There is no shortage of ideas of how President Obama can signal his displeasure with the Kremlin’s antics in Crimea. Suggestions range from the ridiculous — deny Russia the right to host the World Football Cup in 2018; to the pointless — provide military assistance to Syrian rebel groups; to the obvious — deny visas to Russian government officials; to the potentially dangerous – deploy NATO forces to Ukraine. None of these actions would force Russia to unhand Crimea. At best, they would serve to impose costs on the Putin regime and set the precedent for further and more severe actions if the Kremlin takes additional aggressive steps towards Ukraine.
There is a simple step that would echo down the Kremlin’s halls and signal a basic change in U.S.-Russian relations. The Department of Defense should restart the program to develop the Standard Missile 3 (SM-3) Block IIB.
Back in 2009, the Obama Administration very much wanted to “reset” relations with Russia and distinguish its policy on missile defenses from that of its predecessor. To that end, it announced a radical change in deployment strategy. It cancelled the Bush Administration’s plan to deploy radars and ground-based midcourse interceptors (the same type as were being deployed as part of the U.S. National Missile Defense System) in Poland and the Czech Republic. This deployment had generated tremendous opposition from Moscow and even threats to deploy nuclear capable ballistic missiles in Eastern Europe.
In its place, President Obama proposed a Phased Adaptive Architecture (PAA). The proposed alternative was based largely on the proven Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS) with the SM-3. Initially, the PAA was a series of four successive deployment phases, each one involving improved versions of both the Aegis system and the SM-3. One of the key aspects of the PAA was the deployment of the Aegis BMDS with interceptor missiles on land, called Aegis Ashore. Each successive deployment of the PAA would be able to address longer-range and more stressing threats with the final system, based on a brand new and much more powerful interceptor, the SM-3 Block IIB, capable of intercepting intercontinental ballistic missiles fired toward Europe or the United States from the Middle East.
The initial phases of the program have been proceeding pretty much on schedule. Aegis BMDS-capable ships have been deployed to a forward base in Rota, Spain. The first installment of the Aegis Ashore will be deployed in 2015 in Romania with another system placed in Poland in 2018. The ships currently in station, equipped with the SM-3 Block IA, will be the Romanian installation initially. By 2018 these and the installation in Poland will get the more powerful SM-3 Block IB. An even more capable interceptor, the SM-3 Block IIA is being jointly developed with Japan and should be ready for deployment just after 2020.
Even though none of the planned missile defense deployments in Europe could interfere with the Russian strategic deterrent — the geometries for interception are all wrong — the Russian government remained vehemently opposed to the PAA. It is very important to President Putin’s security strategy that Europe remain vulnerable to Russian missile threats. Russia has consistently demanded treaty-based limits on missile defense deployments in Europe which the United States has refused to provide. However, in an attempt to temper Russian opposition to the program and save the reset, in 2013 the Obama Administration cancelled the plan to develop the last of the four Standard Missile variants, the Block IIB.
Now President Obama has the opportunity to correct the mistake he made a year ago, send President Putin a clear message and put a spike into the Kremlin’s strategy. The President should direct the Department of Defense to restart the program to develop the SM-3 Block IIB. President Putin needs to clearly understand that the United States and its Western allies will take all necessary steps to defend themselves from potential Russian aggression.
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