Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 00:45 | SYDNEY
Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 00:45 | SYDNEY

Obama on BMD


Sam Roggeveen


10 July 2009 12:40

World Politics Review points to President Obama's remarks in Moscow that seemed to link America's European ballistic missile defence (BMD) plans to progress on restricting Iran's nuclear ambitions. Obama said:

I know Russia opposes the planned configuration for missile defense in Europe. My Administration is reviewing these plans to enhance the security of America, Europe and the world. I have made it clear that this system is directed at preventing a potential attack from Iran, and has nothing to do with Russia. In fact, I want us to work together on a missile defense architecture that makes us all safer. But if the threat from Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs is eliminated, the driving force for missile defense in Europe will be eliminated. That is in our mutual interest.

While I think putting European missile defence up as a bargaining chip is the right move, let me make the case that the more interesting and promising aspect of Obama's remarks don't actually relate to Iran at all but to his desire to work together with Russia on missile defence.

Joshua Pollack at Arms Control Wonk is right to say that the joint statement on missile defence that came out of the  Moscow summit was a bit weak — in fact, the body of the text doesn't even mention missile defence. But if the reference to the Joint Data Exchange Center (JDEC) lead to actual progress on that initiative, it has broad implications for missile defence. JDEC is a moribund Clinton-era initiative for the US and Russia to share information about missile launches, to reduce the fear and scope for surprise attacks.

Should JDEC be revived, Pollack himself refers to one important benefit: Russia's own early warning capabilities are weak, so if North Korea ever launched an ICBM against the US, JDEC might help the Russians distinguish between an American ballistic missile defence launch and a first strike against Russia.

You can actually take that point a lot further than the North Korea scenario. In an era in which Russia worries about US nuclear primacy, a joint early warning system would provide valuable reassurance to Russia that the US will not embark on a first strike. So JDEC can actually reinforce American arguments that missile defence is not just a cover for a first strike capability.

Or how about a multilateralised JDEC, as discussed in this paper? Russia's arsenal remains big enough to arguably make concerns about US primacy a bit fanciful, and Russia lacks the resources to increase that arsenal anyway. But China's worries are surely more acute, and they are already increasing their small nuclear force, arguably in part as a reaction to BMD. Their involvement in JDEC could reduce the incentives for that behaviour.

One further bit of speculation about the benefits of a multilateralised JDEC: it could be used to bring stability to a crisis situation involving ballistic-missile-armed powers. Consider India and Pakistan in another Kargil-type standoff. If you could get the two sides to agree on an intervention by a JDEC-type body, this body could share real-time missile launch information equally with both sides, to reduce the scope for surpise attacks.

Even better (and perhaps more fanciful), this multilateral body could be tasked with actually intercepting missile launches from either side, thus reducing the chances that a rogue or accidental launch would spark a wider war.