while the decision to scrap the fourth phase of the plan could lead to progress in negotiations, the move will not assuage all of Russia's concerns about the U.S. missile shield in Europe. Various disputes will remain unresolved between Washington and Moscow and continue to preclude a long-elusive comprehensive reset in U.S.-Russian relations.

Washington's European Phased Adaptive Approach involves incremental increases in ballistic missile defense systems on the Continent. The original plan called for deployment of shorter- and medium-range interceptors in the first three phases and longer-range interceptors in the fourth phase. The first phase, which involved radar stations in Turkey and ship-based missile defense systems in the Mediterranean, has already been implemented. During the second and third phases, more-advanced interceptors capable of targeting short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles would be deployed to Romania by 2015 and Poland by 2018. In the fourth phase, the longer-range SM-3 Block IIB missiles would be deployed in Romania and Poland around 2022.


Compared to its predecessors in the Standard Missile-3 line, the SM-3 Block IIB would have enhanced seeking capabilities and a more powerful booster, allowing it to reach speeds of 5.5 kilometers per second (about 3.4 miles per second). In coordination with enhanced space-based sensors, the interceptors would provide unprecedented protection against intercontinental ballistic missiles. This is why the SM-3 Block IIB faced fierce opposition from Russia, which sees the interceptor as a possible threat to its own strategic nuclear missile arsenal.


A Fragile Opening

U.S. defense officials insist that the cancellation of the missile defense plan's final phase had nothing to do with Russia but was rather motivated by technological and budgetary factors. Indeed, the system has long been seen as an ambitious and costly undertaking. In 2011, for example, the U.S. Defense Science Board stated that the SM-3 Block IIB's mission would require a "Herculean effort [that] is not realistically achievable, even under the most optimistic set of deployment, sensor capability, and missile technology assumptions." In an era of defense budget cuts, funding for the risky program became harder to justify. But regardless of Washington's exact reasons for the changes, they address at least some of Russia's concerns over the U.S. missile defense plans.

The White House would like to continue to reduce the stockpiles of nuclear weapons in Russia and the United States beyond the limits imposed by the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which places a ceiling on the number of deployed delivery systems and strategic warheads possessed by each country. To achieve this, the White House needs Russian participation in order to withstand opposition to the treaty from national security hawks in Congress. Washington also wants Russian cooperation in a number of other issues, including the Iranian nuclear program and the conflict in Syria. The United States also needs to secure access to the Northern Distribution Network, the primary logistical route into Afghanistan, which will be critical to the U.S. withdrawal over the next two years.

Remaining Issues

Still, if the missile defense changes have created an opening for improvements in U.S.-Russian relations, it is fragile at best. Initial Russian reactions to the U.S. announcement have been less than optimistic. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, for example, said the move was not a concession, and Russia still objects to the parts of the overall plan that remain.

Moreover, the United States may decide to focus on a different intercontinental ballistic missile defense system that would still provoke objections from the Russians. On March 15, for example, Hagel also announced plans to deploy 14 additional ground-based interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska, — missiles theoretically capable of defending against intercontinental ballistic missiles, although the program's development and deployment have been marred by numerous failed tests. The apparent demise of the SM-3 Block IIB could also lead to the deployment of additional missile defense systems along the U.S. East Coast.

The United States will also have to contend with increasing unease from its European allies in NATO over the scaled-back plan. Hagel said that the U.S. commitment to defending Europe remains ironclad, and other U.S. officials have been quick to emphasize that the first three phases of the European Phased Adaptive Approach remain in place and on track to cover all European NATO members by 2018. Critically, the first three phases of the plan involve the continued deployment of U.S. forces in Poland and Romania, thereby alleviating key concerns among Central and Eastern European states about a possible rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. The U.S. military presence in Poland and Romania will continue to be an obstacle in U.S.-Russian relations.

Relations between Moscow and Washington have become strained in recent years due to clashes over a number of issues, such as Syria, trade restrictions and adoption bans — not to mention ballistic missile defense. Notably, no significant agreements were reached when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in December 2012 or when Lavrov met with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in February. So while the changes to the U.S. missile defense plan address a key issue for Russia, they do not resolve all of Moscow's concerns — especially those related to developments in missile defense technology or the continued stationing of U.S. forces in Russia's near abroad.

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