It’s common knowledge that, when it comes to protecting us from a nuclear launch by a major power such as Russia or China, missile defense has been found woefully lacking. At best, it’s supposed to protect the United States and Europe from states with small nuclear weapon programs such as North Korea and Iran. (Even though it’s efficacy in those situations is questionable as well.)
Nevertheless, Moscow professes to believe that our installations in Europe are intended as a defense against Russia’s nukes. It also maintains that missile defense deployed in the United States, as well, is a cover behind which the United States could launch a first strike. Much of its counterstrike, Moscow fears, would then be deflected by U.S. missile defense, while the United States would wipe out much of Russia’s remaining land-based nuclear missiles, thus diminishing the latter’s second-strike capabilities.
Thus, according to this line of thought, the state against which a state such as the United States is seeking to defend itself with nuclear weapons is motivated to build that many more nuclear weapons and delivery systems to make up for those it would lose in the air and on the ground. That’s why missile defense is considered “destabilizing” to the balance of nuclear power.
Missile defense also cuts off our defense nose to spite its face with Iran, but in a different way. By way of prelude to an explanation comes a summary of a new Threat Assessment Brief for the Arms Control Association by Greg Thielmann titled Iran’s Missile Program And Its Implications For U.S. Missile Defense.
Although plans for expanding U.S. strategic missile defenses focus on the Iranian ICBM threat, that threat is not emerging as was previously predicted. Iran conducted no long-range ballistic missile tests in 2012 and has not flown even the larger space launch vehicle that it displayed two years ago, which could have helped advance ICBM technology. [It] continues to focus on short- and medium-range rather than longer-range ballistic missiles.
Nor, the summary reminds us, has Iran even decided to build nuclear weapons yet. Thielmann himself writes that
… although neither Iran nor North Korea has deployed ICBMs, ambitious U.S. missile defense efforts to counter them have [as explained above — RW] helped dim immediate prospects of negotiating additional limits on the countries that potentially pose the greatest threats to the United States—Russia and China.
He expands on what I wrote above.
Although often dismissed in the West as disingenuous in expressing concerns about U.S. missile defense, Russian and Chinese security officials are not immune to the kind of “worst-case” analysis [that was] frequently demonstrated by the U.S. officials with regard to Soviet strategic missile defense capabilities throughout the Cold War.
An understanding that the Iranian ICBM threat is less acute than previously depicted dovetails with the growing realization that U.S. strategic defense capabilities are less robust than previously portrayed. A logical response to these developments would be to suspend the deployment of a new, more advanced … interceptor in the fourth phase of the planned European [missile defense] deployment until the Iranian ICBMs against which it is directed start to materialize.
In fact …
If properly communicated to Moscow and Beijing, such a U.S. policy adjustment … could give Russia and China additional incentives to help restrain Iran’s missile program. It could also open a pathway to progress in negotiating further reductions in Russia’s excessive strategic nuclear forces and reduce the likelihood that China will substantially increase its long-range ballistic missile forces.
In other words, if the United States backed off on missile defense, it might increase Russia and China’s cooperation — setting aside for the moment that it’s in the service of a pitiless sanctions regiment — with us on Iran. As it stands now, a toxic byproduct of our obsession with Iran’s nuclear program is the increased chance of nuclear war with Russia and China.
When it comes to nuclear weapons, you have to keep your eye on the ball.