America Is About to Expand Its Missile Defenses Dramatically (But There is a Problem)
North Korea is the proximate cause of the BMD expansion teed up by the NDAA, but the strategic impact of these systems go beyond the peninsula. An expanded and improved U.S. BMD architecture could damage strategic stability with other nuclear powers. Building a better shield against missile attack seems entirely defensive to policymakers in Washington, but to states engaged in security competition with the United States this “shield” could encourage U.S. aggression by reducing the targeted state’s ability to retaliate against a U.S. attack.
From a purely technical perspective, the shortcomings of America’s BMD capabilities should reassure other nuclear powers that their arsenals still pose a viable deterrent to a U.S. attack. Indeed, U.S. policy statements on BMD consistently mention that the systems are intended to defend against limited missile attacks by relatively unsophisticated adversaries such as Iran or North Korea. However, America’s relentless pursuit of more numerous and advanced BMD capabilities coupled with the development of increasingly accurate nuclear and conventional strike capabilities foster the perception that the United States wants to break out of nuclear vulnerability.
If nuclear powers locked in broader competition with the United States (e.g. Russia and China) make nuclear posture decisions based on worst-case perceptions, a future crisis with the United States could have very dangerous escalation risks. Strategic stability is mentioned briefly in the NDAA, but the bulk of the bill and the overall outlook of both the Congress and the Trump administration toward BMD capabilities suggest minimal concern about the impact these systems could have on strategic stability. Before Congress authorizes even more BMD capabilities, it would be wise to consider the reaction of other nuclear powers besides North Korea.
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