Getting back to basics on missile defense

By Joshua Pollack | September 15, 2009

The Obama administration has inherited a Gordian knot in strategic security affairs, but no sword. Instead of seizing opportunities to make far-reaching changes to post-Cold War nuclear posture, the previous two administrations pursued NATO expansion and national missile defense deployment. These choices set the scene for the Pentagon’s missile defense review, which is expected to conclude shortly.

Most of the new administration’s important decisions on missile defense programs were settled in the fiscal year 2010 defense budget request: Theater defenses received expanded funding, while two next-generation programs–the airborne laser and multiple kill vehicle–were cut. The biggest question that remains open involves European missile defense deployments.

Basing a new missile defense architecture on grounds more political than military may simply make current security problems worse, as it’s likely to encourage Moscow to sell its own advanced air and missile defenses to Iran and beyond.”

In 2008, after years of talks, two new NATO members–Poland and the Czech Republic–signed agreements with the United States to host interceptor missiles and an advanced radar, serving as the major elements of a planned “third site” for the ground-based midcourse defense system. These understandings have been a source of consternation to the Russian government, which has reverted to a zero-sum idea of security in recent years, and remains cool to President Barack Obama’s charm. Although Washington has insisted that the European missile defense system is meant to protect Europe and North America against an emerging missile threat from Iran, Moscow interprets the proposed system as oriented to face Russia exclusively.

President Obama has expressed conditional support for the program and sought to isolate it from the current round of U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control talks. During his April 5 address in Prague, he declared, “As long as the threat from Iran persists, we will go forward with a missile defense system that is cost-effective and proven.”

With that stance in mind, there can be little doubt that the review will identify options for deploying or expanding missile defense systems in Europe. But what sort of options are there, and which should the administration favor? And what constitutes a sound missile defense policy today?

Without making a case for any particular system or configuration, let’s consider four purposes that have been advanced for ballistic missile defenses:

(1) A tool of strategic deterrence. According to the Bush administration’s policy statement on missile defense deployments, missile defenses offer “an added and critical dimension of contemporary deterrence” against emerging threats, over and above what is provided by the ability to retaliate with nuclear weapons. President Obama’s Prague remarks are at least potentially consistent with this idea.

(2) A means of linkage. European missile defense could be understood as anchoring new NATO members to the rest of the alliance, just as U.S. theater nuclear weapons in Europe have “linked” other allies to the United States. A group of former senior officials of Eastern European countries recently called the European missile defense plan “a symbol of America’s credibility and commitment to the region.”

(3) A means of leverage. Because Russia’s cooperation is important for achieving a peaceful diplomatic resolution of Iran’s nuclear program, missile defense sites in Europe could serve as a bargaining chip. One of President Obama’s statements in Prague hinted at such a purpose: “If the Iranian threat is eliminated, we will have a stronger basis for security, and the driving force for missile defense construction in Europe will be removed.”

(4) A weapon of conventional warfare. Conventionally armed theater ballistic missiles have been employed in a variety of armed conflicts in recent years against military and civilian targets alike. Patriot theater missile defense systems engaged Iraqi missiles, with mixed results, in 1991 and 2003; the single deadliest incident for U.S. troops in either conflict was a ballistic missile strike on an army barracks in late February 1991.

In my opinion, linkage or leverage shouldn’t be the central purpose of defensive systems in Europe. Basing a new architecture on these grounds–if it doesn’t frustrate any lingering chance of Russian cooperation in dealing with Iran–may simply make current security problems worse, as it’s likely to encourage Moscow to sell its own advanced air and missile defenses to Iran and beyond. And certainly, there are better ways for Washington to signal commitment to Eastern European allies.

Neither is it useful to build defenses to try to bolster nuclear deterrence by other means. It has never been clear what missile defense could contribute to forestalling nuclear attack that isn’t already provided either by morality or by the fear of devastating retaliation; if these constraints are too weak, the presence of an imperfect defensive system is weaker still.

The late Wolfgang Panofsky once observed that imperfect defenses are largely futile against nuclear payloads; no more than a single warhead would need to get through to wreak unacceptable levels of death and destruction. Against conventional payloads, however–and I might add, even against chemical or biological payloads–imperfect defenses are practical instruments, whose cost and effectiveness can be assessed rationally against alternatives. The same cannot be said regarding the inaccessible and highly theoretical interior landscape of nuclear deterrence.

During a future conflict, Iran’s new generation of ballistic missiles might be able to reach parts of Europe, and nuclear deterrence wouldn’t give any protection against conventionally armed missiles. Erecting defenses against this type of conventional threat would match the declared intention of the secretary of defense to “restructure the program to focus on the rogue state and theater missile threat.” I believe this is the most appropriate basis for future missile defense deployments.

Certainly, if defensive systems are developed to protect troops and cities from the weapons that are actually used in today’s wars, then in the event of a conflict, there will be no cause to regret having invested in an architecture whose relevance lay elsewhere.

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