American thinking about missile defense has been incoherent from the very beginning. The issue is superficially simple: the Soviet Union threatened the American people with nuclear missiles, so the U.S. should naturally have tried to defend them against those missiles. Missile defense is among the most unequivocally defensive military systems one can imagine. It cannot be used for attack. Yet the U.S. signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviets and has refrained from serious efforts to build and deploy large-scale missile defense ever since. This policy never made sense and now makes even less. The proliferation of long-range precision missiles that can strike the U.S. and our allies with either nuclear or conventional warheads requires that America develop and field effective missile defense against all likely foes.
Objections to missile defense have always been based on the belief that it would be de-stabilizing. The U.S. persuaded itself that the most effective way to prevent nuclear war with the U.S.S.R. was through “mutual assured destruction” or MAD, under which stability in a nuclear world required the nuclear states to know that all would be destroyed if any started a war. The Soviets, interestingly, did not accept this view and strove instead to achieve nuclear predominance. They feared that American technological advantages would allow the U.S. to field an effective defensive system, however, that would nullify their growing lead in missiles and warheads. So they lent their propaganda resources eagerly to the fight against the Strategic Defense Initiative pursued by Ronald Reagan, with a large measure of success.
Whatever sense MAD might have made in the 1970s, it makes no sense today. America would not be more secure, nor the world more stable, if our potential adversaries such as Iran and China, to say nothing of al-Qaeda, knew that they could destroy us utterly at the outbreak of major war. Presidents Bush and Obama have both seemed to realize this fact and worked somewhat tepidly to deploy and enhance systems that could defend against Iranian missiles aimed at Europe or at our forces in and around the Persian Gulf.1
The nuclear agreement with Iran heightens the urgency of missile defense because of the way the Iranians have interpreted the deal.2 They reject any constraints on their ability to deploy missiles of all ranges and payload-weights, and claim that the agreement itself does not impose any such constraints upon them.3 They are right about that—the constraints, such as they are, are in the U.N. Security Council Resolution endorsing the agreement, not the agreement itself.4 They have gone beyond claiming their rights to develop missiles, moreover, and are ostentatiously building, testing, and fielding them. Tehran went out of its way, in fact, to test a missile that violated a U.N. Security Council resolution just days before that resolution was to be cancelled.5 Iran is serious about building a long-range missile arsenal whatever its designs on a nuclear weapon might be.
Yet the legacy suspicion of missile defense continues to paralyze the U.S., helped, once again, by Russia.6 Geometry shows that missile defenses designed to protect Europe or the U.S. from Iranian missiles should be placed in Eastern Europe. It also shows that defenses located there cannot interfere with Russian missiles launched against the U.S. Yet Vladimir Putin has persuaded many people that the deployment of American missile defense systems in Eastern Europe would be an intolerable provocation of Russia and has largely scuttled them.7
Putin’s claims were nonsensical as well as unscientific when he began making them because the U.S. had no desire or intention of trying to defend itself against Russian missiles, despite the fact that Russia’s nuclear arsenal is still large enough to destroy America completely. His intrusion into the discussion of how to defend against Iranian missiles seemed to come from nowhere because Americans gave no thought to Putin’s missiles.
But we must now relook at the complacency with which we contemplate Russia’s arsenal. Putin has threatened to use his nuclear weapons on numerous occasions, including in response to non-nuclear attacks.8 He has upgraded Russia’s missile delivery systems and deployed them further west as part of an effort to intimidate Europe.9 He has thus deprived us of the ability to protect against Iranian missiles even as he has increased the threat his own missiles pose.
This nonsense must end. Both American and Israeli technology has been demonstrated to be able to shoot down incoming ballistic missiles with very high accuracy. Such systems should be expanded and forward deployed to protect U.S. bases and our allies in Europe and the Middle East from any and all potential missile attacks. But missile development has continued, and we now face increasing threats from cruise missiles and from hypersonic missiles, against both of which current systems would likely prove ineffective. So another round of missile defense research must be launched to respond to those new threats.
Missile defense is not destabilizing. It does not cause war. It saves lives. Just ask the people of Israel living under the shadow of Iron Dome. Developing effective defense against the most dangerous weapons on the planet is a strategic and moral imperative.
1 Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President on Strengthening Missile Defense in Europe,” The White House Office of the Press Secretary, September 17, 2009.
2 Frederick W. Kagan, “Iranian Interpretation of the JCPOA: Statements from Iranian Officials,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, September 2, 2015.
3 Frederick W. Kagan, “Iran’s leaders say they will expand their military capabilities,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, September 4, 2015.
4 United Nations Security Council, “Resolution 2231 (2015),” July 20, 2015.
6 David M. Herszenhorn and Michael R. Gordon, “U.S. Cancels Part of Missile Defense that Russia Opposed,” The New York Times, March 16, 2013.
7 “Russia warns on missile defence deal with Nato and US,” BBC News, May 3, 2012.
8 Paul Sonne, “As Tensions With West rise, Russia Increasingly Rattles Nuclear Saber,” The Wall Street Journal, April 5, 2015.
9 Maria Tsvetkova, “Putin says Russia beefing up nuclear arsenal, NATO denounces ‘saber-rattling,” Reuters, June 16, 2015.