As Iran Progresses Toward Nuclear Capability, Russia and U.S. May Come Together, Experts Say
Lt. Gen. Henry A. "Trey" Obering III, USAF (retd), former director of the Missile Defense Agency, left, and Dean Wilkening, of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.
[Photograph © Kathy Sawyer]
Iran's dramatic launch of a satellite into orbit earlier this month, coinciding with the advent of a new American administration, should help spur greater cooperation with Russia on missile defense, according to a leading U.S. missile defense expert.
In discussions over the years, the Russians have said that a demonstration of this level of capability by Iran would be one of the "key triggers . . . as to when they themselves would begin to get worried about the Iranians," retired Lieutenant General Henry A. Obering, former director of the Missile Defense Agency, told reporters at a February 12 briefing.
But he added that, based on his years of trying to engage the Russians on this issue, he has no illusions that this kind of U.S.-Russian détente will come easily.
Obering and Dean Wilkening, director of the Science Program at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, agreed that coordination with the Russians seems increasingly sensible as the common adversary—Iran—builds its technological capabilities. Speaking at the event organized by the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy and the Center for Media and Security, they both said that sharing early warning radar data could be a useful first step.
In the murky realm of missile defense, Iran's apparent effort to become a major player capable of launching intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) tipped with nuclear warheads has become a paramount concern. But last year, the Russians reacted angrily to a U.S. proposal to counter that threat by basing interceptor missiles in Poland, along with a radar facility in the Czech Republic, as part of the far-flung and multi-layered U.S. defense system.
The Russians said the installations would upset the strategic balance by threatening their own nuclear arsenal. That reaction "truly surprised us," Obering said, "Any basic rocket scientist would know that they [the European bases] don't" menace Russian capabilities.
His team soon realized that the Russians' true concerns lay elsewhere. As Wilkening put it, Russia's response may have had more to do with the speed of attempts to expand NATO, "and an emerging security structure that is closer and closer to its [Russia's] borders, one in which they are not fully involved."
Still, the Iranian launch is "one more example of why the Russians and the United States ought to be cooperating with respect to a coherent strategy to constrain some of the developments we see in Iran . . .," Wilkening said. "This system has benefits for [the protection of Russia] as well. I'm surprised I haven't heard more made out of that."
For the far term, and with an imaginative leap, Wilkening said, "I could see a jointly operated site in Southern Russia," using U.S. hardware, as having many technical advantages. "It's actually the perfect place to put [an X-band tracking radar and an interceptor site] in terms of defending Europe, western Russia and the United States."
There have been glimmers of progress. Earlier this month, at a European security conference in Munich, Vice President Joseph Biden made a conciliatory statement about working with Russia on missile defense, and Russian officials reacted favorably.
Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have indicated that the Obama administration will continue to develop missile defenses that work and are cost-effective, and also that the White House will keep an open mind about possible compromises and might use the program as a negotiating tool.
The business end of the missile defense system, in simplest terms, would send up an interceptor missile to hit and destroy a target missile in flight. But critics have charged that, despite expenditures of more than $100 billion over the decades, it won't work in the real world.
Both Obering and Wilkening asserted that the basic technology underlying US missile defense systems is sound, but they agreed that the system needs to be made more robust, especially in dealing with enemy countermeasures, decoys and other complexities.
Wilkening said he anticipates that fiscal and other pressures will lead the Obama administration to slow and/or downsize the program. But he and Obering both expressed optimism, based on the Obama team's pragmatic approach so far, that any such changes will be based on testing and on what works, rather than on the ideological considerations that have plagued the debate on all sides since its inception under Ronald Reagan.
Intelligence estimates suggest that Iran will not have an operational ICBM until 2013 to 2015, Obering noted, but both North Korea and Iran seem to be outpacing expectations. "I think it's a very big question mark as to when [Iran] may have that capability. . . . We don't know what we don't know."
27 February 2009