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Next-Gen U.S. Antimissile System Dropped for Domestic Reasons but Russia in the Mix: Ex-Envoy

By Rachel Oswald

Global Security Newswire

A Standard Missile 3 Block 1A takes off from the USS Lake Erie during a Feb. 12 intercept test near Hawaii. The recent U.S. decision to drop plan to develop a more advanced version of the SM-3 interceptor
could positively impact relations with Russia, a retired U.S. ambassador said (AP Photo/Naval Air Systems
Command). A Standard Missile 3 Block 1A takes off from the USS Lake Erie during a Feb. 12 intercept test near Hawaii. The recent U.S. decision to drop plan to develop a more advanced version of the SM-3 interceptor could positively impact relations with Russia, a retired U.S. ambassador said (AP Photo/Naval Air Systems Command).

WASHINGTON – The Pentagon’s intention to drop plans to field next-generation ICBM interceptors in Europe is primarily driven by domestic concerns, but there is almost certainly a secondary calculation aimed at promoting the chances for new nuclear arms reduction talks with Russia, according to one former U.S. diplomat.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s statement on Friday that the decision to not develop the Standard Missile 3 Block 2B interceptor was influenced by a lack of congressional funding meshes with private conversations one-time U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer said he had that day with Obama officials.

“They made clear that the decision was primarily motivated by technical and budget issues,” Pifer, director of the Brookings Institution’s Arms Control Initiative, said in a telephone interview. “They were uncertain that the 2B would be able to achieve the velocity to engage an Iranian ICBM warhead.”

“Having said that, it had to occur to someone that this would remove what the Russians have said over the last couple of years” is their primary objection to U.S. plans for European missile defense, he added.

The United States had planned to field the Block 2B interceptor at some location in Europe around 2022 during the last phase of its “phased adaptive approach” to missile defense. Plans to field weapons against shorter-range missiles remain on track, according to the Defense Department.

Washington has always maintained that the theoretical 2B interceptor would not be fast enough to counter Russian ICBMs. Still, Moscow has been deeply suspicious about the program and has demanded a legally binding agreement from Washington that its antimissile systems in Europe would never target Russian strategic nuclear forces.  The Obama administration has refused to meet this request.

Russia’s continuing complaints have undermined bilateral relations that were improving in the initial part of the first Obama term with the signing of the New START nuclear arms control accord. President Vladimir Putin has said resolving the antimissile dispute would be a prerequisite to any new two-way talks on additional nuclear arsenal reductions sought by the Obama administration.

Government and independent reports in the last year have questioned the technical feasibility of the Block 2B interceptor achieving its principal aim of defeating an ICBM launched by Iran at the mainland United States.

Pifer and other arms control specialists have called for Washington to back off plans to develop and deploy the 2B interceptor if it does not appear Iran is advancing its ability to mount long-range ballistic missile strikes on the United States. Tehran is not presently assessed likely to acquire an ICBM capability before 2016.  

Restraint by Washington could pave the way for a deal with Russia on missile defense, issue watchers argued.

Moscow’s initial reaction to the latest development from the Pentagon, though, has been cool.

"This is not a concession to Russia and we do not see it as such,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said. “We will continue a dialogue and seek the signing of legally binding agreements that all elements of the U.S. missile defense system are not aimed at Russian strategic nuclear forces.”

Pifer said he is not putting too much weight into Ryabkov’s statement. “The Russians may not have had much time to digest” the impact of the shift in U.S. missile defense policy, he said.

Some Republicans saw cancellation of the 2B interceptor as proof that President Obama had in fact struck a back-door agreement with Moscow on missile defense. This suspicion was fueled by accidentally recorded comments Obama gave to then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in March 2012 that he would have more “flexibility” to negotiate a compromise on missile defense following the November presidential election.

“The president clearly has abandoned the shield that the Russians opposed and we're left with the U.S. having greater exposure to North Korea and Iran without any benefit,” asserted Representative Mike Turner (R-Ohio) in an interview with Foreign Policy.

The former chairman of the House Strategic Forces Subcommittee was referring to the Pentagon’s decision to divert funds intended for the 2B missile to an effort to deploy 14 additional ground-based ballistic missile interceptors in Alaska against a feared North Korean ICBM attack.

Turner on Sunday said he would "call for hearings in the Armed Services Committee" into the alleged “secret deal” with Russia.

A statement released by Turner on Friday, however, appeared to give support for the administration’s plan for responding to the North Korean missile threat. “After wasting years and millions of taxpayer dollars, the Obama administration apparently has begun to realize the shortcomings of its missile defense strategy,” the Ohio lawmaker stated.
 

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