Russia and the United States should cooperate on missile defense

The militarization of space is the real issue in the current missile defense debate. The radar in the Czech Republic and the interceptors in Poland may be primarily intended for building up US capacities to destroy any objects that the Americans see as posing a threat to them in space.

President Vladimir Putin’s proposal to President George W. Bush at the G8 summit in Germany – to use the Gabala radar station in a system of defense against future Iranian missile attacks – has been effectively rejected by Washington. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov straight out that construction of American missile defense bases in Europe will go ahead. This has given many Russian politicians and generals a new pretext to assert that the US missile defense elements are primarily intended to destroy the Russian Federation’s strategic nuclear forces. But is this really the case?

Strange as it may seem, the Americans were caught by surprise when Russia made its counter-offer: joint construction of a European missile defense system, incorporating the early warning radar station in Azerbaijan. This is strange because the option of using Russia’s potential capacities in missile defense system architecture has long been discussed at the level of Russian and American experts.

Assuming that a nuclear missile threat from Iran might be real, the optimal version of a missile defense system ought to include elements that make it possible to shoot down Iranian missiles at the most vulnerable stage of their trajectory: straight after launch, during acceleration. This is what Russia’s proposal is aiming at. If the true purpose of the American missile defense plan in Europe is to neutralize an Iranian nuclear missile threat, it would be impossible for the Americans to reject this proposal. Moreover, this would also cast doubt on the expediency of installing missile defense elements in the Czech Republic and Poland.

At present, the radar in Azerbaijan certainly isn’t suited to providing data for missile defense interceptors. It was built and has functioned as part of an early warning network, with the capacity to detect targets at an early stage across almost all the area south of Russia’s borders. But it would be entirely feasible to expand this radar’s capabilities, or use it in conjunction with fire-control systems for missile defense interceptors (Russian S-300 and S-400 systems, American Patriots).

Nevertheless, America’s response followed almost immediately, after a brief confused pause: American missile defense elements must be deployed in Europe, no matter what.

Why are the Americans taking this stance? Is the potential threat from Iran so great that they must build a multi-level missile defense system at once, with the ability to shoot down targets at any stage of their trajectory? This doesn’t seem likely.

Might the true purpose be to gradually build up missile defense capacities intended to counter a Russian nuclear missile threat? That is doubtful. Even as part of a large missile defense system, the potential capacities of ten anti-missiles based in Poland are too small to justify so much controversy right now.

In this situation, it may be worthwhile to take a look at the new American space policy concept, adopted last year.

First of all, we should note that a unique situation is developing in outer space. For the United States, space is becoming increasingly significant. Global economic interests in a globalizing world require global real-time management. Such management requires detailed monitoring all over the planet, including orbit, along with timely decision-making and organized implementation of decisions. These capabilities can only be provided by space, and most of the demand for these capabilities comes from the private sector. In recent years, American corporations, rather than state and the Pentagon, have taken the lead in investing in the development of space programs. But business always requires defense; in this case, defense for space systems.

The Pentagon also has substantial interests in space. Contrary to what many people imagine, these interests do not focus on building “Star Wars” systems and firing weapons from space at ground targets (although funding for such weaponry is continuing, to some extent). The US Defense Department’s priority is the information component of space-based systems, most of which are paid for by civilian companies. Plans for transforming the US Armed Forces are based on using the information potential of space-based systems.

The Global Information Network is supposed to make it possible to implement the idea of network warfare. Note that the Reagan-era Star Wars program enabled the United States to make its first breakthrough in the field of information dominance: establishing the Internet, a global open network. The second breakthrough can be discerned in the creation of another global network, a “closed space-based Internet” that not only opens up the prospect of global information dominance, but also makes it possible to achieve a qualitative leap in Armed Forces development.

Thus, the interests of the leading investors in space programs coincide with the interests of the military in ensuring security in space. At the same time, the number of participants in space activities is growing. More and more states are launching their own satellites. This fact in itself makes it necessary to take additional security measures – not to mention China’s demonstration of its capacity to destroy satellites.

The true purpose of American missile defense elements in Europe isn’t about countering a nuclear missile threat from Iran, or any malicious intentions on Washington’s part to deliver a sudden decapitating strike against Russia. The radar in the Czech Republic and the interceptors in Poland may be primarily intended for building up US capacities to destroy any objects that the Americans see as posing a threat to them in space. President Putin’s proposal for using the radar in Azerbaijan would be good for repelling a potential threat from Iran, but it wouldn’t be at all useful for ensuring the security of US interests in orbit – and that’s why the Americans have no intention of abandoning their existing plans.

Is there any possibility of a compromise on the implementation of American plans for missile defense elements in Europe?

Yes, there is – especially since Russia also has an interest in neutralizing potential missile threats and security in outer space. In other words, the solution lies in seeking an option for building and managing a missile defense system that is acceptable to both Russia and the United States. In that case, one of the basic elements of a missile defense system that includes Russia should be the proposed Russian-American missile attack early warning information exchange center in Moscow – but only if its capacities are expanded. This center would receive the first data from the radar in Azerbaijan, the radar in the Czech Republic, and data on the use of interceptor missiles in Poland.

All these options would require work, but they are feasible. The most important thing is to ensure that military paranoia and the forces that only want to see the United States as an enemy should not prevail in Russia, and to ensure that the United States learns to consider not only its own interests, but also the interests of those whom it calls partners.