NATO leaders and then-President Medvedev agreed in November 2010 to seek to develop a cooperative NATO-Russia missile defense.  Over the past two years, however, the sides have been unable to agree upon a formula for such an arrangement, and missile defense is becoming a contentious issue on the U.S.-Russia and NATO-Russia agendas.  It is in the sides’ interest to find a mutually acceptable solution.  This piece suggests the elements of such a compromise.

It is difficult to see how Washington, Moscow or NATO would benefit from missile defense remaining a problem issue.  Among other things, that could pose an obstacle to further U.S.-Russian nuclear arms reductions below New START levels.  It could interfere with other types of cooperation.   Agreement on a NATO-Russia cooperative missile defense arrangement, on the other hand, could remove this problem.  It would provide a better missile defense of Europe, including European Russia.  It would make NATO and Russia allies in protecting Europe, which could prove a “game-changer” in altering lingering Cold War attitudes in both Russia and NATO member-states. 

Experts from the Pentagon and Russian Defense Ministry reportedly held productive exchanges in early 2011 regarding what a cooperative missile defense arrangement would entail.  They discussed transparency, joint exercises and two jointly manned missile defense centers:  a data fusion center, and a planning and operations center.

Progress slowed in spring 2011, when Russia took the position that it required a “legal guarantee” that U.S. missile defenses would not be directed against Russian strategic forces.  The Russian concern has an understandable basis in principle:  if U.S. missile defenses continue to grow in numbers and quality, at some future point they could undermine the balance in strategic offensive forces between Russia and the United States.  But it is difficult to see that happening in the next decade or two.  An optimistic projection of the maximum number of ground-based interceptors and Standard Missile (SM-3) Bloc IIB interceptors, which will have some capability against intercontinental ballistic missiles, would be at most 100 in 2023.  That number would pose little real threat to the hundreds of warheads on Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, to say nothing of the decoys and other countermeasure carried by those missiles.

Even if the Obama administration were prepared to negotiate a legal guarantee, there is no possibility of securing the two-thirds majority in the Senate needed for consent to ratification of a treaty.  Indeed, one quite possibly could design a treaty of ten years’ duration that would constrain missile defenses in a way that would reassure Moscow that there was no threat to Russian strategic missiles and allow Washington to do all that it wants and plans over the next decade to defend the United States against limited ballistic missile attack from countries such as Iran and North Korea.  But, for a certain segment of the Senate, missile defense has become a theological issue, and that treaty would have zero chance of ratification.  The Obama administration has instead offered a political commitment not to direct U.S. missile defenses against Russian strategic missiles.

Elements of a Future Compromise

If Moscow is prepared to move off of its requirement for a legal guarantee, and Washington and NATO are prepared to show some greater transparency and flexibility in their approach, one can see the elements of a compromise that would allow agreement on a cooperative NATO-Russia missile defense arrangement.

Developing Ideas Already Discussed.  The United States/NATO and Russia should develop the ideas already discussed for a cooperative missile defense.  They apparently agree that each would retain independent control over its radars and other sensors and over a decision to launch its interceptor missiles.  That makes sense.  Given that a decision to launch an interceptor missile would need to be made in minutes, there would be no time for consultation between NATO and Russia regarding a launch decision.

The sides should define and agree on the kinds of transparency that each is willing to provide regarding its current and planned future missile defense capabilities.  Transparency is important, as it will provide the other side information on which to make a judgment as to whether or not there is a threat to its strategic ballistic missiles.  In this context, the United States should describe more fully how it would operationalize the offer made by Missile Defense Agency Director O’Reilly in 2011 to allow Russian experts to observe SM-3 tests and clarify that this offer would apply to tests of the SM-3 Bloc IIA and Bloc IIB, the SM-3 variants of greatest concern to the Russian military.

The sides should agree on arrangements for regular joint NATO-Russia missile defense exercises.  This should not be difficult, as NATO and Russia have conducted joint missile defense exercises for a number of years.

The sides should agree on the details of a jointly manned data fusion center.  That center would combine warning and tracking data provided by U.S., NATO and Russian radars and other sensors to create a “common operational picture” of the missile defense environment around Europe.  The center would then transmit that enhanced picture to the NATO and Russian missile defense command centers, where the authority to launch missile interceptors would reside.

A jointly manned planning and operations center could take on a number of tasks.  It could provide the venue in which to conduct transparency exchanges and discuss possible ballistic missile threats and attack scenarios against Europe.  The sides might also at this center consult on plans for intercepting attacking ballistic missiles, including rules of engagement.  It would be particularly useful to discuss procedures for coordinating intercepts in areas of overlapping coverage by NATO and Russia missile interceptors.  At a minimum, NATO and Russia would want to ensure that, if they both launched interceptor missiles against an attacking ballistic missile warhead, the interceptors engaged the attacking warhead, not each other.

Legal or Political Commitment.  Moscow should agree to drop its demand for a legal guarantee that U.S. missile defenses would not be directed against Russian strategic missiles.  As noted above, it would have no chance of ratification in the Senate.  Instead, the United States should provide Russia a political commitment, in written form and signed at the highest level, that U.S. missile defenses would not be directed against Russian strategic forces.  For its part, NATO would make a parallel, written political commitment, building on the language in its May 2012 communiqué.

Adapting the U.S./NATO Approach.  The United States and NATO could introduce three additions or modifications to their current approach to missile defense and missile defense cooperation.

First, the United States should commit to provide Russia an annual declaration regarding U.S. missile defense capabilities and future plans.  The declaration would specify for each key element of U.S. missile defenses—including, at least, ground-based interceptors (GBIs), SM-3 interceptors (broken down by Bloc IA, Bloc IB, Bloc IIA and Bloc IIB), GBI launchers, SM-3 land launchers, associated radars and warships equipped to carry SM-3 interceptors—the current number and the planned maximum number for each year in the coming ten years.  For example, the line in the notification for the SM-3 Block IB would read as follows:*

pifer table 1 

The United States would further commit to provide Russia advance notice of any change in its planned maximum numbers.  For example, for changes in the planned maximum numbers of SM-3s, it could be 18-24 months’ advance notice, as it appears to take about two years from the time a decision to purchase an SM-3 is made for the contract to be concluded and for the interceptor to be built and delivered to the military.  For changes in the planned maximum number of warships, the advance notice would be longer.

Russia is also developing its missile defense capabilities.  It would be useful for Russia to provide the United States parallel declarations regarding its current capabilities and future missile defense plans.

Second, NATO should modify its current position, which appears to be that any cooperative defense with Russia would in no way change NATO missile defense deployment plans.  The Alliance should instead indicate a readiness to consider Russian-proposed changes, provided that those changes do not degrade the ability of NATO missile defenses to defend NATO territory.  For example, under this approach, NATO would be willing to consider a Russian proposal that SM-3 interceptors to be deployed in Poland be relocated from the planned site on the Baltic coast to a military base in southwest Poland if those interceptors could provide essentially the same protection for NATO members from the new site, in particular, for the Baltic states and Norway.

Third, the U.S. government should state unambiguously that, were it to become evident that Iran was not making progress toward having an intercontinental ballistic missile capability, the United States would defer deployment in Europe of the SM-3 Bloc IIB interceptor.  That would be entirely consistent with the concept of the “European phased adaptive approach”—if the Iranian ICBM threat does not materialize, there would be no need to deploy a defense in Europe to counter it.

Why a Compromise?

The approach described above would build upon and operationalize NATO-Russia missile defense cooperation along lines that have already largely been discussed by U.S. and Russian military experts.  Moscow would drop its requirement for a legal guarantee, accepting instead political commitments from Washington and NATO.  The United States and NATO would introduce a greater degree of transparency and flexibility into their approach to missile defense.

This compromise would not provide the limits and predictability that a legally-binding treaty that capped interceptor numbers, velocities and locations would.  As noted, it would be impossible to gain Senate approval for such a treaty, at least with the present Senate.  But this compromise would respond to Russian concerns in two important ways.

First, the annual declarations would provide the Russian military a very full and regularly updated picture of U.S. missile defense capabilities and future plans.  The Russian military could compare those capabilities and plans with its current and projected strategic ballistic missile forces.  That would allow the General Staff and Ministry of Defense to determine whether there was, or in the future would be, a serious threat to Russian strategic missiles and to the U.S.-Russian strategic offensive balance (with a parallel Russian declaration, the U.S. military could make its own determination).

Second, although this arrangement would not legally constrain missile defenses, each side would always have the option, if it chose, to make a unilateral statement in response to the other’s declaration.  That statement could include how it might react were the other side to increase its numbers beyond the planned maximum numbers contained in a declaration.  For example, Russia might state that, were the United States to increase the number of SM-3 Bloc IIB interceptors beyond the planned maximum number indicated for a certain year, it could consider the strategic offensive balance endangered and might take corresponding measures.  Such corresponding measures could include withdrawal from the New START Treaty or a from a successor treaty that further reduced nuclear arms.  Moscow could, if it wished for political purposes, portray that as something of a de facto limit.  At the least, a Russian statement would indicate to Washington that there could be consequences if U.S. missile defenses increased beyond the declared number.

Washington could—and most likely would—deny that there was a basis for Russian concern.  However, as was the case with the April 2010 Russian unilateral statement regarding missile defenses and the New START Treaty, the United States could not prevent Russia from making the unilateral statement or from taking actions, including exercising its right to withdraw from a treaty limiting strategic offensive nuclear forces, if Russia chose to do so.

This approach, moreover, would not forever preclude the possibility that Russia might return to a requirement for a legal guarantee, including for limits on the numbers and velocities of interceptor missiles.  Such a requirement might be understandable in a future world in which the gap between the number of deployed strategic ballistic missile warheads and the number of missile interceptors capable of engaging strategic ballistic missile warheads was not so large as it is today or is likely to be over the next 10-15 years.  But that is a question for the future.

This approach offers a middle ground for U.S./NATO-Russian agreement on a cooperative missile defense arrangement.  It is possible that Moscow did not want to engage on missile defense in 2012 in part because the U.S. approach to missile defense and missile defense cooperation might have changed radically if a Republican with very different ideas on missile defense became president in 2013.  It is now clear that Barack Obama will remain in the White House for the next four years.  It is now time to resolve differences over missile defense.  The elements of a compromise for a cooperative NATO-Russia missile defense arrangement are evident.  The question is whether the sides have the political will to reach that compromise.

* Numbers from Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) Program:   Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, December 2011.