Joshua PollackJoint Statement on Missile Defense Issues

Since Jeff and Pavel already have done such a nice job explicating the “Joint Understanding for the START Follow-On Treaty,” I’d thought I’d chime in with a couple of thoughts about its poor cousin, the “Joint Statement by Dmitry A. Medvedev, President of the Russian Federation, and Barack Obama, President of the United States of America, on Missile Defense Issues.”

The first thing to notice about the Joint Statement is that it’s not part of the Joint Understanding. In fact, it doesn’t represent any kind of real understanding, in the sense of an arrangement, agreement, pact, or even a common perspective. As President Obama explained in an interview with Novaya Gazeta, defenses aren’t part of the workplan:

In our meeting in London on April 1st, President Medvedev and I issued a joint statement on instructions for our negotiators for this new treaty. These instructions very explicitly did not mention missile defense as a topic of discussion for these negotiations.

Indeed, the April 1 text says that the “subject of the new agreement will be the reduction and limitation of strategic offensive arms.” There’s no mention of defenses. President Medvedev seems to have preferred otherwise, but had to settle, both in April and now again in July. As Pavel has pointed out, there’s no good reason to let disputes over the “third site” undermine the renewal of START.

The second thing to notice about the Joint Statement is that it doesn’t deal with missile defense issues. After the title, it doesn’t mention them at all. Here’s how the substantive paragraph starts:

We have instructed our experts to work together to analyze the ballistic missile challenges of the 21st century and to prepare appropriate recommendations, giving priority to the use of political and diplomatic methods.

In the press conference Q&A, Obama referred to this as “a joint threat assessment of the ballistic missile challenges of the 21st century, including those posed by Iran and North Korea.” When that assessment comes due — assuming there’s a public version — it will be interesting to compare it with the EWI Iran missile threat report.

Then there’s this:

At the same time they plan to conduct a joint review of the entire spectrum of means at our disposal that allow us to cooperate on monitoring the development of missile programs around the world. Our experts are intensifying dialogue on establishing the Joint Data Exchange Center, which is to become the basis for a multilateral missile-launch notification regime.

Some of you may recall JDEC, an undertaking of the Clinton-Yeltsin era that never quite materialized. (Fact sheet and Memorandum.) Intended to “strengthen strategic stability by further reducing the danger that ballistic missiles might be launched on the basis of false warning of attack,” it has languished. Reviving JDEC is a welcome development, and the multilateralization idea is interesting, but neither has much to do with missile defense. [Correction: Indirectly but significantly, JDEC does relate to missile defense.]

The Joint Statement is not the end of the story. Obama also mentioned to Novaya Gazeta that the U.S. side will be conducting a review of its missile defense programs, and would like Russia to participate in whatever defenses are built in Europe. While this idea originated with Russian President Vladimir Putin, it remains to be seen whether it will satisfy the Russian side. The details will count.

X-posted from TW.


  1. Scott Monje (History)

    I don’t agree about Medvedev wanting missile defense as part of this particular agreement. As you note, he agreed back in April that the new agreement would be about “offensive” arms. This makes sense in terms of the tight timeframe and the apparent importance to them to keep the START verification provisions (or possibly comparable provisions that would be cheaper to execute) from running out. Since then, he, Putin, and Lavrov have all made public statments about the necessary interrelationship between offensive and defensive weapons, but they have all been in the long-term perspective, after the current follow-on agreement. The military, however, has made statements about how there can be no progress until the BMD issue is cleared up, or simply how they cannot reduce nuclear arms before the military reform is completed. Interestingly, Medvedev made a statement about the START follow-on during a press conference in Amsterdam in June in which he made no reference to BMD whatsoever. Evidently, it raised hackles somewhere. Later the same day, he issued a written statement(from Amsterdam) reiterating the same remarks but adding the importance of the interrelationship between offensive and defensive arms. Even here, however, he did not demand more than recognition that the issue was important. That, apparently, is the role of the separate statement. Though, as you note, it is not a particularly strong statement, and Obama and Medvedev discuss it in very different terms in their press conference. By the way, the JDEC has been suggested as an element in a joint BMD system—a system that would allow the Russians to know what the Americans are “really doing” in their BMD installations since they appear to believe none of the stated purposes. They have firmly stated, however, that a joint system could not consist simply of them signing on to the planned system in Poland and the Czech Republic. The idea of a joint assessment of the threat is also something the Russians have been insisting on, presumably to convince us that Iran is not a threat or that this is not the way to deal with it. (Note the reference to the priority of political and diplomatic means.)

  2. FSB

    That hasn’t stopped the pro-leaky-missile-‘defense’ [expletive deleted] from publishing a piece in the Post advocating for the non-defense.

    Nice of them to forget to mention that not even one of the missile defense system tests have included realistic countermeasures or tumbling warheads. All the tests have been conducted under highly scripted conditions with the defense given advance information about the attack details.

    A trojan would provide more protection than the M.D.A.

  3. Paul Stokes (History)

    It is amazing that the idea of missile defense, originated by non-technical ideologues and supported by the technical community for specious and self-serving reasons, is still impossible to get rid of some 25 years later.

  4. George William Herbert (History)

    First it was impossible to “hit a bullet with a bullet”, despite the 1980s ASAT test with what was functionally around the same thing, until the modern BMD systems proved on incoming ICBM warhead surrogate targets that they could see and hit them.

    Now, it’s “realistic countermeasures” (which often is defined as “the best we can do, regardless of what adversaries could”) or something else like a tumbling warhead (which would, for many warheads, burn up on reentry).

    The operational reliability and Pk of a real system – beyond prototypes, but a tens-of-missiles-plus deployed operational system in silos for years – is up for debate. The sophistication of adversary countermeasures is up for debate.

    But the idea that BMD can not work is not credible.

    The wisdom of some (current plan), lots, or no BMD is up for debate. I, for one, would prefer to deter adversaries by being able to shoot down their missiles, rather than by having to accept potentially millions of US casualties and then having to inflict potentially millions of adversary casualties.

    The moral dimension – MAD, nuclear national-scale mass murder as the most moral choice – is rather lacking in most anti-missile-defense arguments.

    The knee-jerk anti-BMD feelings seem to stem from a fear that it was intended to be used to win an offensive first strike war when it was invented, and a belief that Reagan might have launched one had he been able (and BMD been ready at the time).

    This is not then, if that ever was an accurate representation of reality.

  5. Nick (History)

    The idea of Iran attacking Europe with ICBMs that it does not have some time in the future has technical and geopolitical flaws.

    The latest test of Sajil2, although relatively successful, according to the discussions on this web site, may not have the accuracy or the reach to even hit much closer targets, let alone central Europe. Let’s assume it works, then what, to deliver 1000 lbs of TNT to Rome, which happens to have $4 billion worth of commerce with IRI.

    The Russians know IRI’s capabilities full well, and that is why they are not falling for it. And perhaps that is why they did not agree for lower reductions, because they insisted on counting offensive and defensive capabilities together (i.e., the proposed anti-missile in Europe)

  6. FSB

    Mr. Herbert is wrong.

    All the tests of the MD system have been scripted. We have no idea of the efficiency of the system to shoot down missiles/warheads in a surprise attack with even simple countermeasures and anti-simulation.

    Missile defense has not deterred anything.

    Iran can always sail or truck in a bomb if it wants.

    Missile defense will encourage Iran to build more missiles not less (to make sure some fraction get thru).

    Anything less than a 100% efficient defense (unachievable) is only giving ourselves a false sense of security and tempting our politicians and dumb think tanks to foist risky policies on the middle east.

  7. Josh (History)

    One thing I’ve discovered is that nobody ever really changes their mind about missile defenses. After all, they’re not battle-tested, so we don’t really know how they would perform in the event. As a result, we must reach our conclusions about them by some other means. But we don’t even agree on what those means should be.

  8. FSB

    easy: make a red-team blue-team attack-defense scenario over a period of a year — with the reds given the benefit of surprise and countermeasures. Let’s see how many warheads the blue team gets.

    I christen the game Operation “Broken Condom”.

    I bet a pack of broken condoms that no more than 20% of real warheads will ever be intercepted.

    That is just the technical part.

    MD is also stupid policy: it cannot intercept a warhead in a ship.

    It encourages Iran to make more missiles/warheads.

  9. George William Herbert (History)

    The economics of the situation dictate that the US can rather conclusively outspend any missile aggressor, in terms of GDP invested, even if our missile defense missiles have Pk of 10 or less. We can outspend them all combined excepting the USSR and China even if Pk is 10% or less. We could easily spend them into their own economic oblivion if they tried to keep up. In that sense, Iran trying to make more missiles/warheads is a great thing.

    MD being unable to intercept nuclear weapons in ships does not mean it’s useless. MD is not a defense against acts of international nuclear terrorism. It is a defense against acts of international nuclear aggression or deterrence via ICBM. Nuclear deterrence theory rather conclusively suggests that there are all sorts of problems with trying to deter with terrorist attacks – they’re not credible until fired, and once fired are an act of war not deterrence. If they’re discovered prior to firing but after emplacement they’re an act of war.

    Every nation which has had nuclear weapon ambitions gets ballistic missiles, because they’re the other half of the coin (though one could make an argument for aircraft dropped gravity bombs with some potential adversary pairs). Missiles make nuclear deterrence credible. Bombs on ships are only a way to try to destroy an enemy by suprise, and there’s no way anyone could destroy the US by suprise that way. All they’d do is damage us enough that we’d have no reluctance to turn their cities into glass. Which is really a deterrent to them trying that approach in the first place, rather than a deterrent to us.

  10. FSB

    Mr Herbert,
    you cannot invoke deterrence when it suits you and not invoke it when it does not.

    When you have your MD set up, if Iran wanted to get you it will sail a warhead over.

    I agree with you that Iran is deterrable — therefore we do not need to waste dollars on an unworkable leaky defense that would only give our leaders a false sense of security.

    Missile defense does not dissuade Iran from making missiles/warheads — it encourages them to make even more to make sure some get thru the leaky defense.

    Please save your spurious outspending argument — we are talking about the 10 or so interceptors to be situated in Czech republic. No-one is even thinking of anything much more than that — except you and the Heritage foundation.

    Let’s spend the $ on something that works.

    The National Defense University agrees Iran can be deterred without a MD.

  11. FSB

    I’ll go with Garwin’s view

  12. George William Herbert (History)

    FSB –

    If Iran is deterrable, there’s no reason to be concerned if they get ICBMs and nuclear weapons. All the current issues with them, and North Korea, are fundamentally fears that at some level MAD will break down and someone will pop one off anyways, despite the promise of impending doom upon themselves if they do.

    There are copious volumes of crisis studies and leader psychology studies that show all the flaws of classical naive rational deterrence theory, both in nuclear and conventional military issues. Several a priori obviously conventionally deterrable wars have been fought, for example.

    The US initial missile defense deployment plan is aimed at two threats – a “few missiles” from NK and / or Iran (what they seem to be building towards now), or a small / unitary accidental launch from (insert other ICBM state). If Iran or North Korea initiate hundreds-of-ICBMs buildouts we would have a perfectly good reason to reconsider BMD force structures.

    If that happens, those nations are spending themselves into the ground on ICBMs and we can afford to buy enough interceptors to severely attrit them at the very least even with ludicrously low Pk. Again – them making more to get through the “leaky defense” is a feature, not a bug, as long as we spend enough to limit the probability of leak. The proximate (but not underlying) cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union was running out of money to keep pace militarily. The relative economic strength ratios in play with these two potential adversaries are significantly more in our favor. We are better off if they render themselves in ruin economically and take themselves out of the current confrontational arms race – we can always make friends and send foreign aid later once saner governments come to power.

    If missile defense really cannot work – is too fundamentally flawed – then this approach is folly. But that is not proven nor well argued. What is demonstrated is that the BMD interceptors work reliably in prototype / limited deployment tests against the test target ranges we’ve tested. Whether actual targets are of that magnitude of Pk challenge or not is unknown, whether deployed missiles in silos have the Pk that the test units had is unknown. But those are unknowns, not known to be falses. We should attempt to disambiguate the situation rather than assuming that I’m right, but there’s no evidence that I’m wrong. The answer is Mu – we don’t actually know. But we can put realistic limits on our knowledge and the possible issues at play, and go from there.

  13. FSB

    I agree that “we don’t know” if MD works.

    BEFORE we field it — stupidly thinking that it may — let’s test it.


    How to test? Make a red-team blue-team attack-defense scenario over a period of a year — with the reds given the benefit of surprise and countermeasures. Let’s see how many warheads the blue team gets. Any bets? I venture <20% at best.

    Anyway, even with a MD — working or not — Iran can sail a nuke over in a ship without leaving a trail from whence it came. A deterrent-free attack.

    MD is good policy only if you are feeding at the defense contractor trough.

  14. Josh (History)

    At this point — alas — we seem to be repeating ourselves. Allow me to suggest we move on.

    Sam Roggeveen had something interesting to say about the relationship between JDEC and missile defense. He brings up a paper John Steinbruner wrote eight years ago on this exact same topic. Nothing new under the sun. But don’t take it from me. Go and read.