"I learned so much about arms control and disarmament at ACA! I learned more about arms control here in four months than I had in all three years at my college."

– Alicia Sanders-Zakre
Intern, Fall 2016
December 16, 2016
Where Do We Go From Here?

October 2000

By Harold Brown

President Bill Clinton made the right decision in deferring action on deployment of a national missile defense (NMD) system with the architecture his administration had chosen. There were four factors on which the president had indicated that he would base his decision: the nature and projected timing of the threat; the technical readiness of the system for deployment; affordability; and the effect of deployment on relations with Russia, China, and U.S. allies, as well as on arms control. The system has clearly failed to meet the criteria concerning technical readiness and the effect on relations, and the North Korean capability of delivering weapons of mass destruction (WMD) with an ICBM by the year 2005 has been called into question by recent images of Kim Jong-Il as a North Korean Gorbachev.

The president's decision allows the next administration to reconsider the purpose, value, and risks of an NMD (for which a legislative mandate exists, with some conditions), as well as what its architecture and magnitude should be and when it should be deployed. This last question includes what the schedule for such a deployment should be, how the system might grow in aim and size, and how to proceed with its development. Any such program should take into account what already exists, in terms of components and design of the system that the Clinton administration has proposed, as well as the various theater missile defense programs that have proceeded in parallel with much less contention than NMD.

Any such reconsideration ought to start with a menu of national security goals that an NMD system would be intended to address. At the extreme, such a system could aim to defend against a massive, sophisticated attack of the sort that could be mounted by Russia. Such was the intent of President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative. Though China cannot currently mount an attack on that scale, it seems almost certain to have the ability to deploy such strategic forces 15 or 20 years from now, given its rate of economic and technological development. In my view, it is likely to do so whether or not the United States deploys an NMD.

An effective defense against such an attack has seemed infeasible to me through the four decades that I have been engaged in this debate at the national level and I see no reason to change that view. Moreover, deterrence of such an attack by the expectation of massive and fatal retaliation was effective with the Soviet Union, and I would expect it to be so for any major adversary of the United States in the absence of a conventional war that threatens to wipe out that adversary. Such a war was never a prospect between the United States and the Soviet Union, it is not a prospect between Russia and the United States, and I do not see it as a prospect between China and the United States. Even if a conflict were to ensue over Taiwan, as dangerous as that would be, it is hard to envision a scenario that would lead to a conventional war which would threaten to destroy China and therefore lead to a nuclear exchange.

An alternative, somewhat less demanding objective would be to deploy a system able to defend the United States against an accidental or unauthorized launch of part of the arsenal of a major adversary. This would still be quite difficult, but it might be feasible. However, the utility of such a system needs to be weighed against alternate ways to reduce that risk, such as carefully calibrated reductions of hair-trigger readiness and permissive action links that prevent launch without clear authorization from higher authority.

A third objective, generated in a post-Cold War world that has left the United States as the only global military power and underlined by the Persian Gulf War, is that of dealing with the threat posed by a regional power whose actions have led to a war that threatens to overthrow its leader, who may be willing to bring his nation down with him, as Hitler was. Such a leader might see a special value in a rapidly delivered and personally controlled weapon of mass destruction of intercontinental range against which the United States has no defense. That could deter a U.S. action to overthrow that leader by military action.

If an NMD is pursued to counter this type of threat, programs to prevent or defend against other means of delivery—cruise missiles, suitcases, ships in U.S. harbors—would also have to be considered (even though it may be more difficult for a potential adversary to use such means to deter U.S. actions because of the duration of the actions and the greater number of personnel involved). In any event, this third objective was the basis for the administration's proposed system, although at least some of its supporters contemplated growth from that base that might enable future expanded versions to aspire to more ambitious goals. The Bush administration's Global Protection Against Limited Strikes system of the early 1990s also had some of those more ambitious objectives.

Deployment of a national missile defense needs to be weighed against other methods of negating or preventing the emergence of such capabilities on the part of potentially aggressive regional powers—diplomacy, buyoffs, sanctions, UN resolutions. Thus, as a fourth alternative, the argument can be made that these methods, combined with the threat of nuclear retaliation, would be sufficient.

The next president will have to deal with the political concerns of U.S. allies and the strategic concerns of Russia and avoid actions that tilt China toward an adversarial position unless and until it chooses such a role for itself. Though their approaches to those issues may differ, either a President Bush or a President Gore will have to decide whether any NMD system would be aimed at eroding the deterrent capability of China or Russia. If the United States is not prepared to rely on nuclear deterrence as its basic security posture vis-à-vis a Russian or Chinese WMD capability in a future situation where one of those states again becomes a determined military adversary of the United States, U.S. policy with respect to NMD, as well as with respect to much else, will have to be very different from any past policy.

In dealing with Russian and Chinese concerns, a boost-phase intercept approach from sea or land, in addition to its value in negating penetration aids and bomblet dispersion of biological warfare agents, should ease Russian and Chinese apprehensions about a U.S. national missile defense. That is because geography deprives such boost-phase intercept systems of any substantial capability against land-based ICBMs launched from such large geographical expanses (let alone from ballistic missiles launched by submarine from the much larger expanse of the ocean). Boost-phase intercept from space, which might be more threatening to Russia and China, is also substantially more problematic and more costly, less feasible, and more vulnerable in many ways to attack than ballistic missiles themselves. But even a non-space-based, boost-phase intercept approach needs considerable development of interceptors and their terminal phase, as well as further examination of doctrine and tactics, before it is ripe for engineering development and deployment.

An anti-ballistic missile treaty is worth preserving, but if there is any form of NMD deployment, the existing ABM Treaty will need to be addressed and updated in dealing with Russia. It is not realistic to expect the detailed provisions of a treaty that was reached during the Cold War and is nearly three decades old, with definitions derived from a quite different strategic as well as technological situation, to be sustainable without significant revision.

The allies, both in Europe and East Asia, will also need to be satisfied that their own security interests are not damaged by whatever decisions are taken on U.S. national missile defense. The argument that the United States would decouple its security from that of its allies if it deployed NMD does not hold water. If U.S. willingness to intervene is a sign of coupling, then reducing the probability that the United States would be deterred by the threat of WMD use against it by an aggressive local power should improve U.S. coupling, not erode it. Moreover, the relatively benign response of some of our European allies to Russian President Vladimir Putin's suggestion that Russia and Europe should be defended against ballistic missile attack cannot really have been intended to signal that defending them against WMD is stabilizing but defending the United States against WMD is destabilizing—unless they envision the future as containing some American Napoleon.

The issue of timing is complicated by the unrealism both of some proponents and of some opponents. Some proponents of NMD seem to think that the threat is a step function and that if the United States does not have an NMD by a certain date, say 2005, its security will be fatally undermined. On the other hand, some opponents appear to think that it is only when the first ICBMs have been fired against the United States that deployment of NMD should begin. Both threats and counters develop on a decade-long timescale. In response, the next administration should settle on a goal taken from the four alternatives provided above, look at NMD architectures again, and then decide whether and how the defense can and should be carried out, including whether the criteria set forth by President Clinton can be met.

A building-block approach, which the Clinton administration proposal claims to be, should be adopted. Such an approach would allow evolution of the system using elements of theater missile defense and national missile defense components now under development—moving from the less demanding and more justified objectives toward the more demanding, less justified, and more costly objectives. If a decision is made that NMD in some form is required (and I lean toward the third, least demanding of the deployment alternatives set forth), then specific milestones and dates are required. The incoming administration has a new opportunity to deal with this issue, and it should do so in a carefully prepared, analytically examined, and less politicized form. We can all hope that the next president takes advantage of that opportunity.