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Putin's Kennebunkport Proposal Falls Short of Missile Defense Breakthrough

Richard Weitz

On June 7, at the G-8 summit in Heiligendamm, Putin surprised his fellow heads of state by offering to provide the United States with unprecedented access to real-time data from the Russian-leased Gabala radar station in Azerbaijan. In return, Putin proposed that Washington freeze its plans to deploy a ballistic missile defense (BMD) radar in the Czech Republic and BMD defensive interceptor missiles in Poland.

Putin and other Russian officials argued that, by using the Gabala complex, the United States would be able to closely monitor missile tests in Iran and would have ample time to deploy BMD against an Iranian threat should it ever materialize. Putin subsequently suggested that, if Iran ever developed long-range missiles, the interceptors could be placed in Iraq or Turkey, or on Aegis-equipped warships or floating platforms in the Caspian Sea.

Putin made the proposal at the summit because the increasingly confrontational strategy Russia had previously pursued on the European BMD issue had failed to derail the planned U.S. deployments. Russian verbal denunciations, indications that Moscow might withdraw from European arms control agreements, and threats to target any U.S. BMD complexes in East Central Europe with Russia’s own missiles and warplanes had engendered concern in NATO capitals, but not paralysis.

The U.S. and NATO governments have thus far refused to abandon the Czech-Polish deployments, raising several objections to Putin’s Heiligendamm proposal. First, they argue that the Gabala system is the wrong type of radar. It is designed to provide early warning of missile launches in the region south of Russia. What the U.S. military is seeking from the planned X-band radar in the Czech Republic is a more powerful system capable of tracking and guiding interceptor missiles toward Iranian offensive ballistic missiles in mid-flight.

Second, U.S. experts claim that Gabala cannot fulfill this battle management function even if it were upgraded because it is located too close to Iran. Its proximity means that any missiles launched from Iran could quickly overfly any radar deployed in Azerbaijan, rendering it incapable of guiding the envisaged mid-course interceptor missiles toward the targeted offensive missile. A battle management radar in Azerbaijan might prove useful for intercepting Iranian missiles immediately after launch, but the United States has yet to master the more challenging technology required for such a boost-phase interception.

Finally, Bush administration officials argue they need to begin constructing a missile interceptor site in Poland to ensure it becomes operational before Iran achieves the capacity to launch long-range offensive missiles. Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry A. Obering III, director of the Missile Defense Agency, told a congressional hearing in early July that, “What we’re trying to do is stay ahead of what we believe to be an emerging threat, because we can’t wait until they actually demonstrate it and then say, ‘Now let’s go find a way to counter it’.”

Russian officials apparently accepted the validity of some of these objections, at least to the extent of appreciating the need to meet them. For this reason, Putin again shook up the missile defense debate when he met with President Bush at Kennebunkport in early July. At the summit, Putin proposed that the United States also might use a BMD radar in southern Russia. He indicated a willingness to upgrade the system at Gabala and southern Russia to accommodate U.S. technical needs. Putin also called for establishing joint early warning data center in Moscow and Brussels in order to establish a pan-European BMD architecture supervised by the NATO-Russian Council. He and other Russian officials expressed a willingness to consider additional BMD initiatives that would meet U.S., NATO, and Russian security needs.

Putin’s Kennebunkport proposal would overcome some of the technical objections raised by U.S. defense analysts. It would not, however, address basic questions about the feasibility of any genuine multinational BMD system. Given the compressed time for making an intercept decision, even a few minutes delay in transmitting information would prevent a timely launch. The fear is that Russia might use any dual-key arrangement to impede future measures the United States might wish to take, such as tracking or intercepting a suspicious Iranian missile launch. In contrast, the Czech and Polish facilities are planned to be largely American-run enterprises, located in traditionally friendly countries, which should facilitate the rapid transfer of data to the U.S. BMD command and minimize opportunities for intelligence leakage.

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