Why Sarah Palin Is Wrong About Missile Defense Cooperation with Russia

by Daryl G. Kimball

This week former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin parroted the misinformed critiques by Republican members of Congress and former CIA director James Woolsey about sharing missile launch data with Russia. In an entry on her Facebook page, Palin wrote:

“President Obama wants to give Russia our missile defense secrets because he believes that we can buy their friendship and cooperation with this taxpayer-funded gift.  But giving military secrets and technologies to a rival or competitor like Russia is just plain dumb.  You can’t buy off Russia.  And giving them advanced military technology will not create stability.”

Unfortunately for Palin, President Obama is not “giving them advanced military technology” or  “missile defense secrets.” Not even close.

Palin’s message grossly mischaracterizes the facts and overlooks the history of bipartisan support for technical cooperation with Russia on missile defense and early warning of missile attack.

As we recently argued in an Arms Control Association Issue Brief, those who would oppose U.S.-Russian-NATO cooperation on missile defense would deny the United States and our allies better warning in the event of a potential missile attack from a third country, like Iran.

The very idea of U.S.-Russian cooperation on missile defense has its origins in President Ronald Reagan’s offer to share missile defense technology with the Soviet Union.

In 1983, President Reagan revived missile defense research efforts with the vision of rendering nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete.” His Strategic Defense Initiative spurred research on various missile interceptor technologies. Later, at the October 1986 Reykjavik summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan suggested that both countries abandon “mutual assured destruction” by agreeing to eliminate all offensive ballistic missiles within 10 years while researching and jointly developing strategic missile defenses.

The George W. Bush administration also supported missile defense cooperation. Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Stephen G. Rademaker said in 2004, “We want missile defense cooperation to be an important part of the new relationship the United States and Russia are building for the 21st century.”

To  do so, the Bush administration began seeking a Defense Technical Cooperation Agreement (DTCA) with Russia. This agreement would have addressed a broad range of cooperative research and development activities, including missile defense.

At their April 2008 summit in Sochi, Russia, Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin endorsed exploring a broader anti-missile architecture that would involve Europe, Russia, and the United States as “equal partners.”

The 2008 Report of the bipartisan Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States found that the United States should “strengthen international cooperation for missile defense … with Russia.”

The fiscal 2011 Defense Authorization Act, which passed the Senate by unanimous consent last summer, contains Sense of Congress language  that  supports “the efforts of the United States Government and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to pursue cooperation with the Russian Federation on ballistic missile defense relative to Iranian missile threats.”

The New START resolution of ratification approved in December 2010 by a bipartisan 71-26 majority declares that the Senate “stands ready to cooperate with the Russian Federation on strategic defensive capabilities,” as long as such cooperation does not constrain U.S. missile defenses, which it won’t do.

The Barack Obama administration is now continuing the DTCA talks with Russia to provide a basis for potential sharing of early-warning data regarding missile launches by other states, which could improve U.S. capabilities against Iranian missiles.

The Pentagon has been interested in gaining access to data from Russian radars located northwest of Iran, such as the Gabala radar in Azerbaijan, that could provide useful tracking information to NATO on an Iranian missile launch toward Europe.

As Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in March 2011:

“This collaboration may include exchanging launch information, setting up a joint data fusion center, allowing greater transparency with respect to our missile defense plans and exercises, and conducting a joint analysis to determine areas of future cooperation.”

Under the draft U.S. proposal, the joint data fusion center would allow Russian and NATO officers to have simultaneous access to missile launch data from sensors in NATO countries and Russia, giving both sides a full, real-time picture of potential threats. These centers would combine data from fixed and mobile radar sites, as well as from satellites.

Sharing early-warning data on missile launches with Russia would clearly strengthen—not weaken—U.S. and European security by improving the ability of the United States (and NATO) to detect a missile launch from Iran or another country, while decreasing Russian concerns about U.S. strategic missile defense capabilities and intentions.

Palin calls this bipartisan idea supported by Republicans and Democrats, as well as the United States NATO allies to be “just plain dumb.”

The American people deserve a more serious and informed approach from their elected leaders.

Before  other potential presidential candidates or members of Congress weigh-in on missile defense cooperation or nuclear weapons policy matters, they might want to put aside the temptation to score partisan political points and review the facts, as well as the costs and benefits of the policy options on U.S. security.

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