U.S., Russia, Iran: A Possible Deal on Missile Defense

11 MINS READFeb 16, 2009 | 23:54 GMT
U.S. Navy via Getty Images
The United States appears to be reconsidering its commitment to building ballistic missile defense (BMD) sites in Central Europe. The move, if it is real, has the potential to open doors for Russian cooperation on Afghanistan and Iranian cooperation on the nuclear issue — all without necessarily undermining U.S. BMD capabilities very much in real terms. The big losers, however, are the Central European states who would rather see U.S. troops stationed on their soil.
The Obama administration has begun sending public signals that it might be willing to make concessions on proposed U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, in the framework of a possible agreement with Russia and Iran. U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns said Feb. 13 that Washington is "open to the possibility of new forms of cooperation in the field of missile defense," according to an Interfax news agency report. Burns added that the U.S. government would look at the possibility of a new configuration for BMD in Europe that would involve Russian resources and would slow down U.S. BMD plans, in return for Russian cooperation in dissuading Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Burns' comments followed a Feb. 10 press conference in which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — standing next to a very uncomfortable Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg — said Washington "will reconsider where we stand on the issue of ballistic missile defense" should Iran change course on nuclear development. Though such moves already have been discussed privately between Washington and Moscow, these public statements linking BMD and Iran provide a potential way for the United States to untangle the knot of U.S.-Iranian-Russian relations. Originally introduced during the Reagan administration under the moniker of "Star Wars," BMD is designed to intercept ballistic missiles in flight. It is an ambitious technology, often compared to shooting a bullet with another bullet when the gunmen are far enough apart that they cannot even see one another. Its cost reflects that ambition: More than $100 billion has been spent on BMD by the United States alone since the Reagan era. The program's supporters, however, prefer to compare the price tag to what it would cost to recover from a successful strike by a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Countries such as Israel and Japan, who share Washington's concerns about ballistic missiles, have become avid partners of the Pentagon in BMD development. A number of other countries, however, take a dim view of U.S. BMD aspirations. For the countries against which these systems are deployed, the concern is obvious: Iran and North Korea are not particularly fond of seeing years of painstaking missile development made obsolete by the Americans. But there are others who stand to lose even more. Russia in particular is not amused. The proposed U.S. BMD systems in Poland and the Czech Republic are meant to protect the continental United States against missiles launched from the Middle East, not from Russia, but are unnerving for Moscow nonetheless. For Russia, these systems pose a double threat. First, such installations require military personnel to operate them, which would put American boots on the ground in a region of vital interest to Moscow. (Incidentally, this is the same reason the Poles and Czechs are so eager to see the systems go forward.) Second, building these systems would give the United States additional experience that would be useful in one day developing a system that could actually begin to erode the effectiveness of the Russian nuclear deterrent. Click map to enlarge As such, the ongoing U.S. plans for BMD facilities in Europe are perhaps the biggest roadblock to a U.S.-Russian deal on pretty much anything. At the moment, however, Washington needs Moscow's help. The problem is Afghanistan. The new U.S. administration has committed itself to escalating the war in the landlocked country — but its supply lines, which run primarily through Pakistan, are becoming less and less secure. The United States needs a new supply route, and that route must go either through Iran or through Russia's backyard in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Both routes would effectively require Russian acquiescence. No Central Asian government would be willing to cut a separate deal with Washington without Russian assent, given Moscow's power and proximity, and Russia has the power to complicate any U.S.-Iranian negotiations on a potential supply route by offering Tehran advanced military and nuclear technologies that, if delivered, would shift the U.S.-Iranian power balance. This creates a situation in which the U.S. commitment to BMD installations in Europe is ripe for reconsideration. For the Americans, stepping back from BMD could actually induce the Russians to pressure Tehran into making concessions. For the Iranians, the U.S. drawdown in Iraq coupled with limitations on BMD would help make more palatable a possible public deal with the "Great Satan" that could end Iran's pariah status. Meanwhile, if Iran convincingly abandons its nuclear weapons efforts, and if Washington reciprocates by abandoning its Central European BMD efforts, then the biggest monkey wrench in the American-Russian dialogue would disappear. Of course, this calculation does not take into account the complication of North Korean-Iranian cooperation in missile development, or Iran's recent satellite launch. The Iranian Shahab-3 and North Korean Nodong, for example, are essentially the same missile. Given the similarities between satellite launch technology and ICBM technology, these countries' larger satellite launch vehicles — the Iranian Safir Omid and the North Korean Taepodong series — are already thought to translate to a crude ICBM with an estimated 3,750-mile range, and they begin to make ranges on the order of 5,500 miles potentially obtainable. This might make U.S. planners think twice about abandoning BMD in exchange for political concessions from Russia and Iran. BMD is not a single technology, however. A full-fledged national missile defense shield would have multiple layers with multiple technologies — many still only in the development phase. At the moment, the United States fields three operational BMD technologies. (click image to enlarge) The first technology is known as ground-based midcourse defense (GMD). It consists of the installation of fixed, silo-based interceptor missiles that aim to destroy an inbound missile in the midcourse phase near the apogee of its flight. GMD systems must be prepositioned based on the anticipated trajectory of hostile missiles. This was the first BMD system to be fielded operationally after the end of the Cold War. Currently, the United States has GMD systems at Fort Greely in Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California to counter potential North Korean launches. The proposed systems in Poland and the Czech Republic would also be GMD installations. The second technology is the Aegis/Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) system. This is a sea-based system designed to strike at a missile in the ascent or decent phase of its flight before and after apogee, but the system cannot achieve the same altitude as the GMD interceptors. The SM-3 is mounted in the same vertical launch tubes of modified Aegis-equipped guided missile cruisers and destroyers as its predecessor, the SM-2. Though the SM-3 is limited to positions accessible from the sea, its mobility makes it much more versatile. The SM-3 was proven operationally in 2008 when it was used to destroy a falling satellite. The U.S. Navy has upgraded three Ticonderoga-class cruisers and 15 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers with a BMD capability. Almost all of them are stationed in the Pacific to deal not only with Chinese and North Korean ballistic missiles, but also with a new threat from Chinese ballistic anti-ship missiles. However, the Navy is now moving to add the capability to more Atlantic-based warships. A third technology is the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3), a ground-mobile system. The PAC-3 is a terminal-phase system. It is placed near potential targets and is considered a last line of defense — but with the goal being that long-range missiles never get that far. The only U.S. BMD facilities under serious dispute are the Central European GMD locations. And the controversy is rooted not in Russian discomfort with BMD per se, but in Moscow's concerns over U.S. military encroachment on the Russian periphery — especially in Poland. The Alaskan GMD interceptors, emplaced years ago during a time of Russian weakness when there was little Moscow could do to resist, have more (though still limited) relevance to the deliverability of the Russian deterrent than do the Central European sites. Most Russian ICBMs are based in the western part of the country and would have to travel over Greenland and the North Pole to reach the United States. It is true that Russia is not happy about GMD interceptors in Alaska, nor about U.S. warships suddenly sporting BMD capabilities. But there is little Russia can do about U.S. BMD efforts on sovereign U.S. territory and on the high seas. With the Central European BMD sites out of the equation, the United States would still retain other BMD options and could continue development, something Russia cannot and has not attempted to halt; the Russians would keep American boots out of Poland; and even Iran could interpret a bit of a win. Meanwhile, the states that lose the most if Washington backs off from BMD are those that used to fall under Soviet sway, but are now new or aspiring members of Western institutions. The most vulnerable of these are Poland, Georgia and the Baltic states, but they are not alone. Other issues would still need to come into play, of course. Russia likely would still insist on renegotiating some core post-Cold War treaties in order to cling to some semblance of American-Russian strategic parity in weapons systems, while Iran would want guarantees of influence in Iraq and the wider Middle East. But all in all, having Washington step back from BMD in Central Europe seems almost too neat of a solution. Almost. The pickle is the issue of U.S.-Russian strategic parity. Russia's conventional military is still in relatively poor shape, and expansion of operational capabilities and effectiveness will continue to progress slowly over the years. Until then, Russia's only reliable defense strategy is its nuclear deterrent. The 21st century thus far has seen the U.S. military bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan without the spare capacity to respond on the ground to Russian aggression — as was made abundantly clear by Russia's 2008 invasion of Georgia. This window of opportunity for Russian maneuvering is gradually closing, however, and Moscow has only a limited amount of time to lock down control over its periphery before Washington has a dozen brigade combat teams without a scheduled deployment. For Moscow, the fight over Central European BMD is about evicting the United States — and having the rest of the states on Russia's periphery see Moscow as the power behind the eviction. At the core, it is a move to establish an understanding about U.S. respect for Russia's sphere of influence. If Moscow can secure both its periphery and a strategic arms treaty with Washington, U.S.-Russian strategic parity would be re-established (at least on paper), and Russia would once again have some semblance of a geographic buffer in Europe. This is critical because, in the years to come, as the United States withdraws from Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington will actually have the troops available to deploy to places like the Baltics, Poland or Georgia. Russia wants a firm agreement on U.S. respect for a Russian sphere of influence in order to prevent that from happening. Now that the U.S. administration is starting to talk publicly about potentially revising its BMD plans, the Russians are cautiously reciprocating. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted by RIA Novosti news agency on Feb. 13 as saying that transit via Russia of nonmilitary cargo for U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan could start within days. Evidently, negotiations are moving. It still remains to be seen, however, whether the United States is willing to meet Russia's other demands — particularly regarding NATO expansion for Georgia and Ukraine — in return for transit to Afghanistan and potential cooperation over Iran. An upcoming NATO summit in Poland likely will reveal just how far Washington is willing to go.

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