31 January 2003
SHOULD RUSSIA HELP BUILD NMD? Suddenly US wants to co-operate
By Stanislav Menshikov
Roald Sagdeyev, eminent Russian physicist who now works in America, recently visited Vladimir Putin and suggested that Russia find itself an "important role" in the US program to build a national system of ballistic missile defence (NMD). Putin responded positively saying that bilateral talks on the subject had already started.
To the layman this exchange is another riddle. When George W. Bush walked out of the ABM Treaty, the Russian president called it a "mistake". When Moscow suggested to jointly build a European theatre defence system instead, Washington brushed aside the idea without bothering to look into details. When last December Bush ordered the start of constructing the first NMD base in Alaska, the Russian Foreign ministry called it "resumption of the armaments race". Now, suddenly the two sides are talking about co-operation in that sensitive area.
It would not have sounded strange if the about-face came on the initiative of Moscow. The Russian side has long wanted to be part of some arrangement that would keep it better informed on the US program. However, this time around most of the eagerness comes from Washington. US ambassador Alexander Vershbow made it clear publicly that Washington could make use of sophisticated Russian technology, including "S-300 and S-400 anti-air missiles, which could be developed into an anti-ballistic missile capability". Vershbow also mentioned early warning systems, tracking radars and intercept systems.
On the other hand, the initial reaction of the Russian military was very guarded. According to Colonel-General Yuri Baluyevsky of the General Staff, the US is interested only in obtaining new technologies by establishing direct ties with Russian companies, but is reluctant to pursue joint research. Ambassador Vershbow immediately called these comments "echoes from the past".
But Vladimir Putin also warned against one-sided leaks of Russian technologies, which he called "squandering" and "taking from us for free". To prevent such practices, he felt, joint work would have to be centralised and direct transfers of technologies from companies would be prohibited.
Sudden US interest in Russian help is apparently caused by the discovery that the NMD is late in implementation. Four out of five interceptor tests have gone awry, and new tests have apparently been postponed until late summer. Also the Pentagon suddenly realised that "poor" Russia was well ahead of rich America in some ABM technologies even though it does not plan to build a missile defence shield any time soon.
The examples cited above could be easily multiplied. For instance, Sergei Ivanov, the Russian Defence Minister, recently indicated that he had the necessary technology to build the equivalent of what the US calls "Brilliant Pebbles", a project to deploy in orbit interceptor missiles prepared to destroy enemy missiles immediately after their launch. The only limiting factors in Ivanov's view are financial.
When Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld was asked whether he was worried by that news his response was evasive. He referred to nuclear tipped interceptors allegedly used by the ABM system around Moscow apparently to show how outmoded they were. But he failed to acknowledge that the first successful non-nuclear missile intercept in history was conducted by the Soviet Union as early as March 1961, more than two decades before a similar intercept was made in the US.
Early last year, the US Congressional Budget Bureau made a cost study of the crucial elements of NMD. It came to the conclusion that to deploy in space sufficiently powerful laser-killers the US needed missiles with a capacity to deliver into orbit a weight of 80,000 pounds. The Bureau admitted that no such missile was available to the US and would have to be specially created. But the Russian SS-18 (Satan) missile has a launching weight of more than 400,000 pounds, i.e. is much more powerful.
These illustrations are sufficient to show why the Bush administration is interested in Russian technologies. If the initial stage of NMD is delayed beyond 2004, Bush will have a lot of explaining to do in an election year about why those costly programs were started before the technological base was ready.
But the fact that the US is now asking Moscow for help should not be a matter of self-exultation. The essential question is whether it is in Russian national interest to share its progressive ABM technology, even at a good price?
Up to now Putin took a safe position agreeing to co-operate in theatre missile defences. Such systems would protect most of Europe, European Russia and US troops and bases in that area. They would be of mutual benefit to both sides. A similar arrangement could be made with Japan and, perhaps, China. Helping the US build NMD that would practically protect only American territory is a different matter.
So far, the prevailing view in Moscow was that any delay in building NMD was to Russia's benefit because it extended the time limit of its credible deterrence potential at minimal cost. With Satans now permitted and their maximum service periods extended, there is little logic in helping the US accelerate its NMD. What's the great hurry?