"Preventing the Unthinkable"
Journal Article, Journal of International Security Affairs, issue 20
Author: Kevin Ryan, Director, Defense and Intelligence Project, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: The US-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism
The one game-changing threat that exists in the world is a nuclear attack. Only a nuclear explosion has the capacity to kill millions in seconds and unhinge our geopolitical framework. During the Cold War, the threat of a nuclear attack came mainly from the U.S.-Russian nuclear arsenals: thousands of nuclear weapons poised to assure that an attack by one side would be met with devastating retaliation by the other. Today, however, the United States and Russia have been forced to adapt to a new nuclear threat—that of dedicated terrorists with money and technological access who seek to obtain and use a nuclear device.
Preventing a nuclear attack has been a point of common interest for the United States and Russia since 1949, when the Soviet Union joined the nuclear club and exploded its first nuclear bomb on the Kazakhstan steppe. In the past, the two countries have overcome serious differences through treaties and agreements that ultimately reduced nuclear arsenals and tensions, lessening the possibility of a nuclear war and gradually building trust along the way. The threat of a nuclear attack, which long served as a tool of intimidation, is now poised to become a point of cooperation, if the two countries can agree on a way to go forward.
The two best opportunities for the United States and Russia to cooperate against the threat of nuclear attack are in creating missile defense and preventing nuclear terrorism. Although they appear to be about two different problems, these initiatives are actually about the same thing: preventing a nuclear attack. And if the United States and Russia can cooperate in these efforts, then the result will be a safer world.
Creating missile defense
Today, to prevent a nuclear missile attack, the United States and Russia are pursuing two fundamentally opposing strategies: one through the development of a missile defense system, and one through the development of the capability to defeat it. U.S. plans for missile defense, if taken to their logical conclusion of a robust global system, would be a direct threat to Russia’s means of preventing a nuclear missile attack—that is, the threat of massive nuclear retaliation. Russia’s development of missile defense countermeasures and new nuclear weapons, in turn, represents a threat to American missile defense efforts. The United States and Russia are aiming for the same goal—freedom from a nuclear missile attack—but our strategies are no longer the same, the way they were before we scrapped the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002. To understand how we should proceed in preventing a nuclear missile attack, and why we should cooperate with Russia in missile defense, we should understand first what the two countries’ positions are regarding missile defense, and we should appreciate the fact that both positions proceed from the same goal.
To begin with, let’s be frank about the subject of U.S.-Russian missile defense cooperation. The United States does not need Russia to create or deploy missile defense; it has already developed most of the technology necessary to do so. The United States, however, does need Russia in order to prevent a missile attack. That is because, for the foreseeable future (the next 30 years at least), Russia will retain the capacity to attack the American homeland with nuclear missiles despite our missile defense deployments. Even in our most optimistic projections, we will not be able to stop a Russian missile attack purely with long range interceptors. Indeed, creating missile defense is only a part of the answer to preventing a missile attack. America should not get so attached to missile defense that it loses sight of the big picture—a world in which we are no longer threatened by nuclear missiles.
Today, Russia may not have the capacity to build a missile defense system on the scale of ours, but its leaders definitely have the capacity to build offensive weapons to defeat and overwhelm it if they so choose. Russian leaders have made clear that continued development and deployment of a missile defense system that can intercept Russian Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) could scuttle the recently ratified START treaty. Such development, moreover, could preclude any discussions on mutual reductions in tactical nuclear weapons, and even begin an escalation in the reliance on nuclear weapons that reverses the gains of the past 40 years of arms control.1 Yet America’s commitment to missile defense is long-standing, made clear over three decades and by five successive presidents. We must find a way to create a defensive system that does not by its very existence make it harder to achieve our goal of freedom from a nuclear missile attack.
U.S. government officials frequently point out that the U.S. goal today is a “limited missile defense system” and that the U.S. side has proven to the Russian side, through arguments based on physics and confidential data, that this limited system is not able to threaten the capacity of the Russian nuclear deterrent force. This may be true today, but it was not the purpose of the system as originally envisioned by President Reagan in 1983. And although our country’s leaders today try to make clear our system at present is a limited one, there is no guarantee, no treaty that binds the United States to this objective. These realities are worrisome to Russian observers.
If we hope to avoid a potentially even greater threat from Russia’s nuclear force, we must reconcile two seemingly irreconcilable positions. The first is that the United States is dedicated to deploying a missile defense system that ultimately will be able to intercept ICBMs. The second is that Russia sees the U.S. system as a direct threat to the strategic balance and Russian security.
That is why President Obama’s decision to reschedule the deployment of missile defenses in Europe—deferring work on long-range interceptors until the end of this decade—is so important. It guarantees that existing counter-ICBM capabilities will remain limited for the next decade (stuck at about twenty silo-based interceptors in the United States) while we focus instead on interceptors against intermediate- and short-range missiles of the kind that Iran might achieve in the next ten years. It gives us the breathing space to find a way to pursue American missile defense goals without driving Russia to thwart those objectives.
Moreover, the offer from NATO and the United States at the November 2010 Summit in Lisbon to cooperate with Russia on this new European missile defense plan gives the United States a way to work openly together, increase the transparency of the technology and its true capabilities, and decrease uncertainty in Moscow about the nature and aim of the system. It allows us to deploy the system in a way that achieves our goal of preventing a limited nuclear missile attack by Iran while precluding an arms race with Russia that could derail the whole effort.
The mechanics of cooperation on that system, however, remain to be worked out. For example, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh-Rasmussen proposed the defensive system be a “security roof” that includes all of NATO and Russia, from Vancouver to Vladivostok. But he has also cautioned that any system NATO and Russia create would not be “joint” or “unified.” Rasmussen explained that the alliance’s concept is two separate systems (NATO and Russian) linked together.2 The Secretary General’s plan for two separate systems is realistic for the missile defense capabilities as they exist today, but it is not a good enough vision for where we should be headed.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, for his part, has made clear the Russian expectations for missile defense cooperation. According to him, what is needed is a “full-fledged joint mechanism of cooperation”—a single shield, encompassing Russia and the 28 NATO allies. Medvedev proposed what he called a “sector approach” to the defense, in which Russia and NATO would be responsible for shooting down any missiles that flew over their territory, whether headed for Russia or NATO.3 It might seem reasonable as a plan, except that Russia has not fielded missile defenses with the capability to shoot down intermediate range missiles as they pass over Russian territory headed to western countries. Medvedev’s plan is a better vision for where we should be headed, but it is not a realistic plan for right now.
As for the United States, we have had a somewhat conflicted approach to cooperation in the missile defense arena. The Department of Defense’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) website states that the United States seeks to leverage the industrial base of foreign partners: sharing information with allies and partners and promoting interoperability between systems. With Russia specifically the MDA says it seeks transparency and strategic cooperation: “We also welcome Russian cooperation to bring its missile defense capabilities into a broader defense of our common strategic interests.” 4 Indeed, every administration since 1980 has declared its willingness to work with Russia on missile defense, and President Reagan even offered to share the technology with Russia.
But the United States has sent other signals too. The United States has not, for example, adequately updated its export controls from the Cold War to permit full technology cooperation with some longtime partners, let alone Russia. Previous U.S. administrations established internal secret policies that specifically blocked missile defense technology from being shared with Russia.5 President Obama has rejected in writing the idea of a joint system with Russia in Europe.6 To be sure, America should not “give away the farm” in its cooperation with Russia, but we must align and clarify our position if it is to stand up under scrutiny.
These are the starting positions on European missile defense. The technological realities of today preclude a truly joint system, but even separate systems can be combined at some level to provide a better overall defense. How can we have a joint effort but separate systems? The parties have agreed to analyze the possibilities between November’s Lisbon Summit and the next NATO defense ministerial meeting in June 2011. What we need to do is “jointly develop separate systems” in the near term, while working toward a fully unified system in the long term. What follows are some recommendations that could allow the United States to deploy a system now that protects against a limited nuclear missile attack from Iran while reducing Russian concerns about defensive missile deployments.
First, we need a joint assessment of the threat. Russia, NATO and the United States need to share intelligence and warning indicators about ballistic missile developments in Iran and elsewhere. (NATO and Russia agreed to conduct a joint ballistic missile threat assessment and develop a joint analysis of the future framework for missile defense cooperation, all of which should be discussed at the June defense ministers meeting.) We may not come to full agreement about the threat, but the process of identifying and confirming the facts on which we do agree is a vital first step in a process that needs to be a regular sharing of threat assessments and information.
Second, we need a missile defense architecture that recognizes the capabilities of the two sides (NATO/U.S. and Russia) today but sets us on a path to better integration tomorrow. Creating this architecture is complicated by the confusion over terminology and capabilities of current missile defenses. To understand what this near term architecture might look like, consider the following description.
In Phase I of the European deployment (through 2015), missile defenses would consist of the terminal phase interceptors and mid-course phase interceptors that are fielded today. Terminal phase interceptors—U.S. Patriots, THAADs and Russian S-300/400s—which engage offensive ballistic missiles as they are in their final stage of flight, must be located at or near the defended assets.7 Terminal phase interceptors can protect only the site at which they are located, and are not capable of protecting those that are more than a few miles away. For a large city, a military planner might assign a battery or battalion of such systems as a protective force. Mid-course missile defenses intercept ballistic missiles in the middle of their flight path and do not need to be located immediately near the defended asset. The U.S. mid-course missile defense system is currently the Aegis ship-based SM-3 missile. Russia has no mid-course missile defense system, so it is not able to intercept ballistic missiles headed across its territory toward third countries.
A NATO-Russia European missile defense system in Phase I would consist of Russian S-300/400 systems at Russian and possibly Ukrainian sites, and U.S./NATO Patriots and THAAD systems at NATO sites. Each of these site defenses operates its own radars and does not require integration with adjacent units to operate. Their performance can be improved, however, if they share early warning data and information about missile attacks. The level of interoperability, or “jointness,” required between U.S. and Russian terminal phase systems would be small. Likewise, because the U.S. SM-3 is the only mid-course missile defense system, there is no demand for integration at that level between U.S. and Russian systems.
The reality today is that our two systems cannot be easily combined. But we can begin developing ways to link the systems, starting with early warning data and progressing to targeting and intercept data. NATO should begin working with Russia to include its systems into the ALTBM, the Active Layered Theater Ballistic Missile command and control system. This will ensure that as the two systems mature they will be ready to operate together.
NATO, Russia and the United States should share early warning, acquisition, tracking and targeting data. The Joint Data Exchange Center (JDEC), which the U.S. and Russia started in the 1990s but did not complete, is a good basis on which to build. We must be willing to plan together, train together, and operate together. By jointly developing our two separate systems into a unified one, we create transparency, ease suspicions, and move toward Secretary General Rasmussen’s vision of a “missile defense shield from Vancouver to Vladivostok.”8
Third, besides a common understanding of the threat and agreement on architecture, a sure way to garner Russian support of U.S./NATO plans is to involve Russian industry in the research and development of missile defense technology. The U.S. must change its policies on export controls and sharing technology, which currently hinder such cooperation, and seek ways for Russian industry to be involved in substantive development and manufacturing. We can do this by loosening the restrictions on U.S. industries working with Russian industries.
According to a 2009 study headed by former National Security Advisor General Brent Scowcroft,9 the current system of export controls developed during the Cold War to prevent the transfer of technology to our enemies now harms U.S. national security. It restricts the flow of information, technology, and scientists, negatively impacting U.S. competitiveness and security. NATO, for its part, can increase the access of the Russian defense industry to compete in NATO tenders for equipment and arms sales. France’s announced sale of Mistral warships to Russia, which transfers some technology but is a good business deal for France, demonstrates that there is benefit to be had in defense cooperation with Russia. As for Russia, it must open its defense industry to this cooperation as well and sign an umbrella agreement about cooperation in technology—an agreement which they have thus far declined to sign.
Fourth, U.S. and Russian arms control experts need to start openly discussing the balance between offensive and defensive strategic weapons (that is, ICBMs and missile defense interceptors). Up to now, the United States has been adamant that there will be no deals trading missile defense deployments for offensive weapons reductions. Nevertheless, both sides understand that there always has been and always will be a relationship between offensive and defensive forces, both nuclear and conventional, when they calculate the strategic balance that for six decades has prevented nuclear war.
For many good reasons the United States has already limited its deployment of missile defense in Europe without asking for a quid pro quo from Russia. That may have been a missed opportunity. Going forward, we should be open to limitations on our long-range interceptors in exchange for agreements on Russian strategic and tactical nuclear weapons. Russia, for its part, should recognize openly the reality that U.S. missile defense capabilities will not threaten its deterrent for the foreseeable future.
Although the top levels of government in both countries have made clear their concern over nuclear terrorism, their respective bureaucracies have been slower to cooperate across international boundaries. In some cases, the bureaucracies simply don’t share their leaders’ assessments. In most, however, cooperation is stymied by human factors.
Fifth, besides missile defenses and arms reduction treaties, we can also reduce the possibility of a nuclear missile attack by pursuing a more global goal: eliminating or restricting ballistic missiles altogether, starting with missiles of intermediate range and below. Intermediate range and medium range missiles present the risk of sudden and unexpected attack. When coupled with nuclear warheads, these missiles threaten the destruction of whole cities with only minutes’ warning. In that respect, they can be considered more destabilizing than tactical nukes, which have smaller yields and are more appropriate for use against armed formations than civilian targets. The Russians are also thinking along these lines, and Prime Minister Putin called for such a ban in 2007, when he was President.10 We can start by looking to the U.S.-Russian INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty of 1987 and the MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime). The MTCR, which is a voluntary association of countries for non-proliferation of unmanned delivery systems for Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), could act as a baseline for a new, binding regime. The INF Treaty, which successfully eliminated all U.S. and Russian intermediate range missiles, could provide the inspection protocols necessary to carry out the agreement.
In the end, if Russia and the U.S./NATO can cooperate successfully on missile defense in Europe, we will have a safer, more stable region and world. If we cannot, danger and instability will follow. We had a preview in the 1980s of what such a world might look like. Twenty-five years ago, Russia and the United States had hundreds of intermediate range nuclear missiles deployed in Europe. In 1986, the Reykjavik Summit, intended to resolve that crisis, collapsed over disagreements on missile defense. One year later, however, the United States and Russia signed an historic treaty eliminating all intermediate range nuclear missiles. Today, we can take another historic cooperative step, as we did in 1987, or we can return to the dangerous days of 1986.
Preventing nuclear terrorism
A second opportunity for the United States and Russia to cooperate in preventing a nuclear attack also exists. It lies in a synergistic approach to countering nuclear terrorism.
How real is the threat? During a Harvard conference in April 2010, twenty-five U.S. and Russian general officers were asked whether nuclear war between the United States and Russia or an incident of nuclear terrorism was a greater threat.11 The group unanimously answered that nuclear terrorism posed the greater threat. They went on to agree that the best way to address the threat from nuclear terrorism was through the combined efforts of both countries.
Their views echoed a consensus on the part of the national leadership in both Russia and the United States. According to President Obama, nuclear terrorism is the greatest threat to the American homeland.12 Russian President Dmitry Medvedev also has identified nuclear terrorism as one of the main threats facing his country.13
Yet cooperation in this arena still remains problematic. In the fall of 2009, the Belfer Center at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, with the support of Senator Sam Nunn’s Nuclear Threat Initiative, created the U.S.-Russian Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism, a non-governmental effort to support U.S.-Russian government cooperation in preventing nuclear terrorism. As part of this effort, retired CIA officer Rolf Mowatt-Larssen and I traveled first to Moscow to find out what was being done about the threat of nuclear terrorism. We then traveled to Washington to do the same. What we found was that although the top levels of government in both countries have made clear their concern over nuclear terrorism, their respective bureaucracies have been slower to cooperate across international boundaries. In some cases, the bureaucracies simply don’t share their leaders’ assessments. In most, however, cooperation is stymied by human factors: Cold War attitudes toward cooperation or simply a lack of ideas.
The good news is that for both the United States and Russian bureaucracies, preventing nuclear terrorism is a relatively new task, and the two sides can approach cooperation with comparatively clean slates. Simply put, there are few bad histories or conflicts in policy to overcome. Also, for the most part, nuclear terrorism is a threat that emanates from third parties, not from each other. (Although we must admit here that as the owners of over 90 percent of the world’s nuclear material, our countries can be the unwanted and even illegal sources of fissionable materials and nuclear know-how.) Both countries have robust nuclear security programs—the result of decades of creating, testing and storing nuclear materials for weapons and energy plants. Both countries’ intelligence and security apparatuses recognize that there is a threat that terrorist groups could obtain or make a nuclear device, and both agree that terrorist organizations are trying to do just that. The guidance from the top levels of U.S. and Russian governments is in synch and the countries seem on the same track as far as the nuclear terrorism threat goes. In that sense cooperation in this arena is much further along than cooperation on missile defense.
But nothing is easy when it comes to nuclear materials and weapons. The secrecy and sensitivity that surround all things nuclear quickly complicate cooperation in this area. There are very few people in government who understand all of the aspects of the nuclear terrorism issue: technical, threat, security, military and political. Few who work on one dimension (i.e., the threat) get to see how a nuclear weapon is made or works, and vice versa. Political actors, meanwhile, either don’t have access to any of that information or don’t understand it. And the technical people, who are vital to understanding how terrorists could make a nuclear explosion, are cloistered away by security and counterintelligence agencies to protect the knowledge they possess.
Recognizing how hard it can be to gather these kinds of experts within our own government, much less across national boundaries, our initiative at the Belfer Center nevertheless attempted to do just that in October 2010. We brought together five retired general officers from each country, the United States and Russia, whose experience spanned military, police, nuclear, intelligence and political arenas. They were former four- and three-star generals who served in the FSB, CIA, GRU (military intelligence), DIA, and interior forces. The meeting, held in Istanbul, spanned two days and centered on how our two governments could cooperate in preventing nuclear terrorism. The overall findings of the group echoed the statements of their presidents about the seriousness of the threat and the need to address it on a number of fronts, and yielded a series of recommendations:
- Russia and the United States should conduct a meaningful joint assessment of the threat from nuclear terrorism. According to former CIA officer Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, this has not been done to date. As a means of “kick starting” that process, the group endorsed an unclassified joint threat assessment being drafted by the Belfer Center and the Russian Academy of Science’s USA-Canada Institute. That unclassified assessment will be the basis for more dialogue on cooperation and will provide a model for similar cooperation at the governmental level.
- Both governments should continue to raise awareness of nuclear terrorism and to share best practices in preventing the threat. No other governments have the experience and know-how with nuclear materials that Russia and the United States have gained over many years. We must invigorate exchanges between our nuclear scientists to improve understanding of the nature of the threat and how to deal with it. The recent decision by the United States and Russia to create a nuclear counterterrorism center in Abramovo, Russia, for training scientists and nuclear technicians is a good first step. If the United States and Russia can be seen working together on this problem, the rest of world will be more likely to follow our lead.
- Improved information sharing, planning, and operational cooperation between our two governments is needed when it comes to addressing terrorism. As one Russian officer told me in a separate meeting, “The reason we are having such trouble is that the terrorists are cooperating better with their former enemies than we are with ours.” Both governments should expand collaboration between the militaries on efforts like interdiction planning and between emergency ministries on planning for, and managing the consequences of, a terrorist nuclear attack. We must share forensic data on nuclear materials so we can be prepared to trace any terrorist nuclear device that we encounter. Mechanisms already exist for executing this cooperation. They include the U.S.-Russia military-to-military cooperation plan and the bilateral commission counterterrorism group.
- A more sustained dialogue between Russian and U.S. intelligence agencies is also necessary: cooperation that should be sustained irrespective of the daily ups and downs of political relations. This recommendation is particularly important, given the controlling role that secrecy and security play in questions of nuclear issues. Its message was driven home by the experience of two of our generals—former heads of the Russian GRU and U.S. DIA—who had been counterparts for a number of years while on active duty but had never been permitted to meet until after retirement.
Trusting one another
In 1986, the Reykjavik summit between the United States and Russia, intended to reduce the threat from nuclear attack, fell apart from a lack of trust. Twenty-five years later, a lack of trust is still the underlying issue in U.S.-Russian relations.
The United States and Russia can really only gain trust in one another through an accumulation of successful cooperation. In the years since the end of the Cold War, some of that foundation has been successfully laid. We have successfully continued reductions in nuclear arms and we have joined forces in combating nuclear terrorism. The U.S.-Russia relationship today is far better than the one of 1986. There remain many things that separate us but there are a growing number that bind us together. Of the latter, a constant for sixty years has been the shared goal of preventing a nuclear attack.
In 1987, a year after our failure in Reykjavik, the United States and Russia stunned the world with an agreement that eliminated an entire class of ballistic missiles and, possibly more than any other treaty, helped to build trust between the United States and Russia. Such a breakthrough should be our goal again today.
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 Dmitri Medvedev, Third Address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, November 30, 2010.
 “Russia, NATO – a Dramatic Change.” Europost, November 5, 2010, http://www.europost.bg/article?id=249.
 Dmitri Medvedev, RIA Novisti, Lisbon, 21:21, 20 November 2010.
 Missile Defense Agency, “International Cooperation,” n.d., http://www.mda.mil/system/international_cooperation.html.
 Presidential Decision Directive/NSC-17, December 11, 1993.
 Obama December 2010 letter to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, as cited in Craig Whitlock, “For the U.S. and Russia, a New Cooperation on Missile Defense,” Washington Post, March 22, 2011, http://ebird.osd.mil/ebird2/ebfiles/e20110322810346.html.
 Terminal phase intercept means the ability to strike a ballistic missile during its final few seconds of flight, as it is over or near the defended asset. Mid-course intercepts occur in the middle of the ballistic missiles flight path, far away from the defended asset. THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Air Defense) and Patriot are U.S. systems that intercept ballistic missiles in the terminal phase of their flight. S-400s and S-300s are Russian missile systems similar to Patriot.
 “One Security Roof from Vancouver to Vladivostok,” NATO News, March 27, 2010, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/news_62391.htm.
 Beyond “Fortress America”: American National Security Controls on Science and Technology in a Globalized World” (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2009).
 Tony Halpin, “Vladimir Putin Confronts US With Threat to Arms Pact,” Times of London, October 13, 2007, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article2648440.ece.
 Annual U.S.-Russia Security Program (Harvard Generals Program), Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, Cambridge, Massachusetts, April 2010.
 David Jackson, “Obama: Nuclear Terrorism is 'the Single Biggest Threat' to U.S.,” USA Today, April 11, 2010, http://content.usatoday.com/communities/theoval/post/2010/04/obama-kicks-off-nuclear-summit-with-five-leader-meetings/1.
 White House, Office of the Press Secretary, "Joint Statement by President Barack Obama of the United States of America and President Dmitry Medvedev of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Cooperation," July 6, 2009, www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Joint-Statement-by-President-Barack-Obama-of-the-United-States-of-America-and-President-Dmitry-Medvedev-of-the-Russian-Federation-on-Nuclear-Cooperation.
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