WASHINGTON -- The Russian military has "legitimate" concerns that its strategic nuclear deterrent might be hampered by the U.S. plan to erect a missile shield in and around Europe, a pair of technical experts said on Wednesday (see GSN, June 8).
Those worries -- including the scope of the program that could include deployment of hundreds of missile interceptors -- could lead to action by Russian political leaders, the observers said.
"I think a lot of questions are going to be raised by Russian military planners and those questions will inevitably filter up to high-level political decision-makers who don't have to believe or share those concerns to feel pressured to react to them," said former Defense Department official Theodore Postol.
Any reluctance by Kremlin officials to oppose U.S. plans could leave them open to domestic accusations that "they are not willing to do what needs to be done to defend their country," he added during a round-table discussion at the Federation of American Scientists.
The Obama administration in 2009 announced it would replace a Bush-era program for long-range missile defenses in Europe with a "phased adaptive approach" that would deploy sea- and land-based interceptors around the continent as a hedge against missiles launched from the Middle East.
The first configuration will include sea-based Aegis antimissile systems and the Standard Missile 3 Block 1A interceptor, according to a White House fact sheet. The initial component of this phase, the guided missile cruiser USS Monterey, has begun operations around Europe (see GSN, March 2).
Subsequent stages would be put in place through roughly 2020, fielding increasingly advanced versions of the SM-3 system that would first counter short- and medium-range threats, with later interceptors capable of eliminating intermediate-range missiles and ICBMs.
The U.S. system is to be folded into a larger NATO initiative to hook up and augment individual member nations' antimissile capabilities.
The Kremlin has for years said it considers U.S. and NATO antimissile initiatives a threat to its nuclear arsenal. Brussels and Moscow in November 2010 agreed to consider areas for possible missile defense collaboration, but talks have appeared to achieve little progress (see related GSN story, today).
A key sticking point is Russia's demand for a legal guarantee that its nuclear weapons would not be targeted by NATO missile interceptors. Moscow also wants a single protective shield, while the alliance favors establishing two distinct systems in which the sides would share data.
Observers to date have seen Russia as opposed to missile defense "mostly because of the geopolitics," as the Bush plan called for installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, within Moscow's perceived sphere of influence, according to Yousaf Butt, a physicist with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. However, the Kremlin has "legitimate" concerns as well, he said during the round-table discussion.
For instance, the size, or "footprint," of the recently implemented approach has raised flags, according to Butt. He cited a recent Congressional Research Service report that found the missile shield would need around 440 interceptors, 43 mobiles platforms and at least two land-based sites to prove effective.
Of greater concern to Russian military officials is the mobility of much of the envisioned architecture, he said. Though existing plans call for sea-based Aegis antimissile systems to be located in the North Sea and the Mediterranean, they could be moved elsewhere with a change in administrations or if new tensions develop in different parts of the world, Butt warned.
Postol, a longtime critic of U.S. missile defense efforts, noted the adaptive approach could one day be updated to defend the continental United States against a Russian missile attack, though U.S. officials claim such a configuration would not be used.
"It only takes a decision to say we changed. From the point of view of the military planner that's a problem because [he or she] needs to ... start preparing for the possibility that thing could be converted for another purpose," said Postol, a science, technology and international security professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "You don't watch our potential adversary mass troops at your border and sit there and do nothing. You might not attack, but you might build fences in response."
The missile shield also upsets the "parity" established between the former Cold War rivals by the New START agreement, according to Butt.
The pact, which entered into force in February, demands reductions in each nation's deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550, down from a ceiling of 2,200 set in an earlier agreement. It also caps fielded strategic nuclear delivery systems at 700, with an additional 100 platforms allowed in reserve.
"It's certainly breaking the spirit of New START and it may be breaking the letter" of the agreement if the United States deploys particularly advanced interceptors that could threaten Russia's nuclear forces, Butt said.
The U.S. Missile Defense Agency dismissed those concerns.
"U.S. missile defense technology poses no threat to the Russian strategic deterrent force," MDA spokesman Richard Lehner told Global Security Newswire on Wednesday by e-mail.
Both the United States and NATO have made repeated statements that the phased adaptive approach is designed to block possible missile attacks from the Middle East, most notably Iran. Proponents of the plan note that the number of deployed interceptors would still be dwarfed by Russia's nuclear and missile arsenal.
Postol and Butt suggested one way to ease Russian doubts would be for the United States to explore a speed limit on its interceptor missiles. Moscow floated the idea earlier this week of limiting the interceptor velocity to 3.5 kilometers, or 2.2 miles, per second.
"In English that means they're OK with [SM-3] Block 1 interceptors, but not OK with Block 2 interceptors" that would be deployed in later years and would burn out at 4.5 kilometers per second, Butt explained.
Another solution would be for Washington and Russia to work out restrictions on the placement of U.S. cruisers, he added before noting that the Pentagon is not likely to accept such limitations.
Despite worries in Washington and Moscow, Butt did not rule out cooperation one day among international partners.
"With what we advertised we want to do it will be difficult ... because you're talking about intentions versus capabilities. The system we put on will have a capability to be reconfigured against Russian ICBMs," he said.
"Now you can talk until you're blue in the face about your intentions and transparency but at the end of the day the military planners' going to look there and ask 'What is the capability of this mobile interceptor system?'"