National Missile Defense: Collision in Progress

On July 22, 1999 President Clinton igned legislation proclaiming it to be the policy of the United States to deploy a national missile defense (NMD) system "as soon as technologically possible." The stated purpose is to protect all U.S. territory against limited ballistic missile attacks launched deliberately by "rogue" opponents. An additional purpose widely inferred is to defend against an accidental or unauthorized missile launch from any source. In his accompanying statement, the president noted that the expression of intent did not yet authorize an actual deployment or appropriate funds to carry it out. He indicated, however, that he would make a specific deployment decision by July 2000 and promised to take technical performance and threat assessments, as well as all the costs and arms control implications of a deployment program, into account.

At the time of that announcement, the design of an NMD system had not been completed and no intercept tests had been conducted. The first such test occurred on October 2 and demonstrated that the final-stage homing mechanism could intercept a target warhead traveling at intercontinental-range speed (7 kilometers/second) when placed on a near-collision course under ideal conditions. But that test was directed against an unrealistically cooperative target, and the homing mechanism, known as the exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV), was the only major component of the eventual system involved. The first integrated test involving the radar and information management components of the envisaged system will occur in the spring of 2000, and even that test will use a surrogate booster rocket. Only three of the 19 intercept tests expected to be necessary for full system development are currently anticipated before July 2000, and the full sequence is not expected to be completed until 2005. Nonetheless, NMD development program officials are suggesting that the as-yet-unspecified and untested system might achieve its initial operating capability in 2005.

This schedule is widely assumed to have been inspired by domestic politics, since it makes no sense in technical or strategic terms. As indicated by the carefully limited character of the October test, the intercept technology is not ready for operational application, and it will clearly require more than the year allotted to make a reasonable technical judgment about overall system performance. Meanwhile, none of the alleged rogues have actually initiated deployment of ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States. The principal suspect, North Korea, has held only two tests of a missile incapable of delivering even a very small payload over intercontinental distances and has announced an indefinite moratorium on further tests pending the outcome of negotiations with the United States to terminate their program. To deploy an inadequately tested defensive system before an offensive threat is realized virtually guarantees that any threat which does subsequently appear will be able to penetrate the system. It is a disadvantage in this game to make the first technical commitment and irresponsible to do so without some form of restraint on the opposing offense-the equivalent of using antibiotics indiscriminately and thereby generating drug-resistant strains.

Why indulge in such behavior? The generally inferred answer is that President Clinton is determined to avoid a direct confrontation with congressional Republicans on the topic lest their assertive advocacy of an NMD program provide a significant partisan advantage in the upcoming presidential election. By extension of that supposition, it is assumed that the decision made in July 2000 will be arranged to sound like a deployment commitment, whatever hedges might be built into it. Prevailing judgment on Washington political circuits holds NMD to be inevitable-an assertion generally accepted by the national press.

International Reactions

There are some inescapable implications of the announced commitment, however, that are serious enough to put the eventual outcome very much in doubt. There is no realistic prospect that an NMD system could perform as advertised over the foreseeable future-a couple of decades or more. Even at the outer edges of plausible success, missile intercept systems cannot expect to keep pace over that period of time with projected improvements in offensive capabilities. Anyone seriously in the business of deploying ballistic missiles can be expected to adopt penetration techniques sufficient to get through a rudimentary NMD system. Those sufficiently concerned could also arrange to bypass the system using readily available cruise missile technology or various methods of clandestine weapons delivery. Those who are very intensely concerned could develop the capacity to negate the system by attacking its sensors. So evident are those facts that potential opponents of the United States are virtually certain to impute a far more ominous intention to a NMD deployment effort. It will be seen as cover for an effort to enhance the already imposing offensive capacities of the United States, and reactions will predictably be driven by that interpretation.

That perspective will weigh particularly heavily on Russia and China, whose assessments of the situation are potentially the most consequential. Both maintain nuclear deterrent forces based primarily on ballistic missiles that are implicitly directed against the United States. Both do so at substantial disadvantage. Russia inherited a large force from the Soviet Union with thousands of weapons nominally available but without the current financial assets or the longer-term economic base necessary to sustain that force. China has relied all along on a much smaller force of some 20 missile launchers not maintained on immediate alert status. When it comes down to daily operating conditions, both of these forces are in principle quite vulnerable to an attack initiated by the larger and technically more capable American nuclear forces.

They have substantial conventional force disadvantages as well. The sensing systems and information-handling capacity associated with the projected NMD system would meaningfully enhance the pre-emptive potential of U.S. offensive forces, both nuclear and conventional. Even the limited initial deployment of 100 interceptors designed for 4-to-1 engagements would threaten the residual deterrent forces that Russia and China could expect to survive an initial U.S. attack. Once the sensors and information management assets were in place, the number of available interceptors could be rapidly increased, particularly since the United States is simultaneously pursuing theater missile defense deployments that could be adapted to the national defense mission. Rapid expansion of the initial system would bring the United States to the threshold of a decisive disarming capability under which, in theory, the credibility of China's small deterrent force and Russia's deteriorating one would collapse completely. Summary dismissal of these concerns by official U.S. interlocutors and the failure of domestic political discussion to credit them is seen by Russia and China as indication of American disingenuousness-an impression that significantly compounds the problem.

North Korea's assessments are also consequential but on a different scale because North Korea is not remotely capable of waging a sustained military confrontation with the United States, as Russia and China might conceivably manage to do if given no other option. With a small, isolated, deteriorating economy and a society in obvious internal peril, North Korea has to fashion some form of accommodation as a matter of the most basic survival. And despite the rogue image routinely imposed upon it-an image that it has historically done a great deal to deserve-the North Korean government has indicated serious interest in accommodation since the 1994 signing of the Agreed Framework, an accord that effectively terminated its production of fissionable material. As a natural extension of that initiative, North Korea has expressed a willingness in principle to eliminate its ballistic missile program in exchange for appropriate compensation, and the test moratorium announced in September is certainly consistent with such an intention, if not yet a guarantee. As a practical matter, by the time a U.S. NMD deployment might actually be completed, North Korea is unlikely to exist in its current form. If it does survive, it will mostly likely have done so by achieving a broad accommodation with the United States that decisively restrained its missile development efforts. In the very unlikely event that the North Korean regime manages to hang on while maintaining "rogue" status, then they will presumably have mastered penetration techniques along with the other basic features of missile technology. Like Russia and China, such a North Korea would have strong reason to worry about the offensive implications of a U.S. NMD effort, but there would be less they could do about it.

At this point it is impossible to determine with any confidence how these three countries-or any of the others inherently threatened by a U.S. NMD effort-would actually react to an NMD deployment. They themselves have probably not yet made that determination. It is very apparent, however, that the situation presents those states with a severe policy dilemma that is bound to have serious consequences. If they choose to accept the U.S. NMD effort under the rationale that it is only a limited system, they can avoid immediate political confrontation and play for time, hoping that the United States will eventually acknowledge their legitimate concerns after realizing NMD's technical difficulties and strategic implications. However, that approach locks in a rationale and accepts a momentum of U.S. investment that will inexorably lead to increasing military inferiority. In a future conflict, such a stark disadvantage could be decisive. It would be exceedingly difficult for either military planners or political leaders in Russia and China to accept that danger. If, on the other hand, the major rivals and alleged rogues assertively defend their longer-term security interests, they could find themselves in an immediate political confrontation with the United States that would seriously disrupt their efforts to work out productive terms of economic engagement. A conflict between security and economic interests is as agonizing a problem as the world of policy has to offer, and when driven into desperate circumstances, people do desperate things.

U.S. allies will probably not fully credit the fears of potential opponents, but they are likely to comprehend their dilemma and will assuredly want to dampen its consequences. However popular romantic images of national missile defense might be in the United States, they will not sweep the world, and in the end, world opinion does matter for the United States.

Impending Collision

At the moment, the United States and Russia are on a collision course over this issue. The U.S. NMD program unambiguously contradicts the 1972 ABM Treaty, and Russia would have to agree to enabling amendments in order to legalize the effort. Otherwise, the United States would have to formally withdraw from the treaty or simply violate it in order to proceed with an actual deployment. The United States has proposed amendments that would accommodate the first phase of the projected program by validating the system's national coverage and providing for an interceptor site and enhanced radar facility in Alaska. It is also apparent that at subsequent phases of the program, the United States would have to ask for treaty amendments allowing both for improvements and new construction at five existing ground-radar installations and new construction at four additional sites. And it is expected that the eventual system will depend on a new network of infrared sensors deployed in space, a provision that would also require a treaty amendment and is certain to be of particular concern to Russia. Once completed, these facilities would clearly provide the basis for rapid deployment of a larger number of interceptors and a more capable overall system.

Although Russian President Boris Yeltsin has agreed in principle to discuss ABM Treaty adjustments, it is evident that Russian military analysts do not consider even the initially suggested amendments to be acceptable because they do not believe Russia can tolerate the projected deployment. Reported offers by the United States to assist in the completion of two radar installations will not make a meaningful difference in their judgment, which the Russian political system is unlikely to override. Implied U.S. threats to withdraw from the treaty if the amendments are not accepted are generally considered in Russia to be an ultimatum they cannot responsibly accept. Consensus opinion in Russia holds that the abandonment of the ABM Treaty would invalidate all of the offensive force limitation agreements. As a practical matter that amounts to a counter-ultimatum.

There is no plausible resolution of the impasse yet in sight, and a direct legal collision appears imminent. Russia could make a legal case that the October test in connection with the July legislation is already a violation of the ABM Treaty. If a deployment commitment is made in July 2000, even provisionally, construction for the interceptor site in Alaska is scheduled to begin in the spring of 2001, and the United States itself admits that pouring concrete at that site would violate the current terms of the treaty. With that in mind, close observers of the situation are freely speaking of a train wreck in progress. Given the U.S. Senate's vote against ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, it is not difficult to visualize catastrophic consequences-the cascading failure not only of the ABM Treaty but of START I, START II, and ultimately the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty itself. That sequence would be a major crisis of international security and could shake the U.S. alliance system to its foundations.

Although life is notoriously uncertain and occasionally generates miraculous escapes at the last moment, it is prudent to assume that the impending collision will not be avoided within the framework of current policy. The specific issues in question are embedded in a much broader set of security problems that cannot be resolved by the sort of marginal deals currently being discussed by the official negotiators. In the wake of the Cold War, there is a monumental imbalance in military capability throughout the world, with U.S. allies enjoying much greater protection against traditional threats than any others. This inherent discrimination is very difficult to justify or to sustain even among the current alliance members for a very practical reason: it imposes unmanageable burdens on the major societies not included-dangerously unmanageable ones in the case of Russia.

Russia's economic base is currently assessed at less than 2 percent of the United States', and it is plagued with deep structural problems highly related to the Soviet Union's ultimately unsuccessful effort to keep pace with Western military development. There is no socially feasible economic reform program yet devised that would plausibly deal with this problem, and as a result, there is no realistic prospect for rapid and sustained expansion of Russia's economic base. An unavoidable implication is that the Russian government does not have adequate financial assets to perform any of its major functions, including support of its 1.2 million-person military establishment. That establishment has been financially starved under the Russian Federation and has been progressively deteriorating for a decade. It is nonetheless responsible for what is inherently one of the most demanding security missions in the world: defense of a 20,000-kilometer perimeter, with NATO to the west and China to the east. None of the military's central missions can be performed to the standards of traditional contingency planning. No international security arrangement provides direct assistance of meaningful consequence.

Faced with an overall security problem that is essentially unmanageable in traditional terms, Russia has drifted, inevitably one might say, into comprehensive reliance on the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons to cover virtually all major security missions. But even that is not an assured redoubt. The nuclear weapons component of the Russian military establishment will deteriorate and, at any rate, is destined for financial reasons to be substantially smaller and less capable than that of its major potential opponent-the United States. In this context, the implicit threat that the U.S. NMD program poses to the highly beleaguered Russian deterrent force has very broad and very powerful resonance.

It would be unlikely under any circumstance that declarations of benign intent, however sincere and however formally expressed, would provide what Russian military planners could reasonably consider to be adequate reassurance. But even that precarious possibility has been severely prejudiced by recent history. The Soviet government that allowed German unification to occur in a swift and graceful manner believed it had been assured that NATO would not subsequently extend its jurisdiction eastward. Nonetheless, NATO quickly proceeded to do so and currently talks as if it will continue the project. In the course of its expansion process, NATO assured the Russian government that it was exclusively a defensive alliance and would never attack unless one of its members was first attacked. But a scant two years after Russia formally acceded to NATO expansion, thus granting the appearance of a consensual process, NATO conducted an air assault against Yugoslavia despite vehement Russian opposition. It did so, moreover, at its own initiative with no attempt whatsoever to secure approval from the UN Security Council, where Russia would have had legal standing to object. In the aftermath, NATO believes its action to have been fully justified, while Russia sees the entire exercise not only as a breach of promise and a violation of international legal procedure, but also as an implicit threat to Russia itself. As a result of this sequence, NATO as a whole, the United States included, has seriously undermined its ability to credibly reassure Russia for quite some time.

It is not yet evident-mercifully, perhaps-whether or when the accumulating pressures on Russia will produce a catastrophic breakdown or how such a breakdown would be manifested. It is quite evident, however, that through its actions the world as a whole is flirting with that dangerous possibility. The combination of intractable security burdens and perceived provocation makes the impending collision over the ABM Treaty very perilous indeed.

Imaginable Outcomes

With major elections scheduled in both the United States and Russia, there is a strong presumption that neither government can manage any major policy initiative before 2001, and there is no public indication that either government is considering one. Both election campaigns can be expected to encourage assertive nationalism and to suppress any inclination for accommodation of the scope required. Nonetheless, hopeful speculation is not completely pointless. Precisely because the danger is considerably more serious than currently admitted, there is an occasion for constructive statesmanship, and it is worth considering how it might be accomplished.

The simplest answer is a judicious delay. Despite the mantra of inevitability currently being chanted by most of the political pundits in Washington, NMD deployment is not a sure thing. It would not require all that great a feat of political leadership to point out to the sensible, but always distracted, American majority that the zealots on this subject are far outside of rational bounds. The NMD program will obviously not be ready for a responsible decision on deployment for several years because adequate testing will not have been done and also because the diplomacy necessary to legitimize it clearly cannot be accomplished by July 2000. To pretend otherwise is to assure failure both of the program and of the diplomacy. Majority opinion is evidently prepared for such a message; when asked, most people are vaguely in favor of missile defense but do not consider it a major priority. They surely do not want to pay an exorbitant price in economic, political, legal and strategic terms for a system that will not work anytime soon.

But postponement alone is not an enduring answer, and it is questionable whether restoration of the traditional answer-indefinitely restricted defense to preserve nuclear deterrence at lower force levels-can endure either. Regardless of the presence or absence of national missile defense in the United States, Russia cannot safely sustain the large, highly alert deterrent operations inherited from the Cold War. The pre-emptive damage that the United States and NATO are capable of inflicting on Russian forces virtually precludes the comprehensive forms of retaliation envisaged by traditional deterrence doctrine and virtually compels reliance on rapid-reaction practices to assure even the most minimal deterrent standard. Russia cannot maintain its forces on rapid-reaction status without running an unreasonable risk of triggering an accidental, unauthorized or inadvertent engagement. The United States is better able to do this, but there is no good reason for either country to preserve a swift and massive deterrent threat. They do it because they have habitually done it, but that is not an acceptable reason. The coupling together of deterrent forces under fallible managerial control is the single greatest danger to both sides. Any residual inclinations for aggression that either side might harbor can readily be deterred by a force configuration that does not maintain any weapons on alert status and is not prepared for massive retaliation. Such an arrangement would emphasize reliable reassurance rather than overwhelming deterrence. It would be a great deal safer than the current situation and as a result would provide superior overall security to both sides and the rest of the world as well. In principle, the transition to that improved state might be initiated through collaboration on missile and aircraft surveillance, a central feature of any NMD effort.

Basically the process of transition would involve full integration of Russia and eventually of China into the sensing and information management network necessary to support any national missile defense deployment. At a minimum, that means they would reliably receive the surveillance and tracking data generated by the system at the same time as the United States does and would have all the algorithms required to interpret it. That would not give them command authority over U.S. NMD operations but it would give them full vision and intimate involvement. Although they would be unlikely to do so, in principle they could use the information for their own NMD operations and would supply the United States with any data they independently generated.

At first glance-and for sometime thereafter-intimate collaboration of that sort would be considered unimaginable, especially by the most assertive NMD advocates. But despite the prevalence of what might be called standard belligerent attitudes, the United States in fact has inherently powerful interests in such an arrangement. The surveillance of threatening missile trajectories and of air traffic generally is one of the most glaring deficiencies of the current Russian deterrent operation, and it has distinctly dangerous consequences. If the United States is not attacking Russia, we need them to know that with complete confidence at all times, lest confusion trigger Russia's nuclear force, which is poised for rapid reaction because of its inherent vulnerability. Although we might be supremely confident about our own benign intentions, it would be the height of arrogance-potentially fatal arrogance-to suppose that the Russians are as confident. At the moment, conveying reliable reassurance is a far greater problem for the United States than preserving reliable deterrence.

Truly comprehensive collaboration in maintaining missile launch and air traffic surveillance is one of the more promising methods for addressing the problem of reassurance. In order to be effective in that regard, joint surveillance would have to be extended to the pre-launch conditions of all nuclear weapons delivery systems, so that the collaborating partners would know beyond question that a pre-emptive attack could not be undertaken without their detecting the preparations well in advance of the time any ballistic missile or other delivery method could actually be launched-a realization in effect of the de-alerting idea that has been tentatively discussed. The most direct method would be to separate warheads from all transport vehicles and to store them with attached devices that confirm that status, but the principle could be embodied in many different ways. If residual deterrence and not disarming pre-emption is in fact the only intention the United States has, then comprehensive joint surveillance is a strong mutual interest, as is a deterrent force configuration that removes all weapons from alert status. Joint surveillance extended to pre-launch conditions would be a verification arrangement for such a force configuration.

At the moment the U.S. political system clearly does not understand the problem of reassurance and is not willing to consider the measures necessary to address it. The impending collision over NMD might well be the occasion for some enlightenment, however. In the end, the passion of national missile defense, if it is in fact a passion, cannot be satisfied unless comprehensive reassurance is practiced and the operational configuration of offensive forces in whatever residual numbers is transformed accordingly. That would in fact be a much better security arrangement. If the conditions of decisive reassurance could be achieved, including the transformation of offensive forces, there would still be a practical question as to whether a limited or not-so-limited national defense deployment is worth the expense and effort involved, but under those conditions, that would be a relatively harmless question. Under existing conditions, the question is certainly not harmless. It is in fact exceedingly dangerous.

John Steinbruner is director of the Center for International Security Studies and a professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Maryland. [Back to top]