Missile Defense in Europe and US-Russia Nuclear Negotiations

Originally published here.

I call upon the scientific community in our country, those who gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents now to the cause of mankind and world peace: to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.

– President Ronald W. Reagan, speaking about his Strategic Defense Initiative, March 23, 1983

Over the past three decades, one of the United States’ biggest national defense challenges — both technologically and politically — has come in the form of ballistic missile defense. Technologically, we have evolved to the point where we have multiple types of missile defense systems, some of which are more effective than others. Travis Sharp at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation summarizes what works and what doesn’t, in his recommendations for Congressional action:

For FY 2010, Congress should continue its pattern of fully supporting those missile defense systems that demonstrate technological progress in rigorous testing programs and protect against realistic near-term threats. Under this criteria, Aegis ballistic missile defense (BMD), the Army’s Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3), the Army’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), and the Navy’s Standard Missle-3 (SM-3) pass muster. These programs protect U.S. troops in the field from theater ballistic missiles, a far more realistic threat than the long-range ICBMs other systems are designed to defeat. Aegis BMD, PAC-3, THAAD, and SM-3 should continue to be developed.


As for the ever controversial GMD [Ground-based Midcourse Defense] system – which is already deployed in Alaska and California – Congress should halt further construction and deployment, particularly in Europe, until the program proves that it can regularly pass realistic flight tests.

(You can read about all of these missile defense systems here.)

Despite any scientific advances we may have made over the years, we have not evolved very far politically when it comes to our stance on missile defense, and relationship with Russia, specifically with respect to the proposed deployment of GMD in Europe.

As you may know, Presidents Obama and Medvedev are in the process of negotiating a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START); I’ve discussed the talks here and here. Medvedev has made it clear how he feels about the proposed missile defense shield:

President Dmitry Medvedev said Friday [July 10, 2009] that Russia will still deploy missiles near Poland if the United States pushes ahead with a missile shield in Eastern Europe.

Medvedev reaffirmed the threat four days after he welcomed Obama to Moscow for a summit aimed at improving troubled ties.


“If we cannot agree on these questions, you know the consequences,” he told a news conference at the Group of Eight nations’ summit in L’Aquila, Italy.

Last week, I had the wonderful opportunity to chat with Lt. General Robert G. Gard, Jr. (USA, ret.) about Russia, the START negotiations, and missile defense. Lt. General Gard is the Chairman of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, and has written many articles on missile defense and other national security issues (click here for a good example).

I asked Gard about the Russians’ reaction to our proposed European missile defense shield. He pointed out that the Russians are alarmed by the combination of the missile defense shield and the US backing for NATO expansion eastward (namely, the addition of Georgia and the Ukraine to NATO), Referring to early post Cold War discussions, he said that “we agreed not to move NATO east if the Soviets would agree to our anchoring a unified Germany in NATO,” and that we have not honored that commitment.

He also reinforced what Travis Sharp said in the excerpt I’ve posted above, specifically that the US should continue to deploy tactical and theater systems, but should hold off on deployment of GMD, because it has not been operationally tested, and essentially “doesn’t work”.

Regarding the START negotiations, I asked Gard about the complex issue of tying the START treaty to missile defense, which is something the Republicans want to do. He said that it has been done before, specifically with the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, which was signed by Nixon and Brezhnev in 1972. The ABM was part of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, and limited strategic missile defense systems. (The Bush administration withdrew from the ABM in 2002.)

So, given that precedent, what can Obama do?

John Isaacs (Executive Director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation) and Travis Sharp recently published an excellent article with the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, on the European missile defense shield and START. Sharp summarizes the basic conclusions here:

The Bargaining Chip: Nixon used the bargaining chip strategy successfully during SALT negotiations. Reagan did not follow suit at Reykjavik, and though he still signed landmark arms control agreements with Gorbachev, his unwillingness to trade away SDI cost him a chance to fulfill his desire to abolish nuclear weapons. Obama, who has made Reagan’s disarmament vision the centerpiece of his nuclear weapons policy, should not repeat Reagan’s mistake.

Under the bargaining chip strategy, the United States would scrap the European missile defense plan in exchange for Russian compromises on other issues of importance. Three arenas where Russian concessions would be helpful to the United States are the START successor agreement, Moscow’s assistance with Iran’s nuclear program, and Russian support for increased international pressure on North Korea.

The Gas Mask: Under the gas mask strategy, the United States would move forward with European missile defense as a joint project with Moscow. The third site would thus become at least a bipartite effort between the United States and Russia, with Czech and/or Polish involvement dependent on both their willingness to participate and Russia’s willingness to involve them. Russia has expressed openness to such a proposal; at a July 2007 summit in Kennebunkport, Maine, Putin offered the possible use of radars based in Russia.

Originally articulated by Reagan, the gas mask strategy utilizes missile defense as the first step toward the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons within a framework where defensive systems (along with conventional deterrence) might act as a gas mask protecting mankind from nuclear madmen and rogue state attacks. Obama might thus revise Reagan’s vision for SDI by making missile defense a partnership not just at the end when the technology was ready, but throughout development, testing, and deployment.

Sharp points out that:

Missile defense in Europe may never succeed technologically, but the gas mask strategy endeavors to make the pursuit a boon to U.S.-Russian relations regardless of its ultimate technical efficacy.

Despite our differences with Russia over missile defense, by all accounts, we are making progress in talks with them regarding the proposed cuts in our respective nuclear arsenals; in fact, the next round of START talks will probably be in early September.

Finally, when it comes to Obama’s vision of eliminating nuclear weapons, Lt. Gen. Gard told me:

I like the Sam Nunn analogy. He said [nuclear disarmament is] like a mountain with a cloud over the top. You can’t see the top, you don’t know if you can get there, but you start up the mountain.

The fact of the matter is I could not come up and tell you how we could verify that some nuclear power didn’t squirrel a few of them away. But, there’s a lot we can do to start walking up that mountain, and hopefully try to get there. I am 100% behind enunciating it as a goal, and Obama was NOT irresponsible, he said ‘this will be very difficult, it’s unlikely to happen even in my lifetime,’. But he said ‘that is the goal of the United States.’

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