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Russians Challenge U.S. Over Radar in Norway

by Elizabeth Becker
Tuesday, February 22, 2000
The New York Times

WASHINGTON, Feb. 21 -- Russia and the United States are in a drawn-out dispute over a powerful American-made radar in Norway that can track missile launchings in western Russia, according to American and Russian officials.

The radar began operating last summer as a joint United States-Norwegian intelligence project at Vardo, 40 miles from the Russian border. It has been the subject of talks between Washington and Moscow ever since its assembly began a year and a half ago, officials said.

Aside from intelligence concerns, Russians have objected that the radar, which was previously used in the United States for research into antimissile defenses, could be linked to a proposed new system to defend American territory against limited nuclear missiles attacks. The Clinton Administration insists that it wants the system to guard against countries like North Korea, not Russia.

Officials discussed the installation of the new radar, which has not been widely noted outside Norway, in response to questions about two articles that will be published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on Tuesday. The articles, by a Norwegian journalist and an American scientist, describe the radar's capacities and raise questions about its purpose.

The radar was built in the United States and initially used in 1995 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., in several early tests of the national missile defense system, according to Pentagon officials. Eventually it was dismantled and shipped to Norway, the successor to an intelligence radar operated during the cold war by Norway and the United States to monitor Soviet missile tests.

While Norway and the United States say the primary purpose of the new radar is to monitor space debris, Russia has raised concerns that it will track and gather intelligence on missiles launched from bases in western Russia.

"The Russian military believes that the Norwegian radar is meant to monitor their ballistic missiles and that the radar was developed as part of the national missile defense," said Anatoly Diakov, director of the Center for Arms Control at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology.

The new radar at Vardo can collect detailed radar images of Russian warheads and decoys, providing the United States with a very precise "radar fingerprint" using the same radar frequencies as the proposed national missile defense system, according to Theodore A. Postol, an M.I.T. scientist and author of one of the articles in the Bulletin, a nonprofit publication that specializes in nuclear arms control.

"The Vardo radar can provide critical information for a national missile defense system aimed specifically at Russia," Mr. Postol writes.

The Clinton administration has been pressing Russia to modify the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty, which prohibits either country from building a system to protect their entire countries from a missile attack. President Clinton has set a self-imposed deadline to decide this summer whether to build a national missile defense system.

While early warning radar stations in Greenland and Britain would be upgraded and used in such a system, administration officials denied that the Norway radar was ever intended to be part of one.

Kenneth H. Bacon, the Pentagon spokesman, said Russia and the United States had discussed the radar on a number of occasions over the last 18 months "up to the assistant secretary level." He refused to say whether the radar was collecting intelligence on Russian missiles, but said that it "does not violate either the letter or the spirit of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty."

When the Soviet Union built a radar at Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, in the 1980's to fill a gap in its radar coverage, the United States argued that it was a violation of the 1972 treaty and persuaded the Russians to dismantle it. But during negotiations last October, the United States offered to help Russia complete a large missile tracking radar if it agreed to modify the ABM treaty.

The Vardo radar's initial use to track missiles in national missile defense tests was first disclosed in the Norwegian newspaper Bergens Tidende by Inge Sellevag, a journalist who is the other author writing in the Bulletin this week.

Until then, the Norwegian government had said the radar would track space debris, an assertion questioned by Mr. Postol. He contended that space debris is best monitored by radar built near the equator.

"The radar appears to be doing things that makes it look as if the defense system is aimed at Russia," says Mr. Postol, who admits that this "is a very gray area."

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company

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START Web Site Special Section: ABM Treaty Modification: Should Russia Agree?