Should the Arms Control Community Back Off Missile Defense?

Cross-posted from the CUNY Graduate Center Advocate.

If you followed the halting progress that the New START nuclear treaty made towards ratification at the end of last year, you know missile defense was a bone of contention. Russians fear its implementation while American conservatives fear the implications on national security of its lack of implementation. Nevertheless, Republican senators swallowed their pride and ratified New START while the Obama administration managed to win Moscow’s acknowledgment that current U.S. missile defense systems were no threat to Russia.

Wait, missile defense is still around? “Star Wars” gained infamy at the 1986 Reykjavík summit when it became the security blanket that Ronald Reagan couldn’t relinquish in return for the prospect held out by Mikhail Gorbachev of the abolition of nuclear weapons. Replete with lasers, particle-beam weapons, and space-based systems, hasn’t it since been laughed off the national security landscape?

Besides the experimental nature of the weapons, it was obvious that, during the Cold War, a system that could stop Russia’s prodigious ICBMs from raining down on the United States was decades from coming to fruition. But, thanks in part to relentless lobbying by the likes of right-wing defense think tanks such as the National Institute of Public Policy, once the Cold War ended, the defense establishment decided that, instead of turning a crisis — peace — into an opportunity — cutting back defense spending — it would turn the newfound lack of a crisis into one.

In other words, at least for the purpose of the missile defense discussion, it conceded that Russia’s nuclear weapons were no longer a central concern of the United States. Instead, it reconfigured the concept of missile defense as a way to halt nuclear attacks from rogue countries with their starter kit nuke programs, such as North Korea and, ostensibly, Iran. Russia, of course, wasn’t buying that. For instance, while the missile defense program on U.S. soil has been winnowed down to Ground-Based Interceptor missiles, they’re based in the region of the United States in closest proximity to Russia — Alaska and California.

Meanwhile, in September 2009, President Obama announced that the United States was scrapping plans for missile-defense sites in East Europe, in favor of the sea-borne Aegis system. But the United States still harbors long-range plans to to install missile-defense systems just to the west of the former Soviet Union. Besides, though temporarily mollified enough to sign New START, Moscow has long doubted that missile defense is meant to intercept missiles from North Korea and Iran because it knows full well both states are a long way from fielding missiles that can reach Europe. Russia, of course, deploys its own missile-defense, such as the S-300 anti-ballistic missile. In fact, it had planned to sell the system to Iran until a recent round of U.N. sanctions against Iran forced Russia to abandon that idea.

The fundamental question that the controversy over missile defense evokes is: How can a nuclear power, such as Russia, object to the wish of another nuclear power, such as the United States, to defend itself with weapons intended solely to block Russia’s weapons once launched, not target its soil and people?

In other words, how can a state be faulted for attempting to erect a shield to shelter it from nuclear weapons? Turns out, conventional thinking on nuclear strategy holds that missile defense upsets — “destabilizes” — the whole nuclear-deterrence apple cart.

Here’s how it works. A state — Russia again — is considered vulnerable to a first, or initial, strike by the United States, during the course of which many of its surface (as opposed to those based in submarines, which are, of course, mobile) nuclear weapons would be wiped out. (This argument requires a suspension of belief that Russia would refrain from launching a counterattack on warning, that is, while the U.S. missiles were in the air, instead of waiting until they struck — still the only sure-fire method of verifying a nuclear attack.)

Russia’s retaliatory force would be further diminished if much of it was destroyed while in the air by U.S. missile defense. (This requires a suspension of belief that the day when missile defense is that effective will ever come). The crux of this theory is that since Russia knows that under this arrangement it’s going to lose missiles both on the ground and in the air it’s motivated to build more to compensate. (Why Russian missile defense isn’t considered destabilizing to America’s “deterrent” is a question seldom, if ever, raised.)

That’s what nuclear strategists mean when they make the claim that missile defense destabilizes deterrence — it disturbs the fragile “balance of power.” I know: you’re incredulous that in the same year in which we toast the Cold War’s two-decade-old demise that the United States and Russia still relegate themselves to such old-school thinking. The other supposedly destabilizing characteristic of building a missile defense system is that it’s a red flag to Russia signaling the United States plans to mount a first strike. (Of course, Moscow knows the unlikelihood of that scenario; it’s just playing politics.

Ironically in the 1960s and 1970s roles were reversed. The United States feared Soviet anti-ballistic missile defense and consequently fortified its ballistic missile offense. But the two superpowers realized that it was to the benefit of each to refrain from running what’s been called a “missile defense arms race.” The 1972 ABM Treaty set a limit to missile defense systems and offensive warhead totals were reduced in kind during the 1980s and 1990s. But, in defiance of the common wisdom that held that reductions in nuclear weapons required keeping missile defense to a minimum, the Bush administration withdrew from the ABM treaty in 2002.

Again, it must be asked: why does the burden fall on the designated victim to keep its defenses to a minimum lest the aggressor augment its armaments? It’s like saying the best defense is a bad defense.

Counterintuitive to a fare-thee-well, this argument provides ammunition for conservatives. First, though, we need to mention that many of those who support missile defense share Reagan’s child-like fantasy of an umbrella that will shield us from the very same weapons that we’re still allowed to wield. Second, consciously or not, many are only too glad to see the other side build up its offensive capabilities to justify the continuation of the U.S. nuclear-weapons industry.

Granted, steeped in game theory, nuclear strategy is not for everybody. But faulting a party for defending him or herself not only encourages passivity, it’s a form of blaming the victim. Imagine holding someone who’s been attacked responsible for his fate because, in the act of putting up his dukes or even just adopting a defensive crouch, he’s provoked the bully into not just attacking with his fists but upping the ante and bringing a baseball bat to the affair.

In other words, those of us opposed to missile defense should cease and desist making the case that defending ourselves tips the nuclear scale. Not only do neither conservatives nor the public understand the argument, it provokes them. While polls on missile defense are few and far between, back in 2006 a pro-missile defense group found that over 70 percent of New York state citizens supported missile defense and in 2004, 84% of Floridians.

In effect, this approach resembles another mistake made by progressives: reciting the mantra that the U.S. presence in the Middle East creates terrorists. Even though, these days, realpolitik types ring in with this refrain as often as progressives, the reaction of conservatives runs something like this: since when does the United States worry about making enemies when (in their eyes, anyway) it’s in the right?

But opponents of missile defense, who, by definition, are also disarmament advocates, still have a great fall-back position, right? When you get down to it, what good is this curtain of the heavens if it fails to protect us when we most need it — against states like Russia with formidable nuclear arsenals? In fact, as missile defense stands, it’s questionable whether it would even prove effective against North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

But making that case is walking into a trap. It caters to conservatives all too eager to stand in judgment of a state, because of its perceived potential for mounting such an attack, as insufficiently “rational” enough to be allowed to develop a nuclear weapons program. In other words, despite failing to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Israel and India, yes. Iran and North Korea, on the other hand, no. Worst of all, it encourages a recent tendency on the part of nuclear-weapons advocates to deny the link between nonproliferation and disarmament. States deemed unworthy of nuclear weapons are to be denied them, by force if necessary, without reciprocity in the form of substantive disarmament (beyond the tepid New START), as ordained by the NPT, on the part of the large states.

Missile defense is ultimately a more defensible investment than nuclear weapons. But it’s best for disarmament advocates to keep their eyes on the big picture — nuclear weapons themselves, as well as the overarching subject of massive casualties. Missile defense is just a subdivision of nuclear weapons and when the rationale powering their acquisition runs out of steam, the umbrella of missile defense will collapse upon itself as well.

In the interim, one argument remains to which we can avail ourselves. If, however unlikely, we ever succeed in building the perfect missile defense, why would we need nuclear weapons any longer?

References

Podvig, Pavel. “Russia and missile defense in Eastern Europe,” russianforces.org, August 26, 2009.

Podvig, Pavel, “The false promise of missile defense,” The Bulletin Online, June 14, 2009.

Thielmann, Greg, “Strategic Missile Defense: A Threat to Future Nuclear Arms Reductions?,” Threat Assessment Brief, Arms Control Association, January 16, 2010.