SAN FRANCISCO — In spite of mutual mistrust and national security concerns, the United States and the Soviet Union began conducting joint space exploration projects in the 1970s, paving the way for decades of cooperation that has provided both nations with economic and political rewards. The same type of approach that transformed U.S.-Soviet space competition into cooperation should serve as a template for a U.S.-Russian missile defense alliance, according to Kevin Ryan, a retired U.S. Army brigadier general and executive director for research at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and Simon Saradzhyan, a Belfer Center fellow.

“The realities of today preclude a truly joint missile defense system, but even separate systems can be combined at some level to provide a better overall defense against threats that have either materialized or will become real in the near future,” Ryan and Saradzhyan assert in “Vital Interdependence,” an opinion piece published June 24 in the journal “Russia in Global Affairs.”

While they do not discount the significant obstacles the two sides face in laying the groundwork for missile defense cooperation, including the daunting task of determining a common goal, Ryan and Saradzhyan suggest that Moscow and Washington set their sights on “building systems capable of deterring and defending against current and future ballistic missile threats.” As James Cartwright, retired U.S. Marines Corps general and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, points out in the report “Modernizing U.S. Nuclear Strategy, Force Structure and Posture” published in May by the nuclear policy group Global Zero, “The risk of nuclear confrontation between the United States and either Russia or China belongs to the past, not the future, while nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism present real and growing risks whose prevention or defeat demands global cooperation among the former adversaries.”

Missile defense experts agreed that U.S.-Russian space programs could serve as a useful example of how the two sides can move forward, but said political roadblocks stand in the way of cooperation. “The model is applicable provided that the two sides can manage to resolve their current political differences,” said Tom Collina, research director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association. “The problem is they can’t get beyond their political differences.”

The United States and its NATO allies have invited Russia to participate in building a ballistic missile defense network in Europe, but U.S. officials have refused the terms Russia seeks: giving Russia joint control over the system and pledging not to use it to target Russian missiles. In 2010, when U.S. President Barack Obama was seeking Senate support for a Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty, he sent a letter to the Senate, promising not to agree to any limits on the development or deployment of U.S. missile defense programs, a concession sought by Senate Republicans.

That impasse is likely to remain until the U.S. presidential election in November, as Obama told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in a comment overheard by U.S. and Russian reporters when the two men did not realize their microphones were on. “After my election I will have more flexibility,” Obama told Medvedev in March during the nuclear security summit in Seoul, South Korea. If Obama fails to win re-election, Russia and NATO are less likely to forge a new missile defense pact, missile defense experts said. “A [Mitt] Romney administration would be much less open to finding a way forward,” Collina said. If Obama is re-elected, however, “there will be greater hopes that the two sides can reach a compromise over whether and what assurances Russia should be given that the European Phased Adaptive Approach and Active Layer Threat Ballistic Missile Defense won’t undermine Russia’s second strike potential,” Saradzhyan said in an interview.

If Russian and U.S. officials do contemplate missile defense cooperation, Ryan and Saradzhyan suggest five concrete steps, beginning with identifying common goals, even if that means setting aside discussion of individual nations that may one day pose a threat. Even that limited step may be impossible because U.S. and Russian leaders are not interested in creating the same type of missile defense system, said Pavel Podvig of Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. “For the United States, missile defense is an element of a broader strategy of power projection,” Podvig said by email. “For Russia, missile, air and space defense programs are there to deal with the threat of a U.S. strike (possibly conventional) that would target Russia’s strategic forces and threaten its nuclear retaliatory capability.”

If that hurdle can be cleared, Washington and Moscow should assign agencies to lead missile defense talks, according to Ryan and Saradzhyan. For the United States, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is the obvious choice, but Russia has no equivalent organization. “Russia should consider designating a counterpart to MDA as it did in the case of space exploration,” they add.

During the early years of U.S.-Soviet space collaboration, NASA officials interacted with the Soviet Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Space Studies, an organization given that role by the Soviet Ministry of Defense and Ministry of General Machine-Building. Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s action in 1992 to establish the Russian Space Agency “greatly facilitated cooperation,” Ryan and Saradzhyan wrote. For missile defense talks, the Kremlin might task Russia’s Aerospace Defense Forces to negotiate with MDA. “Designating a military entity to represent Russia to MDA and the civilian leadership of the [U.S.] Defense Department is important, given the decisive voice that the Russian General

Staff has in Russia’s policy on missile defense,” they added.

Once agencies are in place, Russia and the United States should establish a comprehensive legal framework for cooperation, including plans for continuous data sharing, exchange of liaison officers, joint exercises aimed at detecting and intercepting missiles, and designing cooperative missile defenses. “The United States and NATO have already committed to many of these ideas, but incorporating them into a legal agreement would go at least part way to meeting Russia’s demand for more reliability than non-binding ‘political statements’ provide,” Ryan and Saradzhyan wrote. “The agreement could also reaffirm that ‘NATO missile defense is not directed against Russia and will not undermine Russia’s strategic deterrence capabilities’ as stated in the alliance’s Chicago Summit Declaration of May 2012.”

In their article, Ryan and Saradzhyan also called on U.S. and Russian leaders to sign the Ballistic Missile Defense Cooperation Agreement, a pact the two parties discussed in 2009 and 2010 but never signed. That agreement would pave the way for data exchange regarding missile defense technologies including interceptor propulsion systems and would help to assuage Russian concerns about U.S. capabilities, they added.

Finally, Ryan and Saradzhyan suggested U.S and Russian officials investigate how much money each nation could save by sharing missile defense activities. A key selling point of U.S.-Russian space cooperation has been its cost savings: the two nations share in the multibillion-dollar expense of building and maintaining the international space station as well as providing transportation for astronauts and cargo. “If, as recommended by [retired U.S. Air Force general and former U.S. National Security Advisor] Brent Scowcroft, the U.S. can loosen its export control regimes and, if Russia’s entrance into the World Trade Organization can solidify its financial transparency and reliability, then businesses will be able to find areas for cooperation while still protecting trade and industrial secrets,” Ryan and Saradzhyan wrote. Russia is scheduled to become a member of the World Trade Organization in August.

One of the first steps in developing complementary missile defense systems would be information sharing, something both nations have discussed extensively, Saradzhyan said. Even that initial step would face opposition. Rep. Michael Turner, chairman of the U.S. House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, issued a statement in March opposing any plans to share data on U.S. missile defense system capabilities with Russian officials. In addition, U.S. agencies may be reluctant to rely on data provided by Russian radars. U.S. Strategic Command does not even like to rely on information on space debris provided by the Space Data Association [a nonprofit association of satellite operators], said Victoria Samson, Washington office director for the Secure World Foundation. “And that data isn’t classified,” she added.



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Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...