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Source: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 1999 v55 i3 p31(1).

Title: MISSILE DEFENSE: Not such a bad idea.
Author: Michael Krepon

Full Text COPYRIGHT 1999 Educational Foundation for Nuclear Science

THROUGHOUT THE COLD WAR, IF EITHER THE UNITED States or the Soviet Union had deployed meaningful missile defenses, the other side clearly had the means to compensate by increasing offensive forces. The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty recognized this fact of life.

The ABM Treaty never postulated that missile defenses were bad; only that they would have the unfortunate consequence of damaging arms control efforts. The treaty's preamble is plain regarding purpose: Restraints on defenses--not their complete elimination--are a means toward the goal of "limiting strategic arms." Limited defenses (200 interceptor missiles) were expressly permitted by the treaty. A 1974 protocol subsequently halved this number.

Despite the end of the Cold War, some analysts continue to place deep cuts and defenses in direct opposition to one another, confusing the treaty's means with its ends. Even with Russian nuclear forces facing wholesale obsolescence, with force levels sure to fall greatly over the next 10 to 15 years, many supporters of the ABM Treaty oppose amendments to it that would allow protection against a limited range of low-probability but high-consequence ballistic missile attacks on U.S. soil. Emerging nuclear dangers require new and creative approaches that embrace both deep cuts and defenses.

The case for deployment

Instead of rehashing past debates over the ABM Treaty, it would be useful to change the terms of the debate to reflect new circumstances.

While the treaty permitted limited area defenses, it does not permit limited national defenses. I believe there are now several persuasive reasons to reconsider the utility of limited defenses.

First, nuclear threats have become more diffuse and more troubling now that the Cold War is over. The barriers to developing a three-stage missile that can travel intercontinental distances and acquiring fissile material for warheads have been lowered appreciably. North Korea has demonstrated what a country of limited means can do in both respects. Pyongyang also has a track record of selling its new "product lines" to other countries.

U.S. cooperative threat reduction programs in Russia are extremely useful, but the best designed and implemented U.S. initiatives cannot guarantee against the leakage of fissionable material, or chemical or biological weapons.

The vast majority of Russian experts in dire straits patriotically refuse to help countries of proliferation concern, but the "brain drain" continues to be a problem. The expertise for making weapons of mass destruction and multi-stage ballistic missiles is likely to be for sale. Confident, rosy predictions about missile and nuclear nonproliferation would be unwise at this juncture.

Would a small Third World state such as North Korea launch a ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead against the United States, knowing that it would be utterly destroyed in retaliation? If one wants to inflict terrible damage on U.S. citizens, why not use means that are more covert and "deniable"--truck bombs, perhaps?

The logic behind these questions seems persuasive, but I cannot assume that, for example, the current North Korean leadership thinks the same way I do. In the event that they think differently about matters of life and (mass) death, it would be useful to have limited defenses as an insurance policy.

A second military rationale for limited ballistic missile defenses during the coming decade is to deal with the possible unauthorized launch of a few ballistic missiles from Russia. This rationale remains largely--and strangely--unmentioned in the current debate, although I believe it to be more likely than the North Korean-type scenario. The Central Intelligence Agency's assessment of the "fail safeness" of Russian command-and-control systems is hardly reassuring.

According to unclassified remarks by National Intelligence Officer Robert Walpole, unauthorized launches should not be a problem "as long as current security procedures and systems are in place." But is there any reason to doubt that Russian command and control will be severely stressed over the next decade or more? There have already been harrowing reports of breakdowns in command and control, including the temporary takeover last fall of a nuclear-powered attack submarine by a deranged sailor who killed his shipmates,

I am uncomfortable with confident assertions by missile defense critics that there is nothing to worry about regarding Moscow's command-and-control apparatus, and that if there is a problem, it will be on such a massive scale that limited defenses would be of no help.

Who among us can confidently foreclose the possibility that a small group of very angry and highly trained Russian officers and soldiers will seek to gain control over a few ballistic missile launchers? If this scenario cannot be dismissed, how can limited ballistic missile defenses be ruled out?

Further, ballistic missiles, like nuclear weapons, can be used for coercive purposes. The threat to use ballistic missiles carrying weapons of mass destruction has much greater utility than actual use, which would generate devastating retaliation.

Missile flight tests and deployments can therefore be used to extract political or economic concessions, to dissuade a stronger state from taking military action in support of a weaker friend or ally, to break down alliance cohesion, and to achieve other political objectives without resort to military force. The successful coercive use of ballistic missiles for any such purpose can also weaken nonproliferation regimes.

The prudent deployment of defenses could foster alliance cohesion, reinforce nonproliferation regimes, and counter coercive threats. Because such political rationales for missile defenses could be open-ended, common sense criteria should guide defensive deployments.

Earlier this year, the Committee on Nuclear Policy, a collegial effort by 40 non-governmental experts, identified six criteria: Missile defenses should have a clearly defined, achievable mission; they should be proven through repeated, rigorous testing; they should be affordable; they should be cost-effective at the margin; they should be pursued in a balanced fashion along with other cooperative threat-reduction efforts; and they should have the net effect of reducing the nuclear dangers they are supposed to counter. (For more on the committee's work, see the Stimson Center website, www.stimson.org/policy/.)

Ten arguments

Although the reasons for reconsidering the deployment of a limited national missile defense system have been persuasive to me, critics suggest otherwise. They offer many arguments:

* Deployment of missile defenses would upset U.S.-Russian deterrence equations and could even be perceived by Russian leaders as threatening Russia's nuclear deterrent.

With Russia facing growing economic distress over the next decade and unable to replace dangerously aging nuclear forces, it is true that Russia's nuclear forces will become a shadow of their Cold War selves.

But even assuming Russian reductions to several hundred deployed strategic nuclear weapons, as Bruce Blair and John Steinbruner of the Brookings Institution predict, the Kremlin would still be able to place Washington and other key targets "at risk." No U.S. president could assume that limited defenses would be able to negate Russia's sophisticated nuclear arsenal, even at much lower levels. The U.S.-Russian deterrent equation would continue despite limited, ground-based defenses.

* Deployment of a national missile defense system, critics say, would kill the START II and START III treaties. But hard-liners in the Russian Duma and the U.S. Senate have smothered treaties even in the absence of prospective missile defenses.

Russia's nuclear forces will drop well below START III levels in any event (due to Russia's inability to replace aging warheads). Whether or not START II eventually enters into force, it is in the interests of both countries to secure deep and verifiable reductions in nuclear forces.

Russia will understandably resist changes to the ABM Treaty. Over time, however, Moscow is likely to agree to adapt the treaty to changing circumstances, just as it approved new guidelines for advanced theater missile defenses after years of strenuous objections. But a rigid approach by Moscow--or by treaty supporters in the United States--can kill the treaty altogether.

* Critics of missile defenses argue that they will cripple prospects for cooperation with Russia, which is necessary to successfully reduce nuclear dangers. They are right about the importance of cooperation with Russia: any U.S. deployment initiative should be accompanied by greater efforts at cooperation.

In addition to efforts already under way--the Nunn-Lugar and lab-to-lab programs and the Nuclear Cities Initiative--the United States has begun to help Russia with early warning of ballistic missile launches. If further cooperation is spurned, this should be Moscow's choice, not Washington's.

* Critics of missile defenses argue that the United States should work with Russia to reduce nuclear dangers--for example, by de-alerting ballistic missiles--so that missile defenses are not needed. Reducing the alert rate for nuclear forces is vital if the United States hopes to reduce the possibility of unauthorized or accidental launches from Russia. But Russian nuclear dangers are so complex that it would not be prudent to foreclose the option of a last line of defense.

* National missile defense, suggest the critics, is too expensive. But affordability is not the issue: Funding for limited national missile defenses constitutes less that two percent of the defense budget.

* Critics argue that no one would be foolish enough to attack the United States by means of an intercontinental ballistic missile, making a limited national defense system an expensive boondoggle. But what if this confident assumption were proved wrong and no interceptors were available for national defense? What would critics of limited defenses then say to their fellow citizens?

I hope no one would be so foolish, crazy, or angry to ever launch a limited ballistic missile attack against the United States, but I am not completely persuaded that others will act rationally.

* Critics of missile defenses correctly note that there are easier and more likely ways to use weapons of mass destruction against U.S. citizens, such as track bombs. Tree, and more concerted efforts are needed to address these concerns as well.

* Limited missile defenses would inexorably expand, critics argue, wasting more money and causing more damage to arms control.

"Mission creep" is, indeed, a worry. While it may be possible to counter a small number of warheads, the prospects for stopping a massive attack--the sort that even an impoverished Russia could launch--are nil. Defensive deployments must be linked to achievable missions, which are necessarily limited.

* Missile defenses, goes the litany, won't work effectively and can be easily swamped by counter-measures. This is certainly tree for massive attacks, but not necessarily for the most worrisome post-Cold War threats that are limited in nature. (Russian and Chinese resistance to missile defenses suggest that they have more respect for U.S. technology than domestic critics.)

While it is unwise to discount in advance how well defense contractors can utilize modern technologies, they have yet to prove, under rigorous operational testing, that they can intercept a small number of rudimentary warheads. Until they do, national missile defenses should not be deployed.

* Defenses, critics assert, will increase friction with China and stimulate growth in Chinese nuclear forces. Further, China's posture of nuclear restraint could be overturned by missile defenses, especially advanced theater missile defenses provided to Taiwan.

This is a powerful argument. There are many reasons for friction--and cooperation--between the United States and China that are unrelated to missile defenses. Even without the prospect of U.S. national defenses, Beijing has had more strategic modernization programs under way than the United States and Russia combined.

Beijing won't say what its current requirements are or how they would change in the event of a limited national missile defense deployment. But there clearly is a risk that China will increase its planned level of effort. It is a word-some possibility, one that must be weighed against the growing nuclear dangers against which limited defenses could have utility.

Reducing post-Cold War dangers

The debate over deep cuts v. defenses made sense during the Cold War, but it has been overtaken by events. Both arms control and defense advocates want to reduce nuclear dangers, yet they are unable to join in common cause, remaining wedded to arguments rooted in the 1970s.

The time has come for new thinking about old problems. Deep cuts and defenses can be compatible and stabilizing as long as they are pursued cooperatively. The crux of the problem isn't limited defenses; it is an unchallenged, Cold War nuclear theology that generates interlocking hair-trigger alert rates and massive attack options. Mutually reinforcing U.S. and Russian nuclear orthodoxy continues to undermine efforts for deep cuts as well as effective defenses.

A limited national missile defense system can help reduce nuclear dangers, but only if pursued in the context of wider efforts at cooperative threat reduction. It is time to stop pitting defenses against deep cuts. We must now deal collaboratively--in the United States as well as with Russia--with the new complex of post-Cold War nuclear dangers.

Michael Krepon is president of the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, D. C.

 
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