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Commentary | 17 April 2013

Obama’s missile defence flexibility: What could, and should, it mean?

Image of Ivanka Barzashka

Ivanka Barzashka |Research Associate, Centre for Science and Security Studies, King's College London

Defence Deterrence Nuclear Arms Control Nuclear Weapons Russia Russia-West Relations United States Euro-Atlantic Security

In his 2013 State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama said the United States should “strengthen [its] own missile defense” and “engage Russia to seek further reductions in their own nuclear arsenals” well below the New START treaty’s limits, which the Pentagon agrees are too high.(1) But the Russians believe that NATO can’t have it both ways or, as they would say, can’t have the wolf well fed while keeping the sheep safe. Last year, Russian Deputy Minister of Defence Sergei Ryabkov said “talks on nuclear arms reductions cannot continue without taking into account a number of factors that influence strategic stability,” such as missile defence, and stressed that “further steps in the field […] must be multilateral” – an idea also reflected in Russia’s new foreign policy concept.(2)

President Obama claimed he would have “more flexibility” during his second term to resolve the missile defence stand-off.(3) In March, Washington cancelled the deployment of the faster SM-3 Block IIB interceptors in Poland – the fourth phase of the planned European Phased Adaptive Approach, which President Medvedev had previously said would mark the beginning of a “new arms race” if deployed in 2020.(4) Instead, the United States is now strengthening its capability against future Iranian and North Korean longer-range missiles by placing additional interceptors in Alaska and considering building new missile defence sites on its East coast.

However, architecture changes alone are unlikely to produce the much-needed breakthrough in US-Russian relations. According to Moscow, “[all] aspects of strategic uncertainty” remain , as its objections extend beyond Phase 4.(5) In fact, some changes to interceptor deployments may appear more threatening to Russia.(6) As both sides resume missile defence talks this month, what else could, and should, US flexibility mean? There are at least six possibilities:


1. Follow through on proposals for political assurances

NATO adopted a declaration at the 2012 Chicago summit that it’s “missile defense in Europe will not undermine strategic stability […,] is not directed against Russia […,] will not undermine Russia’s strategic deterrence capabilities [… and] is intended to defend against potential threats emanating from outside the Euro-Atlantic area.”(7) Washington has offered to issue a, possibly similar, politically-binding statement. Russia’s insistence for a formal treaty to spell this out is a nonstarter due to Republican opposition in Congress, but executive presidential agreements on arms control have a precedent.(8) Reciprocal declarations of missile defence capabilities and future plans have therefore been suggested as an additional way to help build confidence,(9) but as such would not be verifiable and would not provide the enforceable guarantees Moscow wants. So why not also use an executive order to invite the Russians to look around US missile defence sites to confirm numbers of launchers? The State Department has already offered Russia the opportunity to observe missile defence flight tests;(10) and this would allow the Russians to confirm interceptor speeds. Since the United States signed but later abrogated the ABM Treaty, so a formal political promise for substantive cooperation and transparency, including a technical verification system, might convince Moscow to withdraw its treaty pre-condition.


2. Acknowledge the connection between offensive and defensive systems

As in the preamble of the New START treaty,(11) a political statement could also acknowledge the connection between missile defence and nuclear forces, which is the core of Russian concerns. The Obama administration is saying that the missile defence system is not aimed at Russia, but Moscow’s worries are not unfounded. No one believes that the NATO system today presents a threat to Russia. The fundamental difference between US and Russian positions is whether future NATO defences could present a threat to future Russian nuclear forces. Russian officials believe they have demonstrated legitimate “technical-military” concerns, but Washington says the Russians have got their math wrong, and most Western analysts claim Moscow’s objections are political or psychological.(12) (Many outside technical experts also doubt that the system today could be effective even against a novice like Iran.(13) These differences determine the kinds of solutions both sides see as acceptable.

Of course, plans can change as politics change. In 2009, the Obama administration overhauled the Bush missile defence programme and is now again changing the system’s architecture. Republicans opposed the link between offenses and defences in the New START treaty, criticised Obama’s early cuts in missile defence funding, object to sharing data with Russia and support a more comprehensive defence system (perhaps even putting interceptors in space).(14) Some GOP hardliners don’t understand why the US would not want to build a system that “renders the [Russian nuclear] threat useless”.(15)

There is no question that there is an interrelationship between defences and nuclear offenses, and that a defensive system would be perceived differently by the attacker and the defender. US defence analysts have long thought about the instabilities that could be created by defences with evolving capability.(16) – this is not just Russian fantasy. It might be Cold War thinking, but today the main reason for the thousands of US nuclear weapons still remains Russia’s large nuclear arsenal. Just as Russian military planners fear US defences, their US counterparts may one day fear Russia’s. Therefore, we should forge an agreement now to forestall problems later.


3. Connect deployments more obviously to threats

Obama’s official policy is that defences will be “flexible to adjust as threats change”.(17) US officials have been crystal clear that they require a hedge against potential future developments and “cannot and would not accept limitations” to the system’s capability.(18) However, the administration could also emphasise that if Iran does not make progress toward longer-range missiles and nuclear weapons, there would be no need for deploying faster interceptors in Europe. This may also bolster much needed Russian support for non-proliferation efforts against Iran. Washington cancelled Phase 4 because it was not technically feasible, not because the Iranian threat was reduced. SM-3 Block IIA deployments in Poland under Phase 3 are still on track and the US is considering new sites on its East coast, but such plans could, and perhaps should, be delayed or withdrawn if the Iranian longer range threat does not develop.

Russia has already concluded joint threat assessments with the US in 2011 and NATO in 2010. (19) Washington has proposed a joint assessment of the system’s capability against Russia and emerging ballistic missile threats.Making this a regular activity could also help show that missile defence developments and deployments square with their public aim.


4. Pursue substantive technical cooperative programmes with Russia through NATO

NATO may have options for working with Russia that the US does not have alone. The Alliance has proposed a Data Fusion Centre and a joint Planning Operations Centre, joint threat assessments and theatre missile defence exercises – and some progress has already been made.(20) Several international track two efforts have backed these initiatives.(21) Independent analysts have advanced various proposals, including joint development of an early-warning radar or satellite, sharing test data and integrating Russian technology in a NATO system.(22)

However, we’re still a long way from putting these ideas into practice. Washington has proposed resuming NATO-Russia missile defense exercises to test out various concepts of operations. So far, NATO-Russia exercises have only included computer simulations of hypothetical scenarios – there has been no integration or exchange of real situational awareness data. The US Congress has opposed sharing classified data with Russia,(23) so substantive technical cooperation, even with two independent systems, may face serious political challenges.

Cooperative programmes could build trust and increase the effectiveness of defences, so some may be worth pursuing. For example, Russian radars could provide additional time for NATO interceptors to attempt multiple consecutive engagements. Other initiatives might have high costs without adding much value. To be sure, cooperative options without technical substance and a clear benefit to both sides are unlikely to yield political benefits.


5. Consider whether incentivising Russian development of missile defences is a good thing

Cooperation assumes that the Russians would have something to contribute to NATO defences. Moscow has already announced plans to develop, what it calls, aerospace defence – a “new complex system” integrating ground, sea, air and space assets that is not simply an upgrade of its existing early warning system.(24) The United States should consider whether incentivising Russia to move in this direction is a good thing. Such developments could potentially undermine the United States’ nuclear deterrent as it moves down to lower numbers of weapons or those at of its smaller nuclear allies, the United Kingdom and France, and, consequently, may hinder the deeper nuclear reductions President Obama says he wants to bring about.


6. Do not rule out further architecture changes

Cooperative programs could potentially increase the effectiveness of NATO and Russian defences, but alone may not be able to provide the guarantees Moscow wants. Modifications to NATO plans could, in principle, address Russian technical concerns and boost capability. The US Government Accountability Office reported in February 2013 that the Missile Defense Agency “did not conduct a formal analysis of alternatives” for the now cancelled SM-3 Block IIB programme.(25) This shows that various architecture options should be assessed and not ruled out from the start. Some alternative proposals have been made, such as replacing the EPAA’s Phase 3 and 4 with a forward active defence capability.(26) Additionally, NATO could consider deploying faster interceptors on land and slower interceptors at sea to increase predictability and, therefore, bolster strategic stability.

It may seem that there is plenty of time to find an accommodation. But by 2017 the United States may have a Republican president and with missile defence being somewhat of a “litmus test of loyalty to the Reagan legacy”,(27) any kind of rational compromise would certainly be more difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. Moscow may see this as its last chance to get binding assurances and perhaps try to compel the Obama administration with further countermeasures.(28) If no agreement is reached, Obama’s vision for a nuclear weapon’s free world may end up further away than it is today.


1. “Remarks by the President in the State of the Union Address.” The White House, February 12, 2013.; “Key Facts About the New START Treaty,” The White House, March 26, 2010.; Smith, R. Jeffrey. “Obama Administration Embraces Major New Nuclear Weapons Cut.” The Center for Public Integrity, February 8, 2013.

2. “Russia Cites Nuke-Curb Dialogue Considerations.” Global Security Newswire. November 9, 2012.; “Moscow Looking for NATO Cooperation, Missile Defense Guarantees.” Russia Today, February 19, 2013, sec. Russian politics.

3. Obama Open Mic Slip: “After My Election I Have More Flexibility.” Russia Today. Global Nuclear Security Summit, South Korea: YouTube, 2012.

4. Hagel, Chuck. Missile Defense. Department of Defense. Washington DC: C-Span Video Library, 2013.; Medvedev, Dmitry. “News Conference Following the G8 Summit.” President of Russia, March 27, 2011.

5. “Moscow Unimpressed by Changes in US Missile Defense Plans.” RIA Novosti, March 18, 2013.; Barzashka, Ivanka. “Technical Concerns: Why Russia Worries About Missile Defense.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 14, 2012.

6. Butt, Yousaf, and Theodore Postol. Upsetting the Reset: The Technical Basis of Russian Concern Over NATO Missile Defense. FAS Special Report. Federation of American Scientists, September 2011.

7. “Chicago Summit Declaration.” North Atlantic Council, May 20, 2012. htm?mode=pressrelease.

8. “Russia Wants Missile Defense Guarantees – Putin.” RIA Novosti, June 2, 2012.; Corin, Eli. “Presidential Nuclear Initiatives: An Alternative Paradigm for Arms Control.” Nuclear Threat Initiative, March 1, 2014.

9. Pifer, Steven. Missile Defense in Europe: Cooperation or Contention? Brookings Institution, May 2012.

10. Creedon, Madelyn. “Missile Defense Cooperation Is the New Way Forward.” Kommersant Newspaper, May 16, 2012.

11. “Treaty Between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms,” April 8, 2010.

12. Barzashka, Ivanka. “Technical Concerns: Why Russia Worries About Missile Defense.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 14, 2012.; Creedon, Madelyn. “U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense.” presented at the Russian Ministry of Defense Conference on Missile Defense, Moscow, Russia, May 3, 2012.

13. Podvig, Pavel. “The False Promise of Missile Defense.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September 14, 2009.; Lewis, George, and Theodore Postol. “A Flawed and Dangerous U.S. Missile Defense Plan.” Arms Control Today, May 2010.; Butt, Yousaf. “Billions for Missile Defense, Not a Dime for Common Sense.” Foreign Policy, June 10, 2011.

14. Sheridan, Mary Beth. “Obama Faces Fight over Missile Defense as He Presses New START Ratification.” Washington Post, December 12, 2010.; Turner, Michael. “Turner: Proposed Missile Defense Cuts Reflect Obama’s Naivete.” Roll Call, April 26, 2012.; Kasperowicz, Pete. “House Votes to Prevent Obama Sharing Defense Data with Russia.” The Hill, July 19, 2012.; Schneidmiller, Chris. “Missile Defense Priorities Would Shift Under Romney.” Global Security Newswire, September 4, 2012.; Spring, Baker, and Michaela Dodge. “3-Step Plan for U.S. Missile Defense System.” The Heritage Foundation, November 1, 2011.

15. Baker, Peter. “A Defender for a Defense the U.S. Doesn’t Want.” The New York Times, May 19, 2010.

16. Oelrich, Ivan, and Jerome Bracken. A Comparison and Analysis of Strategic Defense Transition Stability Models. IDA Paper. Institute for Defense Analyses, December 1988.

17. “Ballistic Missile Defense Review Report.” Department of Defense, February 2010.

18. Tauscher, Ellen. “Missile Defense: Road to Cooperation.” presented at the Russian Ministry of Defense Missile Defense Conference, Moscow, Russia, May 3, 2012.; Tauscher, Ellen. “Missile Defense Conference.” presented at the RUSI Missile Defense Conference, London, United Kingdom, May 30, 2012.

19. “Fact Sheet: U.S.-Russia Agreements and Joint Statements.” The White House, May 26, 2011.; “NATO’s Relations with Russia.” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, June 22, 2012.

20. Vershbow, Alexander. “NATO’s Vision for Missile Defense Cooperation with Russia.” presented at the Russian Ministry of Defense Missile Defense Conference, Moscow, Russia, May 3, 2012. opinions_86832.htm?selectedLocale=en; Barzashka, Ivanka, Timur Kadyshev, Goetz Neuneck, and Ivan Oelrich. “Bridging the Missile Defense Gap.” The International Herald Tribune, May 18, 2012.

21. Albright, Madeleine, Strobe Talbott, Igor Ivanov, and Aleksander Dynkin. Next Steps on U.S.-Russian Nuclear Negotiations and Nuclear Non-Proliferation. Brookings Institution and Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Russian Academy of Sciences, June 23, 2010. 10_nonproliferation_albright_talbott.pdf; Recommendations of the Sustainable Partnership with Russia (SuPR) Group. The Russian Center for Policy Studies (PIR Center), March 10, 2011.; Missile Defense: Toward a New Paradigm. Euro-Atlantic Security Initiative Working Group Paper. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 3, 2012.; Russia-NATO Joint Missile Defense: Implementing the Decision. Round-table. EastWest Institute, March 30, 2011.; Priorities for Russia-U.S. Relations: A Statement by Former Ambassadors to Washington and Moscow. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 12, 2013.

22. Barzashka, Ivanka, Timur Kadyshev, Goetz Neuneck, and Ivan Oelrich. “How to Avoid a New Arms Race.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July 25, 2011.; Wilkening, Dean. “Cooperating With Russia on Missile Defense: A New Proposal.” Arms Control Today, March 2012.

23. Kasperowicz, Pete. “House Votes to Prevent Obama Sharing Defense Data with Russia.” The Hill, July 19, 2012. 

24. Commander of the Aerospace Defense Forces. “Establishing Aerospace Defense Forces of the Russian Federation – the Appropriate Response to Emerging Threats to the Russian Federation.” presented at the Ministry of Defense Missile Defense Conference, Moscow, Russia, May 2, 2012.,d.cGE.

25. Standard Missile-3 Block IIB Analysis of Alternatives. National Defense. US Government Accountability Office, February 11, 2013.

26. Postol, Theodore. “The Forward Active Defense: A Proposal Aimed at Addressing the Security Concerns of Russia and the US.” presented at the Conference on Anti-Ballistic Missile Defense, Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, Moscow, Russia, May 2, 2012.

27. Korb, Lawrence. “Republicans, Missile Defense, and the Reagan Legacy.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 25, 2008.

28. “Russia Warns of ‘Technical Response’ to NATO Missile Plans.” RIA Novosti, October 18, 2012. 


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.