Survival, August-September 2010
August 12, 2010
by Richard Weitz
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO Secretary-General, has repeatedly urged European and American leaders to collaborate with Russia in developing a comprehensive missile-defence architecture that would be jointly built and managed by Moscow and its new partners. He has pointed to continuing improvements in Iran’s potential capacity to launch ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads as an emerging threat to all European countries, including Russia, and has warned that a failure to undertake a vigorous response could endanger Europeans’ security. He has further argued that pursuing a joint NATO–Russia initiative could build a foundation for concrete security cooperation among the parties in other areas. Rasmussen’s vision of ‘one security roof that protects us all’ extending ‘from Vancouver to Vladivostok’ is certainly bold, and his pessimistic threat assessment regarding Iran is now shared by many Western and Russian analysts. In principle, he is also correct that having ‘one security roof would be a very strong political symbol that Russia is fully part of the Euro-Atlantic family … not outside, but very much inside’. But past experience suggests that such extensive NATO–Russian cooperation on ballistic-missile defence (BMD) is highly unlikely, notwithstanding the recent upturn in NATO–Russia ties. Even the more limited BMD collaboration outlined in the article by Nikolai Sokov in this issue would be hard to realise unless several factors that have repeatedly disrupted past Russian–American attempts to sustain joint BMD initiatives can be overcome.
As Sokov’s article shows, one long-standing barrier to Russian–US collaboration may be weakening: more Russian policymakers now seem to concur with the traditionally more pessimistic US and NATO threat assessments regarding Iran. Most Russians would not welcome Tehran’s acquisition of nuclear-armed long-range missiles, but in the past their experts have denigrated Iran’s security ambitions and defence capabilities. Now some Russian experts and policymakers seem more convinced, though perhaps still less so than many of their NATO colleagues, that Iran is developing an effective ballistic-missile arsenal, that Tehran’s nuclear capabilities are substantially improving, and even that some Iranian leaders are seeking nuclear-weapons options. That said, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently characterised Russia’s policies toward Iran as ‘schizophrenic’, suggesting unease among US policymakers regarding the extent to which they can count on further Russian assistance in countering Iran’s potential nuclear threat through missile-defence collaboration and other cooperative efforts.
Unfortunately, many long-standing barriers to NATO–Russian cooperation, including impediments to information sharing and limited capacity for rapid decision-making, persist. Indeed, achieving multilateral control over BMD systems is an inherently difficult task, even for close allies. NATO governments have so far been unable to deploy an alliance-wide missile defence system despite more than ten years of work. The technology is exceptionally complex and the financial costs high, and BMD management entails challenging command-and-control issues. Participants must craft an arrangement that would permit timely launch decisions in situations where even a few minutes’ delay in authorising an interception attempt could prove fatal. In the case of NATO–Russian missile-defence collaboration, the diverging technical standards and operational procedures ...
Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute.
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