Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was right when he said last week that "reset" is not enough. The United States and Russia need a security cooperation software upgrade. Many issues could qualify for Sotrudnichestvo (Cooperation) 2.0, but none could do more to transform U.S.-Russia security relations than cooperation on missile defense.
Three years after Barack Obama's administration announced revised plans for missile defense in Europe and nearly two years after the NATO-Russia Council pledged to cooperate on missile defense, two misunderstandings continue to bedevil progress. On the one hand, some Americans -- including Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in his Oct. 8 speech -- claim that the administration weakened George W. Bush's missile defense plans in the face of Russian complaints. For their part, Russians maintain that the current plans threaten Russia's security. Both claims are wrong and fail to understand that missile defense has to meet two requirements that at first glance look like a zero-sum Catch-22.
First, the United States wants to be able to protect itself and its allies against Iranian ballistic missiles and, potentially, nuclear weapons. Second, it sees further cuts in nuclear stockpiles -- including nonstrategic warheads, which pose a particularly high risk of proliferation -- as a national security priority. However, Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared that Russia will negotiate further cuts in nuclear stockpiles only if the United States does not deploy missile defenses that Russia fears will undermine its security. The challenge is to simultaneously defend against an Iranian nuclear missile capability without reinforcing Russian insecurity. Deploying what the administration calls the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) in cooperation with Russia is the United States' chance to do both.
One of the most persistent misunderstandings about missile defense is that the Obama administration scrapped Bush-era plans for missile defenses in Central Europe to appease Russia. In fact, the September 2009 decision was driven by the urgent need to deploy a system that works, and works soon. The four-phase EPAA is more robust, more flexible, and more effective than the previous plan, which would have been deployed only in 2017 or 2018. With 24 Standard Missile-3s deployed in Romania beginning in 2015 (Phase 2) and 24 in Poland beginning in 2018 (Phase 3, with upgraded interceptors planned for 2020 as Phase 4), the EPAA will offer more comprehensive coverage of Europe and U.S. forces deployed there than the 10 interceptors of the previous plan.
The new approach uses proven technology to provide protection first to those parts of Europe already vulnerable to Iran's current capabilities, with flexibility to upgrade the architecture as U.S. systems develop and Iran develops longer-range missiles. Elements of the EPAA will contribute to the defense of the United States from a future Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). And the EPAA is robust. Its distributed, mobile, and relocatable systems make missile defense assets more difficult for an adversary to target, enhancing survivability.
Recognizing its value, NATO allies unanimously agreed to this new approach at the Lisbon summit in November 2010. Obama has declared that the United States is committed to all four phases of the EPAA. Keeping true to his pledge, the United States has already deployed the first phase, with Aegis ships in the Mediterranean Sea and a land-based radar in Turkey. European missile defense is already a reality.
Appeasing Russia was not part of the calculation. Indeed, when I was briefed on the plans for EPAA in the summer of 2009, I told my colleagues in the Defense Department that I expected Russia to like EPAA even less than the previous plan, precisely because its flexibility and the larger number of interceptors would fuel nightmare scenarios in the Russian General Staff. Unfortunately, my prediction has been proved right.