Russian planners might also be worried about the potential for a large expansion in the number of interceptors, unpredicted technical changes in the defense system (such as nuclear-tipped interceptors), and the diversity and scale of sensor systems that are being brought online to support the system.
These worries are beginning to give the Russians cold feet about their arms-reduction commitments. The Russian articles of ratification to the New START arms-reduction treaty allow Russia to withdraw from the agreement if there is deployment by the "United States of America, another state, or a group of states of a missile-defense system capable of significantly reducing the effectiveness of the Russian Federation's strategic nuclear forces."
The Obama administration's new "phased adaptive" missile-defense plan calls for roughly 440 interceptors based on 43 ships and on two land sites in Europe by the end of this decade. The plan is to be enacted in four phases, with increasing numbers of the more capable SM-3 "Block II" interceptors in the last two phases, starting in 2018.
Russia is concerned that these more potent Block II missile-defense interceptors might be capable of neutralizing some Russian nuclear forces and will therefore upset the delicate balance of arms agreed to in New START. Indeed, the treaty's preamble explicitly recognizes this interplay between strategic offense and defense. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has specifically warned against this action. "The fulfillment of the third and fourth phases of the U.S. 'adaptive approach' will enter a strategic level threatening the efficiency of Russia's nuclear containment forces," Lavrov said, as reported by Russian media.
NATO has responded by insisting that the system is not intended against Russia. Rather, the group says, it is aimed at possible future threats from Iran. But the Russians are clearly more concerned about capabilities than intentions. Given that future U.S. administrations -- can you say President Palin? -- may radically change their outlook toward Russia, it is hard to blame the Kremlin for being skeptical.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had already explicitly threatened to terminate New START over this perceived violation of "parity" -- i.e., the precise balance of arms agreed to in the treaty. "If missile-defense systems are to be developed, which would mean the disruption of strategic parity," Medvedev said last month, "the treaty could be suspended or even terminated."
Although the missile-defense system may not offer protection in actual combat, Russian military planners may still view it as effectively neutralizing some Russian warheads -- which they could legitimately present as an infringement on the numerical parity at the very basis of New START. The fielding of Block II interceptors on ship-mobile platforms would certainly break the spirit -- and, possibly, even the letter -- of New START.