ACA Senior Fellow speaks at Brookings on Missile Defense

Missile Defense: Cooperation or Contention?  Ballistic Missile Threats to NATO and U.S. Response

Prepared Remarks by Greg Thielmann, Senior Fellow, Arms Control Association
Brookings, Washington, D.C.
May 17, 2012

Now that NATO has achieved the first tangible step toward the missile defense goals it established at Lisbon, I want to take a close look at the threat that inspired it.

Missile Threat and Missile Defense Response Not New

The threat to NATO Europe and to the U.S. mainland from ballistic missile attack by hostile countries is hardly new.  It existed throughout most of the Cold War.  The U.S. twice adopted programs to provide for defense of its population from missile attack, and twice abandoned this objective.

Cost-benefit analysis showed that such defenses could be defeated by relatively inexpensive counter-measures and proliferation of warheads.  The Nixon administration also realized that limiting Soviet defenses by treaty would head off a potential threat to the credibility of the U.S. nuclear deterrent.  For three decades, the 1972 ABM Treaty limited the number and location of strategic ballistic missile defenses and prohibited deployments designed to defend the national territory.

The New Threat

There was, of course, a new ballistic missile threat that arose in the late 1990s -- from newly emerging states of proliferation concern.  At the top of our list, were North Korea, Iran, and Iraq – later dubbed “the axis of evil” by the George W. Bush administration.  The 1998 Rumsfeld Commission on the Foreign Ballistic Missile Threat had identified each country as being capable of building an ICBM within five years of a decision to do so.  A 1999 National Intelligence Estimate projected that North Korea would test an ICBM by the end of that year, and that within the next 15 years, North Korea, probably Iran, and possibly Iraq would pose an ICBM threat.

Amplified by a North Korean satellite launch attempt in 1998, these grim assessments created a political tidal wave that profoundly affected the course of U.S. strategic and arms control policies for years to come.

In the Missile Defense Act of 1999, the U.S. Congress committed the nation to “deploying an effective national missile defense system (against a limited missile attack) as soon as technologically possible.” In the wake of 9/11, President Bush secured strategic missile defense procurement and accelerated deployment.  He also announced U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty and voiced a commitment to activate strategic defenses by 2004.

In providing more than $8 billion per year over the last decade, the Congress has not challenged the dubious technological premises of the strategic missile defense program, which have been exposed in numerous studies.  (For example: by the GAO (Government Accountability Office); the National Academy of Sciences; the Defense Science Board; the Pentagon’s own Director for Operational Test and Evaluation.)

It’s all about us

For many members of the U.S. Congress, missile defenses in Europe are “all about us,” and based on an ahistorical understanding of the offense-defense relationship and a superficial analysis of actual threats.

Declining Threat

In spite of the ubiquitous rhetoric about the “growing ballistic missile threat,” the threat posed by Moscow has actually decreased dramatically from its Cold War peak and the large ballistic missile inventories of the Warsaw Pact Allies are gone.  Also gone are the fears of Iraqi nuclear-tipped ICBMs appearing by the end of this decade.  As for North Korea, it has just suffered the fourth consecutive long-range missile launch failure over a 14-year period.  It will be years before North Korea poses a direct threat to the U.S. continent – or to Europe.

And let us not forget the end of the missile threat from Libya, the only country, which ever launched a ballistic missile attack on a NATO member.


The only country that could pose a new potential missile threat to Europe in the foreseeable future is Iran.  Although it has demonstrated satellite launch capabilities, it hasn’t yet conducted any long-range missile flight tests and is not likely to have an operational ICBM before 2020.

Iran is currently concentrating on medium- and short-range missiles.  Their presumed targets would be Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, or U.S. forces in the Middle East.

Without nuclear warheads, or improved guidance systems, Iranian missiles pose a very limited threat to military bases, oil facilities, and cities in the region, and virtually no threat to specific point targets like the Israeli nuclear reactor at Dimona.  Against short- and medium-range missiles with conventional warheads, missile defenses can limit damage and casualties and, even if technically deficient, can provide a psychological boost to threatened populations.

Strategic/Non-Strategic Missile Defense Distinction

There is an important distinction between strategic and non-strategic missile defenses.  For strategic, successful intercepts are much harder; the consequences of failure much more catastrophic; and the impact on strategic arms control often fatal.

Once upon a time, Washington and Moscow took great pains to differentiate these categories.  U.S. and Russian delegations even negotiated language in an ABM Treaty protocol in 1997 demarking the boundary between the two.

For proponents of strategic missile defenses, there was a reason to blur the distinction.  Conflating “strategic” with “theater” prejudiced the ABM Treaty, obscuring the fact that most of the things we wanted to do to defend against actual rogue state missile threats were already permitted by the treaty.

Theater and Tactical Missile Defenses Beneficial

This ancient history is relevant to our discussion this morning because the tactical and theater missile defenses NATO is deploying benefit Europe without damaging arms control.  Patriots, THAADs, and SM-3 Bloc I interceptors correspond to the threat NATO faces and the potential threat on the horizon.  While some of the locations for basing these systems may be politically unpalatable to Moscow, they are not militarily threatening.

The mobile and networked anti-ICBM capabilities intended for EPAA phase 4 are another matter.  And when U.S. officials reaffirm our commitment to timely deployment of all four phases, it raises questions about whether the schedule would really be adapted to any diminution of the threat.

I’m concerned about NATO heading into a cul-de-sac with plans for achieving full coverage and protection for all NATO European populations, territory and forces.”

Historical Rhyme

This language takes me back to my days in high school.  In 1967, Secretary of Defense McNamara announced plans for building the Sentinel ABM system, to protect the U.S. population from the emerging nuclear threat of a rogue and unpredictable China.  Sentinel lasted 18 months, before being replaced by the Nixon administration’s Safeguard ABM system, oriented toward the protection of U.S. ICBM sites from counterforce attack.

Safeguard used the same interceptors and the same radars as Sentinel, but the new U.S. administration had changed the ABM mission, virtually overnight from population protection to ICBM protection, and the target set from a small number of unsophisticated future Chinese missiles to the enormous ICBM/SLBM arsenal of the superpower Soviet Union.

Now fast forward.  The Republican candidate in our current presidential race, who opposed the New START treaty and still regards it as a mistake, has just asserted that Russia is “without question, our number one geopolitical foe.”  Senator Kyl, the GOP’s leading spokesman on strategic issues said this week that: “The Obama administration should make no pledge that would pre-empt a U.S.-led shield capable of thwarting any missile ‘that might be launched at us,’ not just an accidental launch or one from a nation like Iran or North Korea.”

We have another potential change in administrations coming.  How should Moscow evaluate U.S. assurances on missile defense in Europe?

With that rhetorical question hanging, I will yield the mic to David [Hoffman].