Why Russia won’t deal on NATO missile defense
President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin are expected to discuss missile defense, their thorniest bilateral problem, at the G8 summit in Ireland on June 17 and 18. Previous talks between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have floundered over the alliance’s refusal to give Moscow legal guarantees that the system would not undermine Russian nuclear forces.
But the diplomatic dance around missile defense cooperation has always been like Kabuki theater — with officials playing out their designated roles. There is only the illusion of real engagement.
Thirty years after President Ronald Reagan’s famous “Star Wars” speech, Washington is still light years away from developing technology capable of distinguishing missile decoys from real warheads. Yet the United States is again talking about this expensive missile defense program as a viable system.
To allay Moscow’s concerns, Washington has invited Russia to participate in the defensive system, helping NATO guard against Iran. But Moscow is unlikely to cooperate on a flawed system against a threat it doesn’t see as imminent.
So during this conference at Lough Erne Resort in Northern Ireland expect to see more luncheons, talks and coffee breaks. But don’t expect anything of military significance to happen. Which is for the best.
Missile defense cooperation between NATO and Russia could produce serious blowback. An alienated China may build up its nuclear arms, and create a domino effect — with both India and Pakistan shoring up their nuclear arsenals in response.
The irony of the entire charade is that the NATO system is known to have serious technological flaws and has never been scientifically tested. Why would Russia want to cooperate on an expensive system that does not work — especially against a threat from Iran and North Korea, which Russia discounts?
The defensive system is designed to intercept enemy warheads in the “midcourse” phase — after launch and before reentry — several hundred kilometers up in space. The big problem, however, is that such a system can be easily short-circuited and rendered toothless.
The CIA’s top specialist in strategic nuclear programs attested to this in 2000. North Korea and Iran, he explained, “probably would rely…on readily available technology to develop penetration aids and countermeasures.” He continued, “These countries could develop countermeasures based on these technologies by the time they flight-test their missiles.”
Nothing has changed this calculus over the last decade. In fact, no dark technical secrets are needed to defeat the missile defense program.
The easiest countermeasures are still cheap inflatable balloon decoys, like the shiny ones at children’s birthday parties. Because the missile defense interceptors are designed to strike warheads during midcourse — in the vacuum of space — these balloons and any warheads would be traveling together, making it impossible to tell the decoys apart from the real thing.
An enemy bent on launching a missile attack against the United States could just inflate many balloons near the warhead. This would confuse the defense system, swamping it with fake signals. If the defensive system cannot discriminate between a warhead and the many decoys, it won’t work.
The new director of the Missile Defense Agency, Vice Admiral James Syring, cited this key problem during House Armed Services Subcommittee hearings last month. Syring talked about “the very difficult problems of lethal object discrimination, limited inventory and cost per kill.”
He explained that the defense system is both costly and ineffective. If the missile interceptors can’t discriminate between the lethal object — the warhead — and the decoys, then limited (and costly) inventory is used up chasing fakes.
The Pentagon’s director of operational test and evaluation, Michael Gilmore, reaffirmed this challenge. “If we can’t discriminate what the real threatening objects are,” Gilmore said, “it doesn’t matter how many ground-based interceptors we have, we won’t be able to hit what needs to be hit.”
Missile defense, the scientists point out, is “predicated on the ability to discriminate” real warheads from other targets, “such as rocket bodies, miscellaneous hardware and intentional countermeasures.”
If “the defense should find itself in a situation where it is shooting at missile junk or decoys, the impact on the regional interceptor inventory would be dramatic and devastating!”
So NATO’s interceptor inventory would be exhausted in chasing decoy warheads. For the system still has this fundamental architectural flaw.
How did an untested and unworkable technology make it so far in the Defense Department procurement process? A recent Government Accountability Office report reveals that instead of flying before buying, the Missile Defense Agency has been doing the opposite. Its cart-before-the-horse methodology has resulted in “unexpected cost increases, schedule delays, test problems, and performance shortfalls.”
The agency’s “tests” are more like rigged “demonstrations.” The intercept team knows all the incoming missile’s parameters ahead of time — a luxury it won’t have during a real attack. Even with this, however, many “demonstrations” ended in dismal failure.
So, the question is: If Iran or North Korea could so easily circumvent this vaunted missile defense system, why are the Russians (and Chinese) so up in arms against it?
The answer is simple: Russian and Chinese military planners — like those at the Pentagon — are paid to be paranoid. They must assume the worst-case scenario. Which, in this case, means they must treat a missile system as being highly effective — even when it isn’t.
Russian and Chinese analysts might also be worried about the potential for a major expansion in defensive missile arsenals; technical changes in the systems (such as nuclear-tipped interceptors); and the diversity and scale of sensor systems that are being brought online to support the system.
But the Russians have political as well as scientific concerns. The House Republicans, in particular, are creating diplomatic problems.
Representative Michael Turner (R-Ohio), former chairman of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, and other House Republican leaders have said that if the Obama administration hands over to Moscow technical data on the missile defense interceptors — as the White House has proposed — then this could persuade Moscow that the system is not targeting Russian missiles.
So while the administration has insisted it doesn’t intend to target Russia, the House Armed Services Committee leadership appears nostalgic for the Cold War — and wants to use the system against the Russians. Is it any wonder Moscow remains skeptical?
These worries about the capability and intentions behind the defensive system are beginning to give Moscow cold feet about its arms reduction commitments. The Russian articles of ratification to the New START arms reduction treaty allow Moscow to withdraw if there is deployment by the “United States of America, another state, or a group of states of a missile defense system capable of significantly reducing the effectiveness of the Russian Federation’s strategic nuclear forces.”
The Chinese, because of their smaller nuclear arsenal, have also been concerned about the expanding ship-based missile defense system. They fear it may be used to neutralize some of their deterrent forces. The bipartisan Strategic Posture Commission pointed out, “China may already be increasing the size of its ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] force in response to its assessment of the U.S. missile defense program.”
These stockpile increases will likely pressure India, and, in turn, Pakistan to also ramp up their nuclear weapon arsenals.
Again, the House Armed Services Committee leaders are fanning the flames. With Beijing in mind, these lawmakers are seeking to prohibit Washington from removing missile defenses from Asia — even if the threat posed by a nuclear-armed North Korea is eliminated.
So Russian and Chinese fears that the U.S. missile defense system has been developed to counter their strategic arsenals are being legitimized by these congressional legislators’ actions and statements.
What should we expect if — by some miracle — Russia and NATO reach an agreement on missile defense cooperation? Aside from being a waste of Russian taxpayers’ money, it is almost certain that China would react with alarm to such a development. As the bipartisan Strategic Posture Commission suggested, China would likely increase its nuclear arsenal at an accelerated pace.
Missile defense strengthens the hands of over-cautious, misinformed, opportunistic or hawkish elements within the Iranian and North Korean political and military establishments — as well as hardliners in Moscow and Beijing.
This interplay between unknown future capabilities and intentions, as well as domestic pressures for Moscow and Beijing to respond to NATO missile defenses would likely increase military expenditures and nuclear deployment.
So the central conundrum of midcourse missile defense remains that while it creates incentives for U.S. adversaries and competitors to increase their nuclear stockpiles, it offers no credible protection for the United States or its allies. Instead of focusing on this system, if Washington genuinely wants to achieve some new diplomatic breakthrough during the G8 meeting in Northern Ireland, it could focus on realistic mutual threats: For example, a U.S.-Russian plan to address the real threat from asteroids. Cooperating on this could indeed bring about rapprochement and goodwill.
Many in the policy community — even those who favor arms control — are advocating for Russia-NATO missile defense cooperation. But why should we expect Moscow to play nice and cooperate on an expensive and dysfunctional system?
Instead of indulging in this Kabuki theater, chasing the chimera of cooperation that is unlikely to happen — and could be disastrous if it did — Moscow and Washington should reaffirm that they will pare down their bloated nuclear arsenals unilaterally — regardless of how the flawed NATO missile defense plan develops.
PHOTO (Insert A): U.S. officials announce test prototype weapon that could lay the groundwork for a national missile defense system. Oct. 3, 1999. REUTERS/Archive
PHOTO (Insert B): Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu watch a parade on Moscow’s Red Square, May 9, 2013.REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin
PHOTO (Insert C): United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket successfully launches the Space Tracking and Surveillance System Advanced Technology Risk Reduction mission for the Missile Defense Agency at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, May 5, 2009. REUTERS/United Launch Alliance/Carleton Bailie/Handout
PHOTO (Insert D): Representative Michael Turner (R-Ohio)
PHOTO (Insert E): Ground-based Interceptor breaks cloud cover, shortly after launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, Sept. 1, 2006.REUTERS/Defense Department/Handout