A Strategic Defense Initiative

A Strategic Defense Initiative

Mini Teaser: This is not your father's "Star Wars." Missile Defense is real, it's coming, and it will be a indispensible instrument of American power.

by Author(s): Carnes Lord

As for China, the Administration has for various reasons been reluctant to spell out the anticipated impact of the American BMD program on the Chinese strategic missile arsenal. China has been given assurances from time to time by American officials that the program is not directed at that country. It is hardly surprising that the Chinese have had difficulty taking these assurances seriously. Bluntly stated, there is no escaping the fact that a limited American BMD program that is worth anything will be inherently capable of seriously degrading if not simply stopping any attack on the American homeland by Chinese strategic forces now and for some years to come. China currently has some twenty operational ICBMs presumed to be targeted against the continental United States, and a handful of sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLMBs) in a single aging and unreliable nuclear-powered submarine. Even if the Chinese upgrade their strategic missile force with multiple warheads and penetration devices of various kinds, as they are reportedly in the process of doing, or expand it incrementally, it is far from clear that they could stay ahead of American countermeasures or additional defensive deployments even if they chose to do so.

Is there any reason to continue to grant Chinese nuclear missiles a free ride to the United States? One of the standard complaints among critics of BMD is that it threatens the "stability" achieved during the Cold War by fostering a new arms race between offensive and defensive systems. For example, some have predicted that China would respond to an American missile defense system by a major buildup of its ICBM force, which in turn would lead India to expand its own missile force and thus trigger a new arms race between India and Pakistan to the general detriment of the strategic balance in Asia.

There is little evidence to support such hypotheses. The Chinese have preferred to invest their missile dollars in shorter-range conventional systems designed primarily to exert pressure on Taiwan (and to a lesser extent Japan), and in new mobile ICBMs and SLBMs that will provide them for the first time with a secure second-strike capability as a hedge against pre-emptive attack by the United States. The Chinese are no doubt keenly aware that recent technological advances by the United States hold great promise for improving the relative efficacy of defensive systems. They are very unlikely to invest in large numbers of modern long-range missiles that could be rendered totally ineffective within a few years by (relatively inexpensive) defensive innovations.

China is much more apt to concentrate its limited resources on building a capability to deny the United States easy access for its naval and expeditionary forces to East Asia and its allies there. But how vigorously they pursue such advantages will depend to a considerable extent on their perceptions of American intentions. This is why the United States cannot afford to pursue its missile defense project in isolation from its overall foreign policy. While the United States should make clear to China that it reserves the right to defend its national territory from all potential threats insofar as it is able, we should continue to avoid defining our military requirement for a BMD system with specific reference to an actual or potential Chinese threat to the American homeland; and the extent of U.S. support for regional missile defense in the western Pacific should be conditioned on the evolution of Chinese strategic behavior in the region as well as its democratic development.

Involving Allies

The United States needs to make clear to its traditional friends and allies the role it envisions for them in a new international security system centrally featuring defense against missile-delivered WMD. Many have wondered whether NATO still makes sense in a world in which there is no longer a plausible conventionally armed adversary close to its borders. Missile defense provides an attractive common mission for the alliance as a whole, one that is likely to be decreasingly controversial as potential threats loom larger on the horizon and the Europeans get over their nostalgia for the comfortable assumptions of the Cold War security environment. The United States must take the lead not only in technical-industrial cooperation in BMD development, but in shaping political expectations on the part of our NATO allies concerning the overall architecture of a NATO BMD system, burden-sharing arrangements, the problem of constraints on technology transfer, rules of engagement, operational command and control, and a host of related issues that have as yet barely been articulated publicly. The good news is that there appears to be a growing consensus throughout Europe that missile defense makes sense and is something that needs to be carefully studied. And just recently, the Europeans invested some $3.5 billion in an anti-tactical ballistic missile defense capability for the existing Aster air defense system, to be based at sea as well as on land. These are important developments.

In Asia, a major breakthrough occurred in August 2003 when Japan announced its intention to spend $1 billion per year through at least 2007 to develop, in close collaboration with the United States, a nationwide BMD system utilizing its existing U.S.-made Aegis destroyers as well as the pac-3 system. Assuming relevant political and constitutional issues can be resolved, this development could help raise the U.S.-Japanese defense relationship to a new plane of truly global rather than just regional cooperation. In addition, Australia has made a public commitment to develop its own sea-based BMD capability in collaboration with the United States.

Mention should also be made of the special relationship the United States maintains with Israel in the BMD area. The two countries have jointly developed the Arrow anti-missile system, which is now operationally deployed in Israel and is expected to play a critical role in deterring or defeating missile attack by Israel's various regional adversaries. It may be worth contemplating a more formal relationship with the Israelis on these matters, perhaps in cooperation with other friendly regional states or even as part of an American guarantee of a final Israeli-Palestinian settlement.

A final word about space. Bush's willingness to pursue missile defense technologies that could be based in space does not yet amount to a policy of militarizing space, but it certainly raises a question as to the ultimate intention of the United States in this area. It may well accelerate efforts by other nations (particularly the Chinese) to develop space weaponry or otherwise to erode existing constraints on the use of space for military purposes. It is not at all clear that this would be in the best long-term interests of the United States. The United States is militarily more dependent on space now than any other country. Adversaries may well see attack on American space systems as the core of an asymmetric strategy to counter our conventional military power.

Having said all this, it may well be the case, as is now commonly said within the American defense community, that the militarization--more precisely, the weaponization--of space is inevitable, and that the United States has to be prepared not only to hold its own in space but to dominate space as it now dominates the oceans. It would be rash, however, to precipitate such a development by a narrow calculus relating to the advantages of space-based missile defenses. The United States needs a coherent strategy--integrating political, military, civil and commercial considerations--to govern its policy and activities in space in the new century. The recent space shuttle disaster is but one indication of the distance that has to be traveled in this regard. One possible approach might be for the United States to refrain from basing weapons in space so long as other nations did the same, but to maintain a capability to do so in a relatively short period in response to certain contingencies, such as proliferation of anti-satellite weapons, a quantum increase in the Chinese ICBM/SLBM force, or a sharp deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations.

The United States needs missile defense now more than ever. The U.S.-Soviet relationship during the Cold War may well have been less stable in retrospect than was generally thought at the time, but the prospects for the use of mass destruction weaponry are certainly greater today than at any time since at least the Cuban Missile Crisis. With North Korea's departure from the international nonproliferation regime, we may well face a set of cascading effects that will push more countries to pursue more seriously ballistic missile and WMD options. (Already, the Japanese are beginning to talk openly about the need to reconsider the nuclear option in reaction to North Korean developments.) Critics continue to complain about the costs of missile defense and to question its technical feasibility. It is increasingly clear that such concerns are misplaced. The costs of the current development effort are modest. Building and fielding every system we are now working on would clearly be prohibitively expensive, but is not likely to happen. We can be fairly confident that a reasonable relationship will be maintained between the evolving BMD architecture, the nature of the emerging threat, and other military and national needs. As for feasibility, to repeat what was said earlier, it would be rash to wager that the United States will fail the technical challenges we face. The more daunting challenge will be to think through the manifold ways our new commitment to missile defense--both national and global--will contribute to the political fortunes of the United States in its current unipolar moment.

Essay Types: Essay