Is Missile Defense Our Best Shot at Nuclear Abolition?

Is Missile Defense Our Best Shot at Nuclear Abolition?

Are arms control and deterrence two sides of the same nuclear coin? Or are they separate and distinct, serving different objectives and fundamentally at odds?

Today, air and missile defenses could significantly undercut Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping’s escalate to win strategy that threatens to use a small number of nuclear weapons to coerce or blackmail the United States and its allies to stand down in a crisis or conflict.

Here defenses do not have to be perfect to intercept thousands of warheads. Under escalate to win scenarios, defenses need to be highly effective in the face of dozens of such weapons, a technological challenge that now can be overcome, as the Israelis have forcefully demonstrated repeatedly in shooting down literally hundreds of Hamas and Hezbollah rockets.

A group of senior U.S. senators widely recognized as defense champions met in 1984 with the administration and demanded to know when arms control reductions would be implemented if the Senate was to approve the new proposed Strategic Defense Initiative or missile defenses, which many of the assembled Senators were wary of. A senior administration official said that within three years the United States would get its arms control deals—precisely when the INF treaty was signed.

To get that agreement, Reagan, over a period of many meetings, fought against Gorbachev’s insistence missile defenses would be unnecessary with agreed-upon nuclear reductions. This intellectual tussle was especially prominent during their meeting at Reykjavik when the elimination of fast-flying nuclear-armed missiles was on the table for possible abolition.

But as Reagan said repeatedly, missile defenses were at the very least insurance against madmen subsequently getting nuclear-armed missiles—even if nuclear weapons could be abolished in the future.

Robust and effective air and missile defenses—which we can now build—could checkmate the use of nuclear weapons for coercive purposes or blackmail, the very thing that Admiral Charles Richard, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, recently warned that China is seeking to secure.

Today, missile defenses coupled with major and verifiable reductions in nuclear warheads and a robust, credible, and modern deterrent are the triple insurance against rogue madmen and part of the process to make nuclear weapons truly “obsolete”—useless as instruments of coercive diplomacy and aggression and, therefore, no longer sought-after.

We have a very considerable distance to travel to get there, but the path the previous seven administrations have walked holds enough of a promise that a bipartisan consensus can prevail to continue building a stabilizing deterrent that includes space-based missile defenses and stabilizing, verifiable arms control.

Peter Huessy is President of Geostrategic Analysis and Director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute.

Image: Reuters.