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Missile Defense Beyond New START

By Klaudiusz Brian Magierowski, Transatlantic Security Analyst

Anyone who watched The Day After, the classic Cold War era movie about the aftermath of a full-scale nuclear war, was likely horrified. Certainly, then-President Ronald Reagan was. From that time on, he became an ardent advocate of nuclear disarmament. While his legacy includes two successful nuclear arms reductions treaties, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), it also includes the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) – a missile defense program which formed the basis for subsequent advances in this area.

Now, three decades later, the Obama administration is preparing to kick-start negotiations with Russia on further nuclear force reductions and the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) of U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD). While citing budgetary constraints, the administration has already shelved the final phase of the EPAA in order to facilitate negotiations on these issues and revive the “reset” in U.S.-Russia relations. While this could also open the door to immediate U.S.-Russian cooperation on Iran, North Korea, and/or other issues, it is a riskier proposition in the long-run as nuclear technology continues to proliferate. 

As North Korea threatens the U.S. with a preemptive nuclear strike, Iran is on the verge of attaining the ability to produce a nuclear weapon and could trigger a regional nuclear arms race. Furthermore, a nuclear-armed Pakistan is becoming another sanctuary for the Taliban, just as Afghanistan was before. It is worth reiterating that even one nuclear weapon would inflict devastating losses if detonated above a populous city or at a high altitude; the latter would unleash an electromagnetic pulse that would destroy all unprotected electronics and regress an attacked country’s development by hundreds of years. Deterrence alone may not be reliable enough when dealing with rogue states with unknown, unstable, or radical leadership, because their values and goals may be completely different from those of the West. And there is always the danger of an unauthorized missile launch or nuclear blackmail. Therefore, maximizing the effectiveness of BMD is increasingly crucial.

Unfortunately, the New START Treaty, signed in 2010, forces restrictions on U.S. BMD. The key limitation, articulated in the treaty’s preamble, implies that any Russian strategic arsenal reductions must be accompanied by missile defense reductions. Although the U.S. claims that preambular statements are not legally binding, for Russia the “linkage to missile defense is clearly spelled out […] and is legally binding.” Sensing that nuclear force reductions are a White House priority, the Kremlin, in a unilateral statement, voiced its willingness to exit the treaty if “a build-up in the [U.S.] missile defense system […] would give rise to a threat to the [Russia’s] strategic nuclear force[s].” Russia particularly opposed the fourth phase of the missile defense plan in Europe, when the most sophisticated BMD assets called for under the EPAA would be deployed, and is seeking binding legal guarantees that BMD will not be used against it.

In anticipation of a new round of nuclear arms reduction negotiations, it is worth contrasting President Obama’s commitment to nuclear non-proliferation and the Global Zero movement with his not-so-passionate approach to missile defense. While on the campaign trail, Obama pledged funding cuts for missile defense program and later, once in office, he delivered them. This, combined with the administration’s view of the New START Treaty as a step toward reductions in tactical nuclear weapons, and the Obama’s recent “flexibility” in negotiations with Russia on BMD, suggests that the program is not a White House priority. Instead, Obama intends to address the serious problem of nuclear weapons proliferation by leading the world by example.

On the Russian side, however, Global Zero denuclearization efforts are criticized as “pure propaganda and a romantic idea.” Moreover, Russia’s shifting strategic position vis-à-vis China is increasingly fragile – its economy is based on the export of natural resources, it has a much smaller population that is quickly declining, and its conventional forces are rapidly deteriorating. Moreover, China is believed to possess the ability to drastically build-up its nuclear arsenal. In this situation, Moscow envisages the first use of a limited number of these weapons on the battlefield in a conventional conflict. As a result, Russia is not likely to be as enthusiastic about tactical nuclear weapons reductions. But it is likely to hold out the prospect of reducing its nuclear weapons, including tactical ones, as a bargaining chip in the upcoming negotiations given that these cuts “must be considered in a complex of other problems of arms control, including deployment of a ballistic missile defense system.”

Can the U.S. negotiate both a new nuclear arms reduction agreement and maximize the effectiveness of missile defense with the Kremlin’s blessing? Probably not, since Russia is hostile to the fourth phase of the EPAA and further reductions may not be in the Kremlin’s strategic interest. The Obama administration’s move to suspend the fourth phase may facilitate the negotiation of a new agreement, and could even spur cooperation with Russia on other global security issues. But given the reality of nuclear proliferation, U.S. missile defenses must continue to advance in preparation for strategic surprises that risk harming both it and its allies in Europe and beyond. Rather than flexibility, it may be time for President Obama to show greater firmness, as President Reagan did when negotiating with the Soviets.


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