Ballistic missiles have beneficial purposes; they place satellites in orbit, and those satellites provide the world with vital communications capabilities and navigation and weather information. Ballistic missiles send astronauts and space stations into Earth orbit and research probes far across the solar system.
But ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads are enablers of apocalypse. There is no effective defense against these missiles, even though the United States has spent more than 30 years and $500 billion trying to build radars that can track them and interceptor missiles that will shoot them down.
Military ballistic missiles have other negative characteristics. The short time needed for them to reach target (if the United States and Russia are the assumed combatants, 10 to 30 minutes) creates pressure to launch first in a conflict. In a crisis, ballistic missiles on high alert can wind up becoming the leading edge of a devastating war begun by miscalculation.
Because of the obvious dangerousness of ballistic missiles, there is a long history of official efforts to limit or eliminate them. Those efforts have shown that agreements to reduce the dangers of ballistic missiles can catalyze improved relations between potential adversaries. The landmark 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty required Washington and Moscow to eliminate all ballistic missiles with ranges between 500 and 1,000 kilometers. Both nations recognized that these missiles could not be defended against and their proximity to the Cold War boundaries of Europe meant they were highly destabilizing in a crisis. A total of 2,692 missiles (including a small number of cruise missiles) were eliminated under the treaty.
Acknowledging the danger of nuclear ballistic missiles, President Reagan proposed an agreement requiring their total elimination to Soviet leader Gorbachev at their summit in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1985. The Soviets did not accept the proposal because Reagan insisted that America’s program to build missile defenses remain unconstrained. That program—known then as the Strategic Defense Initiative and today as the National Missile Defense Program—has yet to develop effective means to defeat ballistic missiles.
In the mid 1990s, Alton Frye, then Washington director of the US Council on Foreign Relations, advocated an international ban on offensive ballistic missiles, an idea whose time has perhaps come again. Many political and technical challenges would need to be addressed to negotiate and enforce new international limitations on ballistic missiles. But model institutional and scientific mechanisms for such efforts exist in the form of preceding treaties, including INF and New START. Procedures and technologies for inspection, verification, and enforcement of agreements limiting or banning all types of ballistic missiles have already been proven. Political will, as usual is the major missing ingredient.
Former Defense Secretary William Perry and several other experts have recently advocated the elimination of the United States’ nuclear-armed, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). According to Perry, this component of America’s nuclear triad is no longer necessary to deter adversaries and is inherently dangerous, fueling instability during crises and arms races with Russia and China.
While Perry proposes to eliminate only land-based ballistic missiles and retain submarine-based missiles, such a move could create powerful international momentum to negotiate new international limits or bans on certain types of ballistic missiles—with an ultimate goal of banning all nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. If a united international community were to seriously consider such a course, it could bring increased pressure on North Korea, Iran, and other nations to suspend or roll back their offensive ballistic missile programs. If they refused, the possibility of using military force against their nuclear and ballistic missile programs would gain legitimacy and support.
One place to start seeking new limits on ballistic missiles has been in the news for months: the INF Treaty, which the United States and Russia have accused one another of violating. Russia’s support of the treaty has weakened over the years because it is forbidden to deploy ballistic missiles with ranges between 500 and 1,000 kilometers, but its neighbors who are not party to the treaty are permitted to do so. China has many such missiles, and Turkey, South Korea, and Japan could develop them in the future. To shore up the INF, the United States could propose something the Russians have already advocated—that the INF Treaty be expanded to ban this category of ballistic missiles globally.
Such a move would not immediately apply to the most troubling nuclear-tipped missiles, those with ranges far in excess of 1,000 kilometers. But a worldwide INF could be a first step toward an eventual goal of banning all ballistic missiles. A renewed focus on the danger of these weapons—accompanied by US statements that it is willing to eliminate its land-based ICBMs under the right conditions—might elicit greater support from Russian and China in efforts to defuse the North Korean crisis and control Iranian missile testing.
Like the nuclear weapons ban treaty the UN recently adopted, a ballistic missile ban would require sustained, long-term effort to achieve anything like full success. But the United States has everything to gain from taking a leadership role and asserting that offensive ballistic missiles are dangerous and destabilizing weapons that should eventually be eliminated from the arsenals of all nations.