Russian Control of U.S. Missile Defenses? Just Say No.

Baker Spring /

According to The Telegraph of London on April 8, Russia is demanding direct operational control of U.S. and allied missile defense systems in negotiations regarding missile defense cooperation.

While the U.S. is right to be seeking Russian cooperation in the area of missile defense—more defensive strategic postures would benefit both the U.S. and Russia in addressing the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the missiles used to deliver them—the U.S. should reject this Russian demand.

The Russian demand defies rational explanation. The missile defense system will serve only one purpose: to intercept and destroy ballistic missiles already launched at a target. In this context, the Russians cannot believe that U.S. and allied operation of a missile defense system will pose a threat to them unless they think they need to threaten both with a nuclear-armed missile attack. If this is the basis of Russian thinking, then this negotiation is about anything but cooperation. Genuine cooperation in the realm of missile defense is not about the possession of capabilities by the U.S., U.S. allies, or Russia; it is about all three parties standing together in the intention to oppose aggression through the use of ballistic missiles by rogue states.

The Russians can be motivated only by either of two desires in demanding direct operational control. The first is to deny the U.S. and its allies the ability to operate a missile defense system for their own protection. The second is for the Russians to operate the system only for their own benefit, effectively expecting the U.S. and its allies to build a missile defense system and turn it over to Russia. Either way, the demand will leave the U.S. and its allies vulnerable to missile attack. Interestingly, there is no evidence that the Russians have made an offer to the U.S. and its allies in these negotiations to allow them operational control over the Russian missile defense system deployed around Moscow.

Fortunately, there is another option for genuine cooperation in the field of missile defense between the U.S. and its allies on the one side and the Russians on the other: to pursue coordinated deployments of missile defense systems to address shared threats. This approach permits each to control the missile defenses in their possession to meet their security needs while also providing all the opportunity for cooperation even where there may be differences of opinion of what constitutes a genuine threat.

The coordinated deployment option would also deny Russia the ability to assert that missile defenses are inherently destabilizing no matter which country possesses a missile defense capability. Russia made just such an assertion by insisting on the inclusion of anti-missile defense language in the preamble to the New START arms control treaty with the U.S., which has just entered into force. Russia, by acknowledging that it has a missile defense capability of its own in the contribution to coordinated deployments for countering shared threats, will no longer be able to assert that missile defenses are destabilizing under all circumstances.

In the course of negotiations on missile defense cooperation, the U.S. and its allies should not buckle to the Russian demand for operational control. If they do, the agreement will only serve to perpetuate U.S. and allied vulnerability to missile attack. In this case, what was supposed to be a negotiation about cooperating in the field of missile defense will become a negotiation over cooperation in restricting missile defense. It will be an agreement that will not serve U.S. or allied interests.