Russia Tests Its Nuclear Deterrent as NATO's Missile Defense Shield Advances

November 1, 2013 - 12:59 AM

Aegis missile defense

A SAM-3 Block IB missile is launched from the USS Lake Erie in a successful ballistic missile inteception off the coast of Hawaii. (Photo: Missile Defense Agency)

( – Three days after a ground-breaking ceremony in Romania marked the beginning of work on the first-ever U.S. land-based missile defense facility in Europe, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday repealed a two-year-old executive order setting up a Kremlin working group to develop missile defense cooperation with NATO.

One day earlier, Putin oversaw an unscheduled exercise of Russia’s nuclear deterrent, incorporating test launches of silo- and sea-based ballistic missiles in central, northern and far-eastern Russia. The Defense Ministry reported a high degree of readiness.

And in the Western hemisphere, two Russian Tupolev “Blackjack” strategic bombers carried out combat training patrols between Venezuela and Nicaragua – a mission similar to one in 2008, which followed an announcement by Putin that Cold War-style long-range flights of strategic bombers – which had been halted after the Soviet Union’s collapse – would resume.

Moscow gave no overt indication that the muscle-flexing was linked to Monday’s development in Romania, but has made no secret of its continuing strong opposition to U.S./NATO missile defense programs in Europe.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday that missile defense “remains one of the pressing issues” between the two sides, adding that repeated U.S. assurances that the shield “isn’t aimed against Russia” were not acceptable.

For years the Pentagon has insisted that the evolving European ballistic missile defense (BMD) plans are designed to counter a missile attack from Iran, not to weaken Russia’s nuclear deterrent.

The Kremlin remains skeptical, and the beginning of work on the Romanian facility – 1,200 miles from Moscow – will deepen the tensions. “NATO is getting closer to Russia’s borders,” the government daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta commented this week in a report on the ground-breaking ceremony.

Last week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other NATO defense ministers discussed BMD with their Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, in Brussels, but Shoigu said afterwards there had been no progress and that “our concerns are ignored.”

A Pentagon official said Hagel during the talks had “encouraged Russia to consider joint initiatives” with the U.S. and NATO.

NATO has repeatedly invited Russia to cooperate in missile defense, but talks have stalled over differences about command and control, data-sharing and other issues.

On Thursday Interfax reported that Putin had “invalidated” an order from 2011 that set up an internal working group on cooperating with NATO over missile defense. It said the decision was officially gazetted.

The Obama administration in 2009 amended its predecessor’s European BMD plans and announced its so-called European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA). Phase one, already operational, entails a radar station in Turkey and the deployment of a U.S. Navy Aegis warship in the eastern Mediterranean, equipped to track and destroy ballistic missiles in flight.

Phase two is a U.S. land-based “Aegis-Ashore” interceptor, located in Romania, which according to the plan will provide protection, starting in 2015, to two-thirds of Europe – and U.S. troops stationed there – against medium-range ballistic missiles launched from the Middle East. Monday’s ground-breaking ceremony at a former air base 110 miles west of Bucharest marked the beginning of its construction.

Also as part of phase two, Spain will host four BMD-capable Aegis warships.

Phase three of the EPAA is the deployment in Poland of a similar “Aegis-Ashore” interceptor, by 2018, designed to extend the protective shield over the whole of Europe. (EPAA had a phase four, an expansion of the Poland capabilities by 2021 to protect the U.S. homeland against potential ICBM threats from the Middle East, but that was canceled last March in favor of deploying additional interceptors in Alaska to serve the same purpose.)

BMD site groundbreaking

From left, U.S. Vice Admiral James Syring, Romanian President Traian Basescu, Undersecretary of Defense James Miller, and Romanian Defense Minister Mircea Dusa take part in a ground-breaking ceremony on Monday at a base in Deveselu, Romania that will host interceptors as part of the European missile defense shield. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

NATO ‘will not outsource’ collective security

Moscow has demanded that NATO provide written guarantees that the BMD shield will not be used to neutralize Russian defenses, but the alliance has declined.

In a speech at a BMD conference in Poland on Thursday, U.S. arms control official Rose Gottemoeller again explained why. She cited Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty, which states that that an attack on any NATO member is considered an attack on all.

“In keeping with its collective security obligations, NATO alone bears responsibility for defending the Alliance from ballistic missile threats. Just as Russia must ensure the defense of Russian territory, NATO must ensure the defense of NATO territory,” she said.

“NATO cannot and will not outsource its Article Five commitments. Russia continues to request legal guarantees that could create limitations on our ability to develop and deploy future missile defense systems against regional ballistic missile threats such as those presented by Iran and North Korea. We have made clear that we cannot and will not accept limitations on our ability to defend ourselves, our allies, and our partners, including where we deploy our BMD-capable Aegis ships.”

Gottemoeller underlined once more that U.S. BMD is not directed at Russia (or at China, which has criticized U.S. BMD cooperation with Japan).

“With just 44 ground-based interceptors scheduled to be deployed, both Russia and China’s nuclear arsenals far exceed the number of interceptors we have,” she said. “There is therefore no way that U.S. missile defenses could undermine the effectiveness of Russia’s or China’s strategic nuclear forces.”

Speaking at Monday’s ground-breaking ceremony, Undersecretary of Defense James Miller said when phase two was in place “Europe will be safer, U.S. forces will be better protected, Romania will be safer, and the NATO alliance will be stronger.”

The facility will be manned by U.S. Navy and civilian personnel, with the Romanian military providing security.

It will host 24 SAM-3 Block IB missiles, which achieved its fifth consecutive successful intercept last month, when an interceptor missile launched from the guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Erie destroyed a target medium-range ballistic missile off the coast of Hawaii.