Two decades ago, President Ronald Reagan proposed a simple yet bold idea to reduce the risks of nuclear-armed ballistic missile attacks and “mutual assured destruction.” At the October 1986 Reykjavik summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan suggested that both countries eliminate all offensive ballistic missiles within 10 years while researching and developing strategic missile defenses.
Although Gorbachev rejected Reagan’s proposal, the exchange set the stage for the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which scrapped all of their ground-launched missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers and eased Cold War hostilities.
Since Reykjavik and the INF Treaty, U.S. leaders have spent more than $100 billion chasing Reagan’s dream of missile shields, but they have lost sight of Reagan’s goal of eliminating offensive ballistic missiles. Decades of research make it clear that current U.S. strategic missile defense programs, at best, might provide rudimentary protection against a small number of long-range ballistic missiles shorn of simple countermeasures. But even that modest capability remains unproven.
Even if missile defenses can be developed and pass operationally realistic testing, foes can always counter by building sufficient numbers of offensive ballistic missiles to overwhelm a system. Recognizing that problem, the Reagan administration in 1987 helped found the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) which aims to stem the spread of technologies related to missiles capable of carrying nuclear, chemical, and biological warheads. MTCR membership has grown to 34 states and has contributed to constraining or ending missile programs in several countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Egypt, Iraq, South Africa, South Korea, Syria, and Taiwan.
Today, 32 states possess ballistic missiles, but only 10 states have produced or flight-tested missiles with ranges exceeding 1,000 kilometers. For now, China and Russia are the only two states that have a proven capability to launch ballistic missiles from their territories that can strike the United States. Yet, the effectiveness of the MTCR’s voluntary guidelines will remain limited so long as MTCR members, and other states such as India, Iran, North Korea and Pakistan, slowly but steadily expand and improve their missile capabilities and consider them high-prestige weapons.
All of this underscores the need for a more sensible approach to missile control. Contrary to the wishful thinking of missile defense acolytes, no evidence exists to suggest that missile defenses will dissuade missile buildups. Iran and North Korea have continued to build and test missiles despite U.S. strategic missile defense proposals. Instead, it is more likely that missile defense will spur greater offensive missile production. For instance, Russia’s concern that U.S. missile defense plans for Europe could evolve in ways that threaten its strategic security could lead it to delay deeper missile cuts or withdraw from the INF Treaty.
What can be done? First, the United States and Russia must work together in a more serious way to address missile defense concerns, explore technical alternatives, and achieve deeper offensive missile force reductions. Further friction on missile defense would perpetuate high-alert postures and threaten the long-delayed Joint Data Exchange Center, which is designed to help avoid an accidental or mistaken nuclear attack.
Second, rather than pursuing controversial and expensive strategic missile defenses of questionable value, U.S. research and development should focus on systems designed to deal with short- and medium-range missile threats, which are more numerous, present a more immediate threat, and can be defeated more easily. Even these systems must be pursued with caution to avoid destabilizing defensive versus offensive missile races.
Third, Washington must actively work with others to increase transparency and dialogue through the 2002 International Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation. The United States and 125 other nations have endorsed the code, but progress has been stymied by lackadaisical implementation by Washington and others and by the nonparticipation of missile possessors such as India, Iran, North Korea and Pakistan. The code, which obliges states to exchange information on missile holdings and testing and exercise restraint with respect to their ballistic missile programs, could become the blueprint for a binding set of limitations on the most destabilizing types of missiles.
High-priority should be placed not only on long-range ballistic missiles, but also on cruise missiles, which are fielded by only a handful of countries today. That could soon change as countries such as France, India, Russia, and the United Kingdom sell advanced cruise missiles to others for profit and influence.
As major powers modernize their ballistic missile fleets and missile arms races advance in Asia and the Middle East, strategic anti-missile systems amount to little more than hole-filled umbrellas in the face of a gathering storm. Given the risks of further missile proliferation and the limits of strategic missile defenses, new tougher missile controls and significant new diplomatic efforts are necessary to devalue missile ownership and move toward a world free of the most dangerous offensive missiles.