The New US Plans for Missile Defense: Enough to Reinvigorate US-Russian Arms Control?

The New US Plans for Missile Defense: Chuck Hagel US Secretary of Defense

Chuck Hagel, US Secretary of Defense, WikiMedia Commons

Nikolai Sokov
Miles Pomper
March 19, 2013

The Obama administration’s March 15 decision to abandon development of a controversial missile defense interceptor that had angered Moscow had, for a moment, renewed hopes in Washington for a new round of US-Russia arms control negotiations. However, lingering Russian technical and political concerns about the nature and direction of the revised US missile defense plans mean that this optimism may be misplaced.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced the decision to abandon the so-called “Block IIB” interceptor as part of an overall restructuring of the missile defense program. He cited development problems with the interceptor and the need to direct limited funds to focus specifically against the North Korean threat.

The Fourth Phase of Missile Defense

These interceptors, intended to protect the United States against a potential Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), were to be based in Poland and possibly Romania, and were to be deployed early in the next decade.

This fourth phase of missile defense was to replace the Bush-era plans for high-speed interceptors with radars based in the Czech Republic, a proposed deployment pattern that Russia believed was oriented more toward their missiles rather than Iranian ones. Obama’s plans for slower interceptors, more suited for Iran’s medium-range missiles, were initially welcomed by Russia.

Still, Russia had continued to express concern that Obama’s fourth phase would feature a new missile defense interceptor, the SM-3 Block IIB, which Russia said would be capable of targeting its ICBMS as well. It continued to argue that the US should agree to legal limits on the scale and locations of the planned interceptors in order to make sure the overall capability of the defense system would remain limited and not affect the Russian deterrence capability vis-à-vis the United States. The Obama administration, under pressure from Republicans in Congress determined to avoid such limits, had refused to concede to the Russian demand. At the same time, the United States insists that the interceptors do not threaten Russia.

Over the last year, Russia’s objections to the Polish deployment won technical support from US experts, including a 2012 report from the National Research Council. That report concluded that an interceptor deployed in Poland would have to be so fast to intercept a future Iranian ICBM that it could also threaten Russian missiles. Instead, the report argued for the deployment of a third missile defense site in the Eastern United States to counter the Iranian threat, along with existing North Korea-oriented sites in Alaska and California. Congress had also passed legislation calling for studying such a third US site. In his remarks, Hagel announced that, following Congress’s direction, the administration would be conducting environmental impact studies of three potential sites—two on the East Coast and one on the West Coast—but had not yet decided whether such a site was needed.

Continued Concerns

Yet the new configuration does not seem to have significantly eased Russian concerns. In an interview with Kommersant daily, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, the key official in Moscow in charge of arms control portfolio, gave a predictably cool, if not negative, assessment of the new US plan for missile defense. (1) “All features of the US and NATO missile defense system, which make the strategic situation unpredictable, remain in place,” he said. “Accordingly, our concerns remain in place, too.” The new configuration of the system, explained Ryabkov, can still undermine the strategic deterrence capability of Russia. Moreover, even without the fourth phase, interceptors deployed on Aegis ships around Europe could still be quickly (in a matter of a few days, he said) moved to areas from where they can intercept Russian missiles. “We will continue a dialogue,” concluded Ryabkov, “and seek legally-binding agreements to ensure that all elements of the US missile defense system does not have a capability vis-à-vis strategic nuclear forces.”

The largely negative Russian reaction stands in sharp contrast to American expectations that the cancellation of the planned interceptor could signal a new start for the US-Russian dialogue on nuclear arms control. The Russian reaction was, however, predictable and, one is tempted to say, the manner in which the revision of earlier plans was introduced may have even made the atmosphere somewhat worse.

The central concern for Russia throughout the latest stages of the missile defense saga (that is, since at least the late 1990s) was the development of assets capable of intercepting Russian strategic missiles. It does not matter where exactly these assets would be deployed. During the George W. Bush period, it was about the “third site” in Poland; under Barack Obama, it was about SM-3 Block II interceptors that could be deployed not only in Poland, but also on Aegis ships and quickly moved to the north of Russia to be in the path of Russian missiles.

In this sense, the scuttling of the Block-II interceptors and possible relocation of the main site(s) from Europe to the United States does not change much in the equation, from the Russian perspective. One crucial question concerns the speed of the interceptors. While the current “Block I” interceptors on Aegis ships are viewed as too slow to threaten the Russian arsenal, Russia and some independent US analysts still have concerns about US plans to continue with third phase Block II-A interceptors. These missiles, initially aimed at countering medium- and intermediate-range missiles threatening Europe, would be slower and with a less capable kill vehicle than the cancelled Block II-B interceptors. Yet, one report by US experts indicated that they might well still be sufficiently fast to engage Russian ICBMs—particularly if based in or near the United States, given the longer decision time such basing would permit.

It is also worth recalling that a computer simulation, which the Russian Ministry of Defense unveiled in May 2012 in Moscow to demonstrate the negative impact of US missile defense plans on strategic stability, featured, in addition to the European component, interceptors deployed in Alaska and California.

Making Matters Worse?

The manner in which the revision of missile defense plans was announced may also have exacerbated Russian concerns. While Russians have always admitted that the official plans, whether Bush’s “third site” or Obama’s Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA), would not necessarily undermine Russia’s deterrence capability, they equally consistently expressed concern that the number of interceptors could be quickly increased to the level that would adversely affect the strategic relationship. Russian insistence on legally binding limits on the future missile defense system has been—and still is—intended to enhance the predictability of the US capability.

The decision to couple the news on the European deployment with an increase in the number of interceptors in Alaska by almost 50 percent may have been necessary, in addition to broader strategic reasons, for Obama to counter concerns among congressional Republicans that he is insufficiently committed to missile defense. Not consulting before the announcement with Moscow may have helped avoid criticism that he was “selling out” allies to curry favor with Moscow. Yet the fact that the announcements were made without prior consultations with Russia will likely be regarded in Moscow as an ominous confirmation that the current limited plans are little but a foot in the door. Hence, insistence on legally-binding limits will not only continue (as Ryabkov’s statement suggests), but will probably grow stronger.

The chairman of the State Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Aleksei Pushkov, declared that “the American side showed their arguments (about European missile defense system) were false and far fetched” in the first place and also hinted that little had changed: to alleviate Moscow’s concerns, he said, Russia should be “in the anti- missile system, not outside it.” (2)

Those outside official channels offered a split verdict.

Igor Korotchenko, a well-known defense analyst closely associated with the Defense Ministry, insisted that “US strategic goals remain the same—achieving absolute invulnerability under the protection of a missile defense umbrella.” The decision to deploy addition interceptors in Alaska, he said, meant that “Obama returns to the policy of his predecessor, George W. Bush.” (3) A day earlier, he admitted that “Russia understands that the United States needs a national missile defense system,” but still insisted that “the Russian position on European missile defense will remain the same” and that “neither Putin nor the chief of staff (of the Russian Armed F) have any illusions about the US plans.” (4)

On the other hand, independent political expert Georgy Bovt said the plan to scrap the final phase of the missile defense shield could “lower the temperature” in US-Russian relations, but that it does not represent a solution. (5)

Director of the Institute for USA and Canada Studies Sergey Rogov offered probably the most optimistic assessment. He wrote that, although, the revision of missile defense plans was not made in response to Russian concerns, it nonetheless represented “a new window of opportunity” that could help usher in “serious negotiations” leading to “compromise agreements that account for security interests of both parties and strengthen strategic stability.” (6) Lt.-Gen.(Ret.) Yevgeni Buzhinski, currently with PIR Center in Moscow, sounded even somewhat more optimistic: he opined that President Obama took Russian concerns into account and the new initiative represented “a continuation of policy of stabilizing relations” with Russia. (7)

Tentative Opportunities

In contrast to the announcement of the PAA in September 2009, which alleviated some Russian concerns, the new revision of the missile defense plans has apparently failed to impress the Russians. This does not mean that the path to some sort of compromise on missile defense, which should reopen an opportunity for a new deal on reducing nuclear weapons, is impossible.

In the end, experts in Moscow, both inside and outside the government, realize that the future US missile defense program won’t represents a threat to the Russian deterrence any time soon—at best, the critical juncture will be about ten years from now—if ever. The urgency that Russian official statements seek to convey is often intended for public consumption both inside and outside Russia. If the Russian government decides it needs an agreement, it could still seriously consider a compromise of a limited duration—a “muddling through” scenario instead of a single big coup that fully resolves the issue. It appears that the more cautious Russian observers, who see a potential window of opportunity, may be right. A bigger question is whether Moscow is interested: missile defense is far from the only issue on the agenda and it might be unwilling to make that concession without matching concessions in other areas—not just missile defense, but also such issues as Prompt Global Strike, for example. Following the reelection of Barack Obama, many experts in Moscow have begun to hint that now, with the election over, the parties could return once again to serious discussions unmarred by fleeting political pressures. It remains to be seen whether there is enough political will on both sides to translate these tentative opportunities into action.


(1) Kirill Belyaninov, Elena Chernenko, “SShA Mrnyayut Propisku PRO,” Kommersant-Daily, March 18, 2013; “Pozitsiya RF po EvroPRO Ne Izmenitsya iz-za Otkaza SShA ot Chasti Programmy,” RIA Novosti, March 18, 2013,
(2) U.S. Awaits Russian Response to Delaying Missile Shield, Bloomberg, March 17, 2013
(3) “Otkaz SShA ot Razmeshcheniya Raket v Pol’she:Otzenki Ekspertov Raznyatsya,” RIA-Novosti, March 18, 2013,
(4) Alesander Bratersky, “US Scraps Missile Defense Opposed by Kremlin,” Moscow Times, March 17, 2013.
(5) Ibid.
(6) Sergey Rogov, “Barack Obama Proyavil Gibkost po PRO,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 18, 2013
(7) “Otkaz SShA ot Razmeshcheniya Raket v Pol’she:Otzenki Ekspertov Raznyatsya,” RIA-Novosti, March 18, 2013,

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