This essay explores two very important issues. First, can missile defenses be deployed simultaneously with nuclear arms reductions? Secondly, can limited missile defenses credibly defeat nuclear missile threats? My answer is a “yes” to both questions, with an important caveat. While Russia and China both have adopted the threat of limited coercive missile strikes as policy, and U.S. missile defenses, if improved can continue to credibly deter such threats, other critically important threats remain that require continued robust strategic nuclear modernization and advanced integrated air and missile defenses utilizing a wide range of technologies and capabilities not currently part of the U.S. arsenal.
Since 1972, when the ABM Treaty was ratified by the U.S. Senate, missile defenses of the United States were prohibited.
The ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) Treaty allowed the United States and the Soviet Union to deploy 100 interceptors to protect an offensive missile base or the nation’s respective capitols. The Soviets chose to protect Moscow where 100 interceptors are current deployed. The United States opted to protect a Minuteman nuclear base in North Dakota but took down the system in 1974 as the Soviets could easily overwhelm the limited defense of 100 interceptors.
It then became an article of faith that defending the United States from Soviet or Chinese ballistic missiles was a bad thing.
Why such logic? Each of the nuclear superpowers had to be guaranteed the ability to destroy the other country, if it was attacked first with nuclear weapons. This came to be known as “mutual assured destruction,” often referred to by its appropriate acronym MAD. American missile defenses, it was argued, could significantly limit the deterrent ability of the Soviet Union and China to respond to an initial American attack for fear that whatever limited response could be mounted would be soaked up by the American defense.
This MAD assumption led the successive administrations to declare the treaty as “the cornerstone of strategic stability,” with early supporters predicting the absence of such defenses meant the nuclear superpowers would not have any reason to continue to build up their nuclear arsenals, and, thus hopefully bring the “nuclear arms race” to an end. Although in 1972 the first nuclear arms agreement—SALT or Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty—was also signed between the Soviet and American Presidents, it allowed the continued buildup of nuclear forces by additional tens of thousands of nuclear weapons.
In reality, as it was later revealed (and warned about by the Committee on the Present Danger), the Soviets pushed for the ABM Treaty not to “end” any nuclear arms race, but in fact to accelerate their own nuclear modernization, even under the SALT I treaty labelled as an “arms control deal.” The Soviets also through “disinformazione” and propaganda (such as the nuclear freeze campaign) also sought to push unilateral cuts to American nuclear upgrades. And their strategy worked.
In 1972 when President Nixon signed the ABM Treaty with the then Soviet Union, the Soviets had far fewer strategic long-range and short-range nuclear weapons than the United States. It was largely a Soviet initiative to seek the treaty, due to the 1967 announcement by the Secretary of Defense in the Johnson administration to build a limited missile defense shield, to stop a newly emerging Chinese missile threat.
Soviet General Secretary Brezhnev however saw the potential U.S. missile shield as a threat to Russia. And as soon as President-elect Nixon took office, the Soviet leader proposed to Nixon that all missile defenses be banned “to end the nuclear arms race.” As we now know from the Soviet archives, Moscow was worried a robust U.S. missile defense could significantly blunt what U.S. defense secretary Melvin Laird later argued was a planned Soviet first strike against the United States. The Soviet leaders though U.S. missile defenses could undermine the Soviet policy of seeking to use missile threats for coercion or blackmail. And in the absence of U.S. missile defenses, of course, Soviet warheads speeding toward their targets on the U.S. mainland would be unimpeded. The Soviet leadership wanted to keep things that way, but they also had to buy time to change the strategic balance in their favor.
Although domestic U.S. supporters of the ABM Treaty were convinced the Soviet interest in the ABM Treaty was simply to preserve MAD, the Soviets as we have noted had other motives, primarily to curtail U.S. nuclear modernization while the Soviets simultaneously caught up and eventually surpassed U.S. warhead levels.
The Soviet Nuclear Buildup
Ironically, the SALT I agreement and the ABM Treaty did little to contain the subsequent buildup of Soviet nuclear forces despite widespread rhetoric to the contrary. While the United States did increase its nuclear arsenal, primarily by adding multiple warheads on its land-based Minuteman and sea-based Polaris missiles, the entirety of the U.S. planned nuclear modernization in the 1970s was repeatedly delayed, curtailed, or stopped entirely, except for B-2 bomber research and development. The MX missile and B1 bombers were never acquired during the 1970s and funding for the Ohio class submarine and bomber cruise missile was cut repeatedly, delaying deployment until at least 1981.
In fact, up until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, virtually every nuclear weapons modernization program was cut by Congress in its annual consideration of the defense budget. So, by the end of the decade, while strategic warhead levels were roughly equal, all types of U.S. nuclear warhead levels had dropped to 23,000 from 26,000, while the Soviets increased their warhead deployments from 11,600 to 30,000, a nearly three-fold increase. By 1980, the Soviets openly boasted that the “correlation of forces” favored the USSR over the Americans in large part due to an expansive buildup of Soviet nuclear and conventional forces.
By the time President Reagan took office in 1981, a key Soviet strategic nuclear force had surpassed the United States, in that the Soviet deployed fast flying multi-warhead land-based ballistic missiles significantly exceeded those of the United States. The Soviet momentum eventually would bring their strategic long-range nuclear warhead deployments alone to near 12,000, which were eventually roughly matched by the United States because President Reagan successfully pursued a nuclear modernization program that had been slowed and truncated by the previous administration.
Missile Defense Proposed
During this period of U.S. nuclear modernization, the question of whether the United States should deploy missile defenses rose to the front of national policy debates. President Reagan in March 1983 proposed the United States begin to research and develop robust missile defenses to blunt any future Soviet missile attack, as well as lesser nuclear powers including rogue states such as China, North Korea and Iran.
As former Reagan national security adviser Robert McFarlane notes, some traditional opponents of missile defense in Congress nevertheless grudgingly supported the missile defense funding. Despite the split control of Congress between the two major political parties, Reagan successfully secured significant missile defense funding beginning in 1983.
McFarlane explained that Reagan convinced key members of Congress to support missile defense—an area where U.S. technology excelled. The missile defense initiative was designed to compel the Soviets to agree to major reductions in nuclear weapons, which was a key objective of the Reagan administration. Robust U.S. missile defense deployments it was thought, far from spurring a nuclear arms buildup by the Soviets, could be leveraged to secure major build-downs since an effective defense would nullify the Soviet sought advantage in offensive nuclear weapons. As both sides modernized their arsenals, the deployed numbers could still be dramatically reduced, exactly what Reagan sought in the START I and II arms control process.
Nuclear Deals Bear Fruit
McFarlane recalls being asked by top defense senators, “How long do we have to support the missile defense spending before an arms control deal materializes?” The hoped-for deals eventually concluded were the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) and the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START I) Reagan had first drawn-up in 1981.
McFarlane guessed that if one were measuring from the Reagan 1983 strategic defense initiative or SDI speech, he reckoned it would take about 4 years before the first deal could be concluded. The first deal—the 1987 INF treaty eliminating all missiles in Europe and Asia (and the nuclear warheads they carried) in the 500-5,000-kilometer range—was exactly within the four-year time-table McFarlane predicted.
Not too long after that, the 1991 START I treaty materialized, reducing deployed U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear warheads by nearly 50 percent, down to 6,000, followed in 1993 by the Bush-Yeltsin START II treaty between the United States and Russia calling for again reducing strategic nuclear warheads down to 3,500. At the United Nations in January 1992, President Yeltsin of Russia even went so far as to propose the United States and Russia together to cut nuclear weapons dramatically and simultaneously deploy a global and layered missile defense system to guard against missile threats.
Unfortunately, while the 1991 START I (with top-notch verification measures) treaty was implemented, the Russian Federation after Yeltsin opposed the START II treaty in part because of its ban on multiple warhead land-based missiles—the very first strike weapons the Soviets had long seen as providing key leverage against the United States in a crisis or conflict. In fact, former Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev took to the pages of the New York Times in 1996 to declare opposition to START II, warning the treaty if agreed to was tantamount to “disarming Russia.”
Arms Control or Missile Defense?
The obvious question after Yeltsin was whether the new Putin administration was going back to the old Soviet Union strategy of using nuclear weapons for coercion and blackmail. The Russian Duma eventually made Moscow’s intention clear. In 2000, some 8 years after the START II treaty was signed by President Bush and President Yeltsin, and after the U.S. Senate had agreed to the treaty, the Duma declared it would agree to the treaty but only if the United States kept all its missile defense work in the laboratory.
Specifically, the Russian Federal Law on ratification linked START II implementation to continued U.S. compliance with the 1972 ABM Treaty while prohibiting all U.S. missile defenses, even those designed to protect against rogue state threats. Unwilling to ban multiple warhead land-based missiles, (the preponderant nuclear forces deployed by the Russians), the Duma adopted a clever ruse to make sure the treaty never entered into force by making an offer to the United States they knew we would never accept!
Now American missile defense critics supported the Duma, arguing the end of the Cold War lessened missile threats significantly and such homeland and regional missile defenses were simply not necessary, especially those called for by the 1999 Missile Defense Act. Furthermore, these same critics argued since missile defenses cannot perfectly defend against multiple thousands of nuclear armed missiles and thus cannot effectively defend our homeland cities, such defenses should be banned. In short, even though American and Russian deployed strategic nuclear warhead levels had significantly diminished through arms control, MAD remained, in the eyes of disarmers, central to strategic stability, to be guaranteed in part by a continued ban on national missile defenses.
New Missile Threats Emerge
But such views ignored serious new threats outside the U.S.-Russian nuclear strategic balance. Two new missile threats emerged after the end of the Cold War and gave strong impetus to the United States seriously reviewing the need to deploy missile defenses, despite the relative success of arms control and the end of the Cold War. First, as the 1998 Rumsfeld Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States noted, pro-missile defense legislation in the U.S. Congress was spurred by the use of missiles by Iraq in 1991 against the United States in Desert Storm.
Second, just as the Rumsfeld Commission had predicted, the long-range missile threat from North Korea emerged, most notably the 1998 Tae Po Dong missile test that occurred within days of the Rumsfeld Commission report being released and warning of exactly such a development. Specialists concluded that while the North Korean missile was in the 2,500 kilometer range, a very surprising development, it was possibly capable of considerably longer flight, up to 5,500 kilometers, if deployed with a small payload, putting at risk key U.S. interests.
Not only were new Iraqi and North Korean missile threats a factor, but additional and troublesome missile threats emerged elsewhere, as terror group proxies such as Hamas and Hizballah deployed very large missile inventories and over the next two decades began launching large-scale missile attacks on Israel.
These non-state actors reflected the emerging diversity in the new missile threats as these terror groups eventually acquired thousands of rockets and ballistic missiles—largely from Iran—which up to this day have been repeatedly launched at U.S. allies in the Middle East including at the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
As for the argument that U.S. missile defense initiatives spurred adversary missile developments, the Rumsfeld Commission highlighted the Iraqi and North Korean missile launch developments preceded the deployment by the United States of an initial national missile defense by thirteen and six years respectively, as well as the deployment of our theater or regional missile defenses. And it was only in 1999 that Congress passed, and President Clinton signed into law, the Missile Defense Act of 1999, requiring that the United States eventually deploy national missile defenses, even though the United States still remained a signatory to the ABM Treaty that prevented such defenses. So, without question, missile threats to the United States and its allies came first long before responsive U.S. missile defense deployments.
Putin: Escalate to Win
To make matters worse, on top of the twin Iraqi and North Korean missile threats, plus the Duma’s rejection of the START II treaty reductions, Russian President Putin in remarks made in April 2000 emphasized the use of very limited nuclear strikes against both the U.S. regional and homeland military capabilities, during even the initial stage of a crisis or regional conventional conflict.
The Russian objective was to keep the United States out of the fight, forcing Washington to stand down in the face of such nuclear missile threats. Failure to come to the defense of our NATO allies, such as the Baltic nations, for example, could collapse NATO, a long-time Russian objective. Similarly, as former House Speaker Gingrich outlines in his new book, China also has increasingly moved toward a similar nuclear strategy with respect to its continued threats to forcefully incorporate Taiwan or the Republic of China into its political control.
Vladimir Putin, coming to power in Russia at the end of the 1990’s, highlighted not only that further strategic arms control with the United States was uncertain but that U.S. missile defenses should again be considered for deployment, especially with the rise of rogue state nations also potentially armed with nuclear armed missiles.
In short, the United States was in a strategic quandary. Should we build missile defenses to deal with rogue states as well as non-state terror groups or put aside any future missile defenses largely because it was assumed missile defenses were not compatible with continued arms control with Russia?
Bush: Part One, Both Arms Control and Defenses
George W. Bush took office in 2001 and resolved that dilemma by proposing to Russia both (1) further reductions in nuclear weapons—what became the Moscow Treaty of 2002—down to 2,200, a more than 60 percent cut in deployed warheads; (2) while simultaneously also announcing in December 2001 the United States would get out of the ABM Treaty and proceed to build missile defenses. This allowed the United States to fulfill the requirement of the 1999 Missile Defense Act, to protect the U.S. mainland and territory from ballistic missiles, especially those armed with nuclear warheads.
Surprisingly, contrary to missile defense critics assumptions, the end of the 1972 ABM Treaty did not eliminate further arms control. In fact, the 2003-4 deployment of what would eventually be 44 land-based missile interceptors in Alaska and California apparently facilitated further reductions. Not only did the 2003-4 initial deployments coincide with the 2002 Moscow Treaty reductions from 6,000 down to 2,200 deployed strategic warheads, but subsequently the New START treaty of 2010 further reduced countable Russian deployed strategic nuclear weapons to the notional 1,550 level, strong evidence that missile defenses were perfectly compatible with major reductions in nuclear weapons.
Nuclear Threats Get Worse
Now the relatively limited missile defense deployments in 2003–2004, and the significant arms reductions in the 2002 Moscow and 2010 New START agreements, did not usher in an era of complete strategic stability. Russia still has roughly 2,200–3,200 strategic nuclear warheads capable—if generated—of striking the United States via long-range missiles and bombers. Putin also insists the new deployed warheads on 6 additional nuclear strategic systems, now being developed and partially deployed, do not count under New START, probably giving Russia’s arsenal an eventual additional 300-400 warheads by the middle of the next decade.
And equally problematical, the Russians also have close to 5,000 theater nuclear weapons which have never been included in any arms control limits. Conversely, the United States has only 500 theater weapons, with only 200 based in Europe; certainly, a serious imbalance. Although these numbers are a significant reduction from the height of the Cold War, they are nonetheless a still highly threatening arsenal according to analysis done by former top DOD nuclear expert Dr. Mark Schneider of the National Institute of Public Policy.
Additionally, China’s purported arsenal of 280 nuclear warheads is projected to grow to near 800 over the next decade, and then double again in the following decade.
Obviously, our current and planned missile defense deployments in Alaska and California cannot effectively deal with the entirety of the Russian and Chinese nuclear arsenals and do not in any way threaten their deterrent capability.
Missile Defenses: A Good Option?
Given this strategic imbalance, and faced with these myriad and remaining serious missile threats, does it make sense for Congress and the administration to examine whether to deploy more robust and capable missile defenses? This would deal with not the entirety of the ballistic missile threats arrayed against the United States and its allies, but in particular both rogue state threats from Iran and North Korea, and the “escalate to win” Russian (and emerging Chinese) strategy of threatening limited nuclear strikes to successfully undertake aggression without having to fight.
The assumption of missile defense opponents who think that Congress should curtail missile defense spending remains stuck in a Cold War mindset, where any U.S. missile defense deployment is thought to be “destabilizing.” For example, how can it be assumed that 44 interceptors (and eventually a planned 66) based in Alaska and California, will successfully stop all of the hundreds of available retaliatory Russian or Chinese warheads? The math obviously makes no sense—66 interceptors cannot stop hundreds or thousands of missile warheads.
Not only do many missile defense critics oppose the United States protecting our country from missiles, they also claim it has been the deployment of our limited missile shield that has pushed both Russia and China to increase their nuclear arsenals. Critics argue the United States has an unnecessarily aggressive move to deploy “first the shield and then the sword,” the shield being missile defense interceptors and the sword being offensive nuclear armed missiles. The idea being the United States will strike first against an adversary and then soak up all retaliatory warheads with its newly installed missile defense.
The critics actually have it backward. In reality, the Russians and Chinese adoption of limited missile strike doctrines preceded U.S. missile defense deployments, and far from being a threat to Russia and China deterrent posture, the U.S. missile defenses prevent the reckless threat of “limited” nuclear use as missile defenses are now much more likely to stop dozens of adversary missile warheads than hundreds or thousands.
Whether the Russian or Chinese nuclear arsenals will be used in the future coercively or through blackmail is open to question, but to the extent that Russia and China’s leaders believe the only option they have—limited nuclear strikes or the escalate to win strategy—has now been taken off the table because the United States and our allied security has been strengthened.
As I have previously conveyed, the new Russian and emerging Chinese doctrine of threatening to use only a limited number of nuclear weapons in a crisis or conventional conflict makes even a so-called limited U.S. national or regional missile defenses highly credible as a deterrent.
Our ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California were never designed to protect against a massive nuclear attack. The missile defenses we now have can however readily deter limited strikes, having been successful in 75 percent of four recent tests. As we move to the future, these systems can be modified to be made more robust as to credibly deter and defend against the early initiation of nuclear weapons and limited strikes, effectively blocking the aggressive designs of Russia and China.
As for Iran, North Korea, terror groups such as the Houthis in Yemen, Hamas in Gaza, and Hizballah in Syria and Lebanon, our regional and allied missile defenses are relatively more robust than our national missile defenses. Israel has demonstrated they are capable of intercepting upwards of 90 percent of Hamas incoming rockets even when such shorter range rockets have been launched by the multiple hundreds.
However, since our enemies are certainly not standing still, neither should the United States.
More capable missile defenses could certainly enhance our security and strategic stability and we should rapidly pursue variable missile defenses both global and layered, to include a system of space-based sensors to meet future more advanced threats.
Missile Defense: The New Cornerstone
In summary, what the United States has now done is flip upside down the traditional narrative of the ABM Treaty. The ABM Treaty (thankfully) no longer must be thought of as the “cornerstone” of U.S. security. In fact, the very opposite is the case—the presence of missile defenses acts as a critical cornerstone of U.S. and allied security because they remove the threat of limited use of nuclear weapons—for coercion and blackmail, off the strategic table.
As for massive strategic strikes involving nuclear weapons, the strong retaliatory capability maintained by the U.S. nuclear deterrent makes any such massive enemy strike totally irrational. And while removing the limited use of nuclear weapons does not necessarily eliminate all nuclear threats, U.S. and ally missile defense capabilities do begin to address emerging threats from Russia and China and rogue states, thus enhancing U.S. security quite dramatically.
To be sure, the United States needs to accelerate and expand its air and missile defense budgets and acquisition plans to meet current and projected growing and diverse missile threats to our homeland and overseas bases. This will require deploying spaced based and improved missile interceptors, upgraded Aegis cruisers, directed energy systems, and regional missile defenses, including those that deal with hypersonic threats.
We must continue to upgrade current missile defense capabilities, especially the 44-66 interceptors deployed in Alaska and California, and the more than 1,200 regional interceptors deployed globally to protect the United States and its allies in the Pacific, Middle East and Europe.
It has been half a century since the ABM Treaty forced the United States into forgoing defenses under the mistaken belief that it would end nuclear threats and the arms race. Although the Cold War ended, we now have multiple peer competitors, rogue state actors and terror affiliates, all of which brandish ballistic missiles or rockets for coercion, blackmail and terror. As a result, missile defenses are now becoming a key cornerstone of American security. That will require us to implement the goals of the 2019 Missile Defense Review (MDR). That report says CSIS “represents an attempt to adapt U.S. missile defense policy, posture, and programs to the strategic environment of great power competition [especially as] the United States and its allies face a more complex and challenging threat environment than ever before.”
Peter Huessy is the president of Geostrategic Analysis of Potomac, Md., a defense and national security consulting firm.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.