Ballistic Missile Defense: Proceed With Caution

November 2017
By Boris Toucas

The ballistic missile defense review underway by the Trump administration may end years of shifting approaches and decisively strengthen programs that have experienced ups and downs since the 1990s.

A medium-range ballistic missile target is launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, Hawaii, during a test August 29. The target was successfully intercepted by SM-6 missiles fired from the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS John Paul Jones.  (Photo credit: U.S. Missile Defense Agency)Incrementally, missile defenses, despite current technical limitations, haves acquired a genuine operational dimension for military planners and political leaders. Going forward, technological advances and business interests will make increased spending on such programs appealing, accelerating the development of systems designed to counter advanced offensive arsenals. The missile defense revolution may be taking shape slowly, but it is almost inevitable.

The aim is to enhance the overall security of the United States and its allies in a world of increasing ballistic missile threats. Yet, that appealing goal may be jeopardized if the process is driven primarily by technological advances and business interests and without adequate political vision and consideration of the implications for strategic stability. Absent such safeguards, this evolution may lead to increased strategic instability as other countries seek to counter U.S. developments. Alternatively, ensuring meaningful political oversight in the United States and encouraging other countries to join in regulatory efforts would guarantee that the overall security contribution remains positive.

After the end of the Cold War, U.S. missile defense, once a divisive topic, gained bipartisan support.1 Although Iraqi and North Korean missile capabilities spurred the development of new defensive systems, the combination of incremental technological progress and Russia’s momentary loss of diplomatic clout created the necessary political momentum. In 1997 in talks with the United States, Russia agreed under pressure to the deployment of theater missile defenses on the condition that they were not to be used against the other side. Russia expected to preserve the core of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in return, but the United States withdrew from that treaty in 2002 to complete development of a new generation of systems aimed at intercepting intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The 1999 National Missile Defense Act called for the United States to deploy “an effective national missile defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack.” At that time, the stated level of ambition was modest, emphasizing technical improvements to theater missile defenses over advancing territorial systems.

Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discusses ballistic missile defense capabilities with Lt. Cmdr. Brian Gauthier in the combat information center aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Barry on September 7.  (Photo credit: U.S. Navy photo/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kevin V. Cunningham)Progress was achieved on the theater systems while technical success was more elusive for new systems directed against key strategic threats, such as the emerging long-range missile capabilities of Iran and North Korea. Still, President George W. Bush’s declared goal in 2002 to deploy a homeland missile defense “within two years” did not reflect the actual performance of available technology, such as the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system. That system, which was fielded with untested prototype kill vehicles that suffered malfunctions, is an illustration of the dissonance between political and technological timelines. As of 2017, the GMD program has cost roughly $40 billion, and the Department of Defense assesses that the reliability and availability of the ground-based interceptor missiles remain low.

The official narrative on missile defense programs is a subtle mix between the call for staying ahead of the threat by attempting to capitalize on continuous technological progress, the permanent need to secure funding, and an acknowledgment of the limited effectiveness of fielded systems. As a result, the U.S. posture may seem to fluctuate greatly over short periods of time, sometimes sowing confusion among allies. In Europe, for example, U.S. missile defense projects were first aimed at protecting the United States against a future Iranian ICBM threat. That shifted to the European Phased Adaptive Approach, as the Obama administration’s missile defense policy in Europe is formally known, to defend NATO’s European territory against a salvo of Iranian shorter-range missiles. Yet for several European countries, the phased adaptive approach was primarily relevant as a symbol of U.S. political assurances against Russia, an issue unrelated to the ballistic threat it was meant to tackle.2 Although the United States clarified that Russia was not a target, the uncertainty surrounding the final shape of the system fueled a debate about whether it posed a potential threat to Russia’s strategic capabilities, a situation that Moscow used as a pretext to justify its own military buildup in Europe.

Tech Breakthrough

Recent developments will add more uncertainty regarding U.S. intentions. The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, although enhancing the “stabilizing benefits” of missile defense, calls for the establishment of a “robust layered missile defense system” capable of defending against the “increasingly complex” missile threat. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in February 2017 proposed the development of new types of defenses while other lawmakers urged increasing the number of GMD interceptors and initiating a space-based missile defense program. Analysts argue that the vocabulary used in the authorization act is in line with previous documents, the absence of the term “limited” paves the way for more ambitious objectives.

The new ballistic missile defense review likely will echo this call for more action. Further progress is necessary before ballistic missile defense can be considered a strategic game-changer from the perspective of the defender. Yet, predictions of such technological breakthroughs are credible with certain caveats, suggesting the potential for limited protection against Russian and Chinese missiles.

As the latest North Korean launches of the ICBM-range Hwasong-14 missile demonstrate, the spread of offensive capabilities in third countries will trigger a legitimate debate on the need for more advanced defenses. Approximately 30 countries possess ballistic missiles, and more countries in the Middle East and Asia will acquire them.

In the meantime, progress on specific systems, such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, create the reassuring impression among the public that missile defense may nullify the risk of an attack. It provides a long-awaited political justification for the $123 billion invested by the Missile Defense Agency in the missile defense sector since 2002 and even opens the perspective of a return on investment through exports. In fact, as the perceived threat grows, the United States holds a quasi-monopoly position on a potential $23 billion global market.3 These factors seem to call for a more ambitious missile defense policy that would involve interception capabilities against advanced systems and would seek to offset its costs through a more aggressive export policy.

Such a policy, of course, comes at a price. The creation of a global missile defense network implies agreements with hosts for forward-based sensors and interceptors, which generates new liabilities and commitments toward third states on the periphery of the traditional U.S. areas of influence. It raises the issue of defending new critical assets, especially radars, located on allied territories, which are more vulnerable to preventive destruction. For example, Russia threatened to destroy fixed ballistic missile defense assets assigned to NATO in Poland, Romania, and Turkey. In a crisis, it is not clear that all hosting states would accept responsibility for systems they do not supervise, such as in South Korea, or when the bilateral relationship is tense, as with Turkey. Eventually, such a global network could reduce the U.S. political margin of maneuverability in a conflict instead of improving it.

The economic factor also may drive missile defense programs in a direction inconsistent with U.S. long-term strategic interests. First, the export-driven approach, which favors off-the-shelf acquisitions, has a mixed impact on the resilience of U.S. allies. For limited defense budgets, the acquisition of costly missile defense systems may come at the expense of more cost-efficient reforms in other sectors and put an end to the development of indigenous capabilities, as has been the case in Europe. It also will diffuse sensitive technologies among a much broader range of business partners while prompting adversaries of these countries to invest even more in offensive capabilities so as to overwhelm their defenses. As a result, the missile threat could grow rather than diminish, but proponents argue that more effective and numerous defensive systems could compensate for this.

Impact on Stability

In the longer run, a policy to develop interception capabilities against advanced systems could have an impact on strategic stability and crisis stability. Concerns expressed by China and Russia that U.S. missile defenses already undermine strategic stability are far-fetched. Their views are mostly unrelated to current deployment but nurtured by an insecure view of the future, including extreme interpretation of projections that in 2030 the United States could possess 350 to 550 missiles4 on Aegis ships with enhanced detection and interception capacities.

The U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) station Aegis Ashore Romania, part of what the United States calls the European Phased Adaptive Approach for BMD, at the military base in Deveselu, Romania is shown in a May 12, 2016 photograph. Aegis Ashore is a land-based capability of the Navy’s Aegis ballistic missile defense system.  (Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images)In theory, missile defenses coupled with continued investment in conventional long-range, precision-strike capabilities could help disable significant portions of an adversary’s arsenal during a first strike while complicating retaliation, with the consequence of increasing the risk of escalation to early use of nuclear weapons. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s 2008 statement that “it is most likely that in the foreseeable future we will hear of hundreds and even thousands of interceptor missiles in various parts of the world, including Europe,”5 indicates that such concerns, although exaggerated, are real. This is a reminder that, on the international stage, mutual confidence matters as much as observable facts.

A U.S. breakthrough might ideally create an important rift between the major rival powers and aspiring competitors. It could complicate the efforts of potential adversaries to keep U.S. territory or forces under the threat of a missile strike. Regional powers, such as Iran and North Korea, would not give up their programs because they consider ballistic missile capabilities a political guarantee against regime change. However, they would be forced to devote far more of their limited resources to countering missile defenses with decoys or increased maneuverability while less advanced proliferators may abandon ballistic missile ambitions to focus instead on cheaper, asymmetric strategies. Such tactical achievements, even if limited and temporary, will be used in the United States to dismiss any restraint on missile defenses as counterproductive.

Yet, efforts to obtain a capability to reliably shoot down advanced ballistic missiles would almost certainly trigger a renewed arms race with the greatest powers. It would not only increase the risks of a misunderstanding, but also justify a surge in modernized nuclear stockpiles and delivery systems, harming prospects for nuclear disarmament. Potential adversaries would use an ambitious U.S. missile defense policy as a pretext to infringe on existing multilateral regimes if they believe that such accords will eventually become obsolete anyway due to technologically driven developments. For instance, this could be used by Russia to justify formal withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and deployment of more short-range ballistic missiles in Kaliningrad.

For the same reasons, an increased level of ambition for missile defense programs would harm the prospects for U.S.-Russian talks on strategic stability. Instead, a competition on missile defense systems accompanied by a diversification of offensive arsenals would encourage new, therefore unstable weapons concepts and doctrines, fueling the risk of misunderstanding. Russia’s delivery of the advanced S-300 air defense systems to Iran and Russian efforts to field S-400 area defense capabilities against air and missile threats have spread alarm within NATO, worried that anti-access/area denial capabilities might give Russia tactical superiority in disputed areas, such as the Baltic Sea, Black Sea, and Syria.

Notably, these concerns have been high in peacetime, a period during which Russia never activated them against NATO assets. This suggests that any U.S. sense that relying more on missile defenses will lead to increased stability and security could vanish as China and Russia also invest in this sector and start implementing similar strategies.

Missile Defense Policy

For two decades, the United States chose to reinforce and expand missile defenses as new needs arise while ensuring the modernization of nuclear arsenals to maintain the credibility of nuclear deterrence. As missile defenses gain the power to shape the strategic environment, it is worth examining policy options for the United States and its allies.

There are ways to defuse some of the risks associated with missile defense development without changing the existing framework. Currently, only minimal deconfliction efforts are pursued, primarily through public emphasis on the limited aim of missile defense systems. In this regard, NATO summit statements offer remarkable examples of unilateral transparency. More concrete verification measures could be proposed to monitor territorial ballistic missile defense sites, such as Aegis Ashore in Romania, but such steps could backfire because they would be deemed intrusive6 and of limited effectiveness. The United States and Russia could agree on prohibiting the deployment of theater systems in certain areas under shared control or restrain their coverage when these assets overlap foreign territories. Yet in the longer run, none of these measures would prevent missile defenses from generating an arms race.

A different policy could be pursued by abandoning the perception that missile defenses may not be subject to arms control talks. After all, it was a pillar of such talks until the 1990s. Advertising restraint, however, is not an easy task because the United States and U.S. allies have hinted at missile defenses as the best security assurance possible and a quasi-deterrent against potentially hostile powers such as Iran, North Korea, and even Russia. Yet, recent developments in Northeast Asia, where missile overflights of Japan tamper high expectations that such systems could act as a deterrent, would weigh in the debate.

An important goal is to prevent too many actors from joining the club of missile-defensible states. To begin with, sensitive technologies associated with missile defenses, for example hit-to-kill vehicles, should be placed under closer scrutiny. Moreover, rather than aggressively promoting off-the-shelf procurement, the United States could support indigenous missile defense development efforts among their most skilled partners only, in exchange for a bilateral commitment not to re-export them. In the meantime, the United States would insist on China and Russia taking responsibility in curbing missile proliferation.

North Korea’s demonstration that it possesses an ICBM capability complicates the equation. Still, China and Russia have some leverage on North Korea. In return for effective action on their side, the United States should let the door open to a rollback on deployed systems, in particular the THAAD system in South Korea, if the threat were suppressed. The United States, China, and Russia could also explore capping territorial missile defense development according to missile threat evolution, but this would require coordinated monitoring efforts of proliferating states.

The perception by some allies that missile defenses are a symbol of the U.S. commitment to protect their territory further complicates matters. Yet, the need for reassurance in Europe mostly stems from Russia’s attempt to bully its neighbors into submission in the Baltic region. If Russia wishes to avoid the future establishment of an Aegis Ashore site in Poland, it should offer to decrease its military posture in Kaliningrad and the Black Sea significantly; Poland could still host U.S. personnel and equipment for security reasons. At the alliance level, this asymmetric bargain could compensate for the very limited loss of protection against an Iranian threat. It could be cancelled if Russia failed to dissuade Iran from significantly augmenting the range of its missiles.

At present, the notion of capping missile defense development is not being explored by the United States, in part on dubious grounds that missile defense activity is morally legitimate. Such an assertion is not justified in theory, nor is it effective in practice. Although primarily a defensive concept, missile defenses support offensive missions on the theater level and shapes the evolution of other powers’ deterrence strategies to an extent. Moreover, it is a powerful diplomatic irritant, which makes it a strong bargaining chip in any negotiation.

It is uncertain what price China and Russia would pay to cap U.S. missile defense development. Their willingness to pay a high price may decline over time because both countries are becoming increasingly efficient themselves in this emerging domain. Hence, it is not certain that time will always be an asset for the United States, especially as China’s funding potential grows. Yet, the immediate interest for China and Russia is to negotiate in good faith. A refusal on their part to engage in serious discussions would discredit their narrative about a U.S. military buildup in their respective regions.

Additionally, China and Russia would benefit from negotiating because a strategic arms race on missile defenses would risk disrupting China’s deterrence strategy and would certainly strain Russia’s economic capabilities. With the United States, China, and Russia on board, this club would have the critical mass to diffuse good practices to the entire international community, mitigating the potentially destabilizing consequences of missile defense development.


1. “Report of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States,” 1998,

2. “[Polish and Czech] goals were political, having nothing to do with Iran and everything with Russia; the US deployments on their soil would be a concrete manifestation of US security guarantees against Russia beyond our commitment under the NATO treaty.” Robert M. Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), p. 403.

3. Strategic Defense Intelligence, “The Global Missiles and Missile Defense Systems Market 2015-2025,” March 2017,

4. George Lewis, “Strategic Capabilities of SM-3 Block IIA Interceptors,”, June 2016,

5. Interview with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Gazeta Wyborcza, February 7, 2008.

6. For example, monitoring the Aegis Ashore MK-41 platform would probably involve an in-depth investigation of the tubes and software involved.


Boris Toucas is a visiting fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, expressing personal views. Previously, he served in the nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament office at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2013 to 2016 and was responsible for nuclear deterrence and ballistic missile defense as a member of the negotiating team during the NATO summit in Warsaw.