Vital Interdependence
No. 2 2012 April/June
Kevin Ryan

Kevin Ryan is Executive Director for Research at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center and a retired U.S. Army Brigadier General. 

Simon Saradzhyan

Research fellow at Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University.

U.S.-Russian Space Cooperation as an Example for Cooperating on Missile Defense

Russian spacecraft are currently the only means of transportation for U.S. astronauts traveling to and from the International Space Station. Russian engines power U.S. rockets that the American government relies upon to launch military cargos into orbit. Russia has also become the sole supplier of plutonium fuel used in batteries that power critical instruments on board of U.S. interplanetary probes. In short, Houston would have a problem without Moscow these days. Similarly, Russia’s rocket makers would not be able to grow their business if it were not for hundreds of millions of dollars that they have earned from launching American astronauts and cargo into space.

This deep interdependence between the United States and Russia in space exploration is taken almost for granted today, but there was a time not so long ago when the two nations viewed space solely as an area of strategic competition.

In 1960, U.S. presidential candidate John F. Kennedy ran on a platform that promised American superiority over the Soviet Union in space exploration and missile defense. Shocked in 1961 by the success of the Soviets in putting a man in space first, President Kennedy committed the country to put a man on the moon before the decade was out.

Manned space flight became the poster child of U.S.-Russian competition, and we sacrificed lives and treasure to beat each other in that race. Space flight involved the most advanced technologies and sensitive secrets of that time. Cooperation between the United States and Russia was unthinkable. Imagine if in 1966 on the eve of the first Apollo test launch, President Johnson offered to Russia to join forces to explore space. Yet, by summer 1976 the two countries had launched the joint mission, Apollo-Soyuz. Today the two space programs are not only cooperative; they are dependent on each other.

Today the U.S. and Russia find themselves once more facing the prospect of a serious and expensive competition over missiles – defensive missiles. These defensive missiles also involve some of the most advanced technologies and sensitive secrets of our time. On the issue of missile defense, however, the two countries have not yet managed to transition to cooperation. Moreover, today we find ourselves once more facing the prospect of a serious (and expensive) competition over missiles.

But the way in which the U.S. and Russia changed their space competition into cooperation can serve as a model for changing the relationship over missile defense.

The realities of today preclude a truly joint missile defense system, but even separate systems can be combined at some level to provide a better overall defense against threats that have either materialized or will become real in the near future.

There are five concrete steps that the United States and Russia can take to build such better defense, taking our cue from the mutually beneficial experience gained in space, provided that they manage to resolve their current differences over whether Washington should provide guarantees of non-targeting to Moscow.



1. Set Mutually Agreed Goals

The United States and post-Communist Russia could not have achieved great strides in their cooperation in manned space exploration, if they didn’t agree about their common goal – the International Space Station (ISS). If Moscow and Washington had not agreed to eventually drop their separate space station programs (America’s planned Freedom and Russia’s ageing Mir) in favor of co-leading a 15-nation effort to build an international station, Americans would not be hitching rides to space on Russian rockets and Russians would not be supplying fuel for American inter-planetary probes. Nor would the two nations be currently discussing implementation of their next common space goal – manned voyage to Mars.

Following the example set in space, Russia, the United States and its NATO allies should begin by attempting to focus their missile defense cooperation on agreeing on a common goal, which we believe should be building systems capable of deterring and defending against current and future ballistic missile threats.

This is a difficult task. The governments of Russia, U.S. and its NATO allies have ordered joint assessments of the potential ballistic missile threats, but apparently cannot agree on the number one candidate – Iran. Russian leadership maintains Iran’s evolving missile program doesn’t yet pose a real threat to either Europe or the United States or itself. Russian generals suspect that the actual purpose of America’s planned web of radars and interceptors in Europe is to eventually undermine capabilities of Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent. In comparison, the United States and its allies in Europe maintain that Iran’s missile threat is imminent and requires a multi-layered multi-phase response, including deployment of interceptors capable of shooting down ICBMs.

U.S. and Russian planners should avoid getting tangled up trying to determine which countries will pose the biggest ballistic missile threat in the future. The proliferation of ballistic missile technology is a fact recognized by all sides. North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran are just some of the countries with active programs. Agreeing on a list of specific countries against which to build cooperative missile defenses should not be the absolute prerequisite in defining a common goal for such defenses. The goal should be to defend cooperating nations from all missile threats regardless of their origin. Whether the threat comes from Iran or some other source, we must begin developing the cooperative defenses now. To wait until after the threat is deployed is to lose much of the deterrent value of the defenses.

Even in the much debated case of Iran, independent U.S. and Russian experts already agree on potential of Iran’s missile program. Authors of EastWest Institute’s 2009 paper “Iran’s Nuclear and Missile Potential: A Joint Threat Assessment by U.S. and Russian Technical Experts,” note: “On the basis of the technology currently available to it, Iran could hypothetically build IRBMs and ICBMs.” Russian strategists should keep in mind that Iran, once it acquires long-range ballistic missiles, will become more assertive in challenging not only the West, but also Russia, given its historical interest in influencing affairs in the Caspian region, South Caucasus and Central Asia. The risk from ballistic missiles will, of course, grow exponentially if Iran and other countries developing them obtain nuclear weapons. According to ex-secretary of Russia’s Security Council Andrei Kokoshin, Iran’s existing missile program makes “military-strategic sense” only if the missiles are to be outfitted with warheads carrying weapons of mass destruction, primarily nuclear weapons.

2. Synchronize Bureaucracies for Cooperation and Joint Decision-Making

As noted above, examples of successful U.S.-Russian space cooperation date back to the Apollo–Soyuz docking in 1975 when the two nations were still locked in Cold War rivalry.

Back then, NASA had no counterpart in Russia with which to work. The Soviet Ministry of Defense and Ministry of General Machine-Building, which together ran the nation’s space effort, sought to hide their roles in the program. Moscow designated the completely separate Soviet Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Space Studies as the public proxy to represent the Soviet side in the dialogue with the United States on the Apollo–Soyuz project. This added layer of bureaucracy slowed and complicated interaction between the two countries’ space programs. Today, cooperation in missile defense suffers from similar institutional problems. The Ministry of Defense determines Russia’s policy response to U.S. missile defense deployments, but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs represents the country and serves as the interlocutor with the United States. Likewise, in the U.S. missile defense policy is a compromise of several constituents including the White House, Department of Defense, Department of State, House of Representatives, Senate and the defense industry: each sometimes representing themselves separately from the others. This mix of stake holders is made even more problematic by the fact that very few people actually understand all the aspects of the missile defense issue together – technical, tactical, political, and strategic.

A major advance in post Cold War space cooperation between Washington and Moscow was establishment of the Russian Space Agency (RSA). In April 1992, President Boris Yeltsin founded the RSA, providing NASA a direct single counterpart for the first time, greatly facilitating cooperation. Russia and the U.S. must synchronize their bureaucracies once again. On the U.S. side, the organization with the most direct impact on Missile Defense policy is the Missile Defense Agency (MDA). MDA researches the technology, acquires the systems, shepherds the capability from the lab to the battle field, and advises defense department leaders in development of policy. Russia should consider designating a counterpart to MDA as it did in the case of space exploration. The Kremlin could, for example, empower Russia’s newest branch of service, the Aerospace Defense Forces, to act as direct counterpart in the dialogue with MDA on missile defense cooperation projects. Designating a military entity to represent Russia to MDA and the civilian leadership of the defense department is important, given the decisive voice that the Russian General Staff has in Russia’s policy on missile defense. The United States should concentrate primary responsibility for missile defense cooperation in the military where the true expertise in integrating systems lies. The United States and Russia should also establish a joint consultative mechanism for industry to explore mutually beneficial business development opportunities in the realm of missile defense.

3. Establish Comprehensive Legal Framework for Successful Cooperation

Wide-ranging U.S.-Russian cooperation in space would not have been possible if the two countries hadn’t created a comprehensive legal framework for such cooperation. In June 1992, Russia and the U.S. signed the U.S.-Russian Space Cooperation Agreement, which not only provided for concrete cooperative activities (such as the first launch of a U.S.-made satellite on a Russian rocket and the docking of U.S. Space shuttles with Russia’s Mir station), but also called for “detailed technical studies of the possible use of [Russian] space technology” for U.S. missions, including a new space station. That agreement was followed by another accord in September of the same year which called for possible construction of a joint space station with participation of other countries. The September 1992 agreement became possible after Russia agreed in principle to abide by the Missile Technology Control Regime and not transfer rocket engine technology to third countries. In Fall 1993, NASA and the Russian Space Agency formally agreed on a plan to bring Russia into what was then a U.S.-led international project to build a new space station. And in January 1998 meeting in Washington, DC, government officials from the United States, Russia and 13 other countries signed the International Space Station Intergovernmental Agreement and a number of other agreements to establish the framework for cooperation on construction and operation of the International Space Station. Zarya, the first segment of the ISS, which was built by Russia and financed by the United States, was launched on top of a Russian rocket, less than 10 months later.

An analogous comprehensive package of agreements on missile defense is absent today for several reasons primarily because discussion between the two sides revolves around limitations on the system and not on ways in which the two sides could share the burden of creating missile defenses.

Any missile defense agreement should provide for the same kinds of concrete activities that the earlier space agreements created. These activities could include: continuous sharing of data, exchanges of liaison officers, joint exercises in detecting and intercepting missiles and, designing cooperative missile defenses. The United States and NATO have already committed to many of these ideas, but incorporating them into a legal agreement would go at least part way to meeting Russia’s demand for more reliability than non-binding “political statements” provide.

An agreement on missile defense cooperation, which did not limit U.S. defenses, but did guarantee Russia some of the transparency it desires (and the United States has promised) could be a compromise that begins to establish a way forward on missile defense. The agreement could also reaffirm that “NATO missile defense is not directed against Russia and will not undermine Russia’s strategic deterrence capabilities” as stated in the alliance’s Chicago Summit Declaration of May 2012. The United States and Russia could conclude this agreement bilaterally or, they could work through a NATO-Russia framework.

4. Ease Restrictions to Technology Sharing

When President Ronald Reagan first announced the effort to build a missile defense shield in 1983, he famously offered to share the technology for the system with the Soviet Union because he understood the instability that missile defenses created in the strategic balance. Every president since has offered to “cooperate” with Russia on missile defenses but, for many reasons that cooperation has stopped short of genuine technological cooperation – certainly nothing on the scale of our cooperation in space technology. The American instinct to protect national and industrial secrets is understandable but, what has America missed by not taking advantage of the knowledge and expertise of Russians scientists and technicians?

In the case of space cooperation there have been a number of instances of successful transfers of technology between Russia and the United States. The best known example is the ongoing delivery of RD-180 engines by Russia’s NPO Energomash to Lockheed Martin for integration into Atlas 5 rockets. The Atlas 5 is one of two launch vehicles the U.S. government uses for putting key military satellites into orbit. Russian technologies are also incorporated into commercial space efforts by private American companies like Orbital Sciences, which uses the Russian made NK-33 rocket engine in its Taurus II launch vehicle. America’s Mars Science Laboratory, launched this year to search for life on the red planet, relies on Russian-produced Plutonium-238 to power its batteries: the same with NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, currently en route to Pluto.

To facilitate technology sharing in missile defense cooperation, the United States and Russia should sign the Ballistic Missile Defense Cooperation Agreement, which the two sides had discussed in 2009-2010, but have yet to ink. The agreement would support exchanges of data on missile defense technologies, including information on interceptor propulsion systems. The agreement would encourage Russian industry to be involved: not just in piecemeal work but in substantive development and manufacturing. Such technological cooperation would provide greater transparency into the true capabilities of U.S. missile defenses against Russian ICBM’s and help assuage Russia’s concerns. More importantly to American businesses, it would leverage the creative input of Russian scientists, known through the years of joint space cooperation for their technological creativeness.

A 2009 study headed by former National Security Advisor, General Brent Scowcroft, titled “Beyond Fortress America” concluded that America’s 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. According to the study, the current system restricts the flow of information, technology, and scientists, negatively impacting U.S. competitiveness and security. The U.S. and Russia could benefit significantly from technology sharing in missile defense, if both governments would open the door for industry to pursue cooperation in this sphere.

5. Explore Synergies to Cut Costs

One of the factors that drove the U.S. and Russia to cooperate in space was money – or rather a lack of it. NASA, unable to afford its own launch costs, needed Russian rockets to get U.S. satellites and people into space. Russia had the excess launch capacity the U.S. needed and was eager for outside income for its space industry. Russia also possessed unique know-how from its decade-long operation of a space station which NASA and its other partners needed for construction of ISS. In short, both sides found it profitable to coordinate their programs and share costs.

NASA estimated that Russia’s involvement in design and construction of ISS would reduce funding requirements by $2 billion through the completion of space station assembly and accelerate completion of the station, improving aspects such as crew strength, crew time, electrical power, and pressurized volume. NASA has estimated it would have cost more than $2 billion a year to continue flying Shuttles beyond 2010 at an annual rate of three flights until a new U.S. orbiter becomes operational.

The benefits from Russian cooperation with NASA are not just financial. In a 2008 Space News opinion article, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin claimed that using Russian space craft instead of prolonging the life of the Shuttle program would probably save lives. Prior to discontinuation of the Shuttle flights there was a 1 in about 80 chance of losing the crew on any single shuttle launch, according to Griffin. If NASA had continued to fly Shuttles instead of sending astronauts to ISS in Russian-made Soyuz-TMAs, then the chances of losing astronauts would have increased to be 1 in 8, according to the official.

The Russian side also benefits from cooperation between space programs. When Russia’s economic woes made it impossible to adequately fund the nation’s space budgets, it was U.S. money that helped the Russian space agency maintain its Mir space station and later in the 1990s build modules for Mir’s successor, the ISS. Russia has been making an average of $500 million per year from launches of U.S. and other Western satellites. RSA already earned some $2.5 billion from NASA and partner agencies for 42 seats on ISS-bound Soyuz craft in 2007-2010. In March 2011, NASA signed a new two-year, $753 million agreement with Russia to send American astronauts to the International Space Station through June 2016 – almost $63 million per trip. During these joint ventures Russia has shown itself responsible in living up to counter proliferation regimes and protecting U.S. technologies from illegal transfer to third countries.

Today, at a time when deep U.S. defense budget cuts are underway, supporters of continued U.S. missile defense development should consider the potential for cutting costs that cooperation with Russia could offer. The same profit-based benefits, we have outlined in the space domain, await U.S. and Russian missile defense enterprises if they are freed by their governments to explore common business interests. If, as recommended by Brent Scowcroft, the U.S. can loosen its export control regimes and, if Russia’s entrance into the World Trade Organization can solidify its financial transparency and reliability, then businesses will be able to find areas for cooperation while still protecting trade and industrial secrets. Examples could be: rocket engine production and propulsion development, sensor production and emplacement (in space, air, land and sea), command and control systems, repair and maintenance, and training. This is a job that industry can lead with government permission.

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The success of U.S.-Russia cooperation in space can and should be repeated in missile defense. Such cooperation would not be easy and would require compromise from all sides. But missile defense cooperation between the U.S. and Russia would not only make the two nations and allies safer at lower costs, but also help build the trust in one another that they seem to lack. Such trust is necessary to move beyond the Cold War deterrence system of mutual assured destruction – an outdated security relationship based on extinct threats – to one based on mutual assured stability – a security partnership against real and urgent common threats: ballistic missiles, nuclear proliferation, international terrorism and others.