Territorial Missile Defense and
Reassurance of Flank States
Prepared Remarks by Greg Thielmann, Senior Fellow, Arms Control Association
“NATO’s Future Deterrence Posture: What Can Nuclear Weapons Contribute?”
March 6, 2012
The Lisbon Summit Declaration of November 2010 included a decision “to develop a NATO missile defence capability to provide full coverage and protection for all NATO European populations, territory and forces…” And it invited Russian cooperation in this task. The stated target of these systems was “the increasing threats posed by the proliferation of ballistic missiles.”
Evolution of U.S. Missile Defense Objectives
I am going to begin with some blunt talk about the achievability of territorial defense against ballistic missile attack, based on the American experience. The United States has, at various points, vigorously pursued such defenses.
Missile defense was first directed against Soviet attack; then it was reoriented as a defense against a much smaller Chinese attack; then population defense was dropped, in favor of defending ICBM fields. The U.S.-Soviet ABM Treaty, signed in 1972, limited the number and location of such defenses and specifically prohibited deployments designed to provide defense of the national territory. Although the U.S. “Safeguard” strategic missile defense system was compliant with that treaty, it was scrapped for cost-effectiveness reasons only nine months after becoming operational.
During his two terms as president, Ronald Reagan revived America’s interest in missile defense with his dream of “rendering ballistic missiles impotent and obsolete.” Reagan launched his “Strategic Defense Initiative” in 1983 and promised the exploitation of new technologies, including the use of exotic space-based weapons.
His administration buttressed its case for the weapons by pointing to Soviet violations of the ABM Treaty and by portraying Soviet missile defense research and development efforts as evidence that the Soviets were themselves preparing to break out of the treaty.
Soviet Missile Defenses
For their part, the Soviets had long sought to defend their capital and national leadership against U.S. air attack – targeting first bombers, and later ballistic missiles. In the 1960s, they began deploying a ring of strategic missile interceptors with nuclear warheads around Moscow. Yet they never succeeded in creating a reliable and effective missile defense; U.S. warheads and the options for countermeasures were too numerous and the radars on which the Moscow system relied too vulnerable. The Reagan administration’s depiction of Soviet R&D development efforts on energy weapons turned out to be greatly exaggerated. Moreover, when the Soviets were caught building the Krasnoyarsk radar – a major, albeit technical, treaty violation – they were ultimately forced to dismantle it.
A vestige of Moscow’s ABM system remains to this day, but the Russian Federation is now far behind in strategic missile defense technology and harbors few illusions about the feasibility of territorial defense against ballistic missile attack.
America Keeping the Faith
Not so the United States. America retains its faith-based approach to strategic missile defense. Having invested well over $100 billion since Reagan launched what critics dubbed “Star Wars,” total expenditures for missile defenses over the last decade have been running roughly $10 billion per year, even though the stated mission objective is now confined to dealing with “simple” ballistic threats from newly emerging, nuclear weapons states. The Reagan era program was downgraded under the presidencies of the elder George (H.W.) Bush, and Bill Clinton, who limited yearly expenditures to around $1 billion.
But an alarmist report by the Rumsfeld Commission on ballistic missile threats in 1998 and an attempted satellite launch by North Korea using a three-staged rocket a few months later had a huge impact on public and congressional perceptions. By March 1999, the U.S. Congress had passed a bill by large margins in both houses, declaring it to be the policy of the United States “to deploy as soon as is technologically possible an effective National Missile Defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack.” Three consecutive U.S. presidents have now embraced this policy.
In the year 2000, President Clinton judged the technology not sufficiently ripe for deployment, but that turned out to be merely a bump in the road toward implementation of a territorial missile defense policy. Ready or not, the new administration of George W. Bush wasted no time in withdrawing from the ABM Treaty and deploying the first strategic missile defense interceptors in Alaska and California by the fall of 2004.
It is important to note that the threat against which these strategic missile defenses were developed has not materialized. The Rumsfeld Commission predicted that Iraq, North Korea, and Iran could each have ICBMs by 2003, but nine years later, none of them do.
Where are the ICBMs? -- In Russia and China, of course!
Not in Iraq. Saddam’s ballistic missile threat had already been cut short by the First Gulf War. Even before the March 2003 invasion, Saddam was being forced to destroy the most capable ballistic missiles left in his inventory – the short-range al-Samouds.
Not in North Korea. The DPRK has conducted two flight tests of the Taepo Dong 2 ICBM class system. The first flight in 2006 failed shortly after launch. An attempt to launch a satellite with the same booster rockets failed in 2009. Last week, North Korea announced agreement to a moratorium on further long-range missile launches.
Not in Iran. The Islamic Republic has not yet conducted any flight tests of an ICBM. Senior U.S. military officials have indicated Iran is currently concentrating on development and deployment of medium-range ballistic missiles with ranges of roughly 2,000 km. Iran’s last MRBM test occurred more than one year ago.
Current ballistic missile threats from hostile proliferants come not from long-range systems, but from those with ranges below 3,000 km. Theater ballistic missile defenses are potentially useful against such shorter-range missiles topped with high explosives – to mitigate losses to civilian populations, military forces, and infrastructure – but they do not affect the strategic balance.
Unfortunately, U.S. determination to protect the option of deploying strategic ballistic missile defenses of the national territory, has not only diverted attention from acute threats to U.S. forces and regional allies, it has also carried heavy opportunity costs. The United States missed two chances to negotiate significant cuts in strategic offensive arms – with the Soviet Union at Reykjavik in 1987 and, with Russia in the late 1990s during efforts to bring START II into effect. Depending on how we handle missile defenses in the months ahead, we may be on the verge of missing a third chance.
I’ve tried to be frank in describing the nature of the ballistic missile threat we face, taking note of the exaggerations that plague our public discussion of the issue. I must be equally frank in acknowledging that delusional thinking about strategic missile defense is now deeply engrained in U.S. declaratory policy and public consciousness.
Articles of Faith
The Missile Defense Act of 1999 remains our political charter, even if its evidentiary foundations are built on sand. Domestic political dynamics are conspiring against rational course correction.
Opponents of New START ratification found missile defense an effective line of attack against the treaty. Even the treaty’s recognition of “the interrelationship between strategic offensive and strategic defensive arms,” was depicted as a shameful concession to Russian negotiators.
Every defense policy shift or budget reduction is now judged by according to whether it implies a failure of commitment to the cause of strategic missile defense. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney last week accused President Obama of just such a failure.
But would they work?
Last October, Secretary of Defense Panetta referred to the existing strategic missile defense system as “very remarkable.” Senior military figures have joined the official chorus attesting to its effectiveness against future Iranian or North Korean missiles.
Yet none of the ongoing tests of these systems have occurred under operationally realistic conditions. U.S. intelligence officials have acknowledged that any state capable of building an ICBM can also build simple decoys to spoof missile defenses. But U.S. strategic missile defenses have never demonstrated the ability to discriminate decoys and other clutter. The Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation reported in January: “To date [the system] has demonstrated a limited capability against a simple threat.” He also noted that the last two flight tests had failed. The last successful test under carefully controlled conditions was in 2008; the next test has been postponed to allow for causes of the last failure to be addressed.
Moscow does not seem particularly troubled by the 30 U.S.-based strategic interceptors. However, the advanced Aegis systems planned for the later phases of Obama’s European Phased Adaptive Approach have caused acute concerns. Whether real or feigned, Russia has reacted with alarm to the prospect of seeing European-based and highly mobile strategic interceptors on its periphery by the end of the decade.
Moscow has demanded legal assurances that U.S. missile defenses are not intended to threaten Russia’s strategic deterrent. For the reasons to which I alluded, such formal assurances have not been forthcoming, and if they were, they would probably be rejected by the Senate.
Presidential campaigns in the United States and Russia have not created a propitious climate for reaching political compromise. But it may yet be possible to secure agreement on a blueprint for cooperation prior to NATO’s Chicago Summit in May. The more cooperation that can be achieved, the less threatening U.S. missile defenses will seem to the Russians.
NATO’s upcoming Deterrence and Defense Posture Review provides an opportunity for progress. Several of you were involved in drafting a joint letter to NATO Secretary General Rasmussen last July. Among other things, the letter suggested the DDPR reiterate NATO’s assurance that its current and future missile defense capabilities are not “targeted” at Russia’s strategic forces and that NATO member state missile interceptor deployments would be designed and configured to address third party missile threats as they emerge. Such a written assurance could form the basis of a missile defense cooperation framework.
There have been a number of creative ideas for making cooperation concrete. A Euro-Atlantic Security Initiative (EASI) Working Group chaired by former senior officials of the United States, Russia, and Germany, have recommended pooling and sharing data and information from early-warning radars and satellites in Cooperation Centers staffed by U.S., NATO, and Russian officers working together. The latest issue of Arms Control Today features in its cover story a proposal by Dean Wilkening to build a joint ballistic missile early warning radar in central Russia.
Guidelines to Consider
Let me end by listing my own conclusions on the subject of our panel.
All NATO states have enormous stakes in the success of U.S.-Russian negotiations to further reduce nuclear weapons stockpiles. U.S. missile defense forces are more likely to be an obstacle rather than an inducement to Russian movement in the desired direction.
Russia’s attitude is not pathological. Russia is doing what the United States did when the tables were reversed. During the Cold War, U.S. fears about Soviet ABM systems helped stoke the large increase in U.S. ballistic missile warheads. It was only after the 1972 ABM Treaty capped strategic missile defenses that the path was opened toward eventual reductions in deployed offensive warheads.
Russia responded favorably to Obama’s European Phased Adaptive Approach as a substitute for Bush’s “Third Site” plan. Future deployments were tied to actual rather than theoretical ballistic missile threats and strategic missile defenses in Europe were not anticipated before the end of the decade.
But if phases 3 and 4 of Obama’s plan are truly “adaptive,” then they must be contingent on the actual progress and intent of Iran’s ballistic missile program. This link must be made convincing and explicit to the Russians. Moscow must be able to see something other than immovable dates for the deployments and vague place-holders in the matrix showing the number of interceptors to be deployed. As it is, Moscow sees the quantity of advanced SM-3 interceptors as infinitely expandable and NATO’s “territorial defense” language as pointing toward Russia’s strategic forces – not those coming from Iran during the next 6-8 years.
If U.S. missile defense deployments in Europe are tied to the level of threats from the Middle East, then they should not be expected to address other security concerns. European flank states should enhance their security through other measures, which do not gratuitously provoke their large eastern neighbor.
Alternative ways to strengthen the alliance bond might include: periodic presence of U.S. and other NATO troops for training purposes; active participation in alliance institutions and activities; and greater political integration within the EU.
Reasons for Hope
U.S. missile defense efforts have the potential of derailing continued progress in reducing the bloated nuclear arsenals of the Cold War. But I see two reasons to hope for a different outcome:
-- First, fiscal pressures on the U.S. defense budget will force the Administration and the Congress to get off the Cold War autopilot. They will create strong incentives for the U.S. military to shift resources away from political programs like strategic missile defense toward those, which can increase military capabilities that count in the real world.
-- Second, Europe is now a player at the missile defense table. NATO has offered political support, real estate, and financial resources for the Phased Adaptive Approach. Europe therefore has a new ability to tame some ill-considered American instincts. I hope it will actively seek to influence U.S. policy when that policy veers in a direction, which provides a net loss to the security of the alliance.
I’ve seen it happen before with regard to INF in the 1980s. The Europeans – particularly the basing countries (Germany, the UK, Italy, Belgium, and the Netherlands) – made it very clear to a reluctant Reagan administration that it could not have one part of the Dual-Track Decision (deploying new weapons) without the other (seeking to reduce that category of weapons through arms control).
I think we need Europe’s help again.
Thank you for your attention.