The Pragmatics Of Missile Defense

Friday, October 30, 2015
Image credit: 
Poster Collection, INT 0559, Hoover Institution Archives.
Image credit: 
Poster Collection, INT 0559, Hoover Institution Archives.

Anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defense, as originally conceived in the 1950s and 1960s, was a Cold War era answer to the nightmare of Mutually Assured Destruction, the linchpin of Soviet and American deterrence. Nonetheless, costly ABM systems were alleged to be both destabilizing and a sure way to rekindle a bankrupting new arms race. Treaties (like the 1972 accord with the Soviet Union), cost, and unreliable technology all retarded widespread employment of such defense systems. And the world then was simpler, as each of the two nuclear superpowers and their alliances ostensibly promised to keep in check their own nuclear allies, respectively France and Britain, as well as China.

Ostensibly, we now employ the more generic term “missile defense” rather than the old rubric “anti-ballistic missile,” to reflect complexity well beyond the notion of just huge “ballistic” weapons pointed at two superpowers. A “missile” now may mean almost anything from a rogue state’s short-range SCUD to a terrorist’s small Katyusha to multi-stage intercontinental missiles to thousands of ship-to-shore conventional missiles launched simultaneously against a nuclear carrier. And the mechanism to take down a missile is well beyond just firing an “anti-” missile, given advances in laser, cyber, and electronic defenses.

In the quarter-century since the end of the Cold War, a number of unforeseen developments have vastly altered the strategic landscape that once deterred, and largely prevented, widescale missile defense. New and more unpredictable nation states well beyond Russia, China, India, the U.S., Britain, Pakistan, and France have acquired nuclear weapons. There are now all sorts of nuclear trigger wires between India and Pakistan, China and Taiwan, Israel and Iran, and North and South Korea. Moreover, nation states such as Iran, which is likely to become nuclear, and North Korea, which possesses presumably a small number of nuclear warheads, seem to boast that they are immune from Western notions of deterrence. Both seem to find strategic value in sounding apocalyptical. In the case of the Iran nuclear accords, it is likely that our traditional Middle East allies—Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the other Gulf monarchies—as friends may claim title to the same proliferation protocols that we have extended to veritable enemies in Iran, a wink and a nod route to eventual nuclear acquisition.

In addition, the post-9/11 rise of radical Islamic terrorist groups that dream of threatening the West by acquiring a nuclear weapon is now no longer fantasy—given the huge amounts of cash, the collapse of nation states, and the nuclear status of Pakistan in the Middle East. Finally, traditional American allies that have the capability to build sophisticated nuclear weapons quite quickly—Australia, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan—have always recused themselves from the nuclear club on implicit grounds that the vast U.S. nuclear deterrent provided friends unquestioned security from blackmail. It is no longer clear, however, whether the Obama administration still believes in that traditional American role as the nuclear protector of pro-Western, free-market republics from strategic intimidation from China, North Korea or Russia.

Another unfortunate catalyst for nuclear recklessness was the global acceptance that Middle East countries that have the bomb—Pakistan and soon Iran—were exempt from American attack or invasion, while those that did not—Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya—were not. Certainly, had Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad or Muammar Gaddafi all finished their incipient nuclear programs, they probably would have not been attacked or threatened with bombing by the United States—again, a fact now canonized in the Middle East.

Can classical deterrence counter all these diverse threats from rogue nations, terror groups, former Cold War enemies and a rising China? In the long term, even with vast advances in technology, probably not.

How then should the U.S. incorporate missile defense to ensure the implausibility of a single missile reaching American soil? Of all the major powers, the U.S. enjoys the most strategically reassuring geography. We are protected by two oceans and are bordered by two more North American, non-nuclear allies. Few Americans any more, even in our current state of financial stasis, oppose upgrades and improvements to a North American continental anti-ballistic missile system, whether on land or mounted on ships at sea, that would defend us from a nuclear shower launched from relatively great distances by a power of the status of China or Russia. Certainly, there is less Cold War-like animosity to the establishment of a much more sophisticated “ABM” system.

More worrisome are intermediate- and short-range missiles launched by rogues nations and terrorist groups—claiming they are not subject to deterrence as we understand it—against U.S. overseas facilities and our allies, presumably in sudden 9/11 fashion. Many of these weapons are crude and not subject to cyber attacks on their launch and control systems. To protect against the sort of madness we currently witness in the Middle East, North Korea, and Iran, the U.S. will have to establish local missile defense systems and far more sophisticated sea-based programs that can shift quickly to areas of unrest. Iron-dome-like missile defenses and their successor systems will likely eventually be employed around U.S. bases and allied population centers.

Yet ultimately, the greater need for missile defense always reflects a breakdown in perceived deterrence. When the U.S. issues empty serial deadlines or faux redlines, or leaves chaos after abruptly yanking out all U.S. troops, or is ambiguous about which state is a friend, enemy, or neutral, the perception spreads that it will do almost anything to avoid confrontation with aggressors. That is a sure way to encourage missile-equipped terrorists and rogue states to consider aggressive acts that they otherwise would not have dared—given overwhelming U.S. power and the likelihood of being on the receiving end of it.