Missile Defense Aimed at Potential Threats

The stated security concerns underlying current US interests in developing and deploying a Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system focus on a small number of states with future potential to launch ballistic missile attacks against the US. These states (North Korea, Iran and Iraq) are described by the US as “states of concern” (formerly “rogue states”). The Rumsfeld Commission unanimously concluded in 1998: “Concerted efforts by a number of overtly or potentially hostile nations to acquire ballistic missiles with biological or nuclear payloads pose a growing threat to the United States, its deployed forces and its friends and allies.”

The US claims to restrict its targets of missile defense to these states of concern, and has stated that its missile defense efforts are not meant to prevent missile attacks by Russia or China. These assurances have not been convincing to either Russia or China, and both countries have expressed strong concerns about US BMD plans. The US has focused its concerns on relatively weak states that currently present no ballistic missile threat to the US but may in the future. By moving forward with a missile defense system to protect against these states, the US is antagonizing much more powerful potential adversaries. US leaders have even expressed a willingness to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty with Russia, a treaty widely considered to be a foundation of strategic stability in allowing the possibility of continued major reductions in nuclear armaments.

Categories of Deterrence

The US plan to proceed with a BMD system is an admission that deterrence cannot be trusted for security. The US is in effect stating that deterrence is insufficient to assure security – at least against these states of concern. The US is, therefore, creating deterrence categories. One category includes states that the US believes can be deterred by nuclear threat (Russia and China), and one category that the US believes cannot be deterred by such means (North Korea, Iran and Iraq). This categorization of deterrence into those who might or might not be deterred should raise fundamental questions about the value and reliability of all deterrence.

The US plan to build a BMD system may be viewed as a secondary line of defense. If deterrence fails (but only against a small power), the US would be prepared to shoot down the attacking missiles. This would offer the US the benefit of greater degrees of freedom in its relations with the potentially offending states. If, for example, North Korea had ballistic missiles capable of threatening US territory, troops or allies, the US might be reluctant to initiate an attack against North Korea for fear of retaliation. This threat of retaliation by a smaller power would be nullified, or at least perceived to be nullified, by a BMD system. Thus, the deployment of a BMD system would provide the US with a wider range of options in dealing with a smaller hostile nation armed with a small number of ballistic missiles.

Problems with BMD Deployment

There are many problems related to the deployment of a US BMD system. These include:

  • it will be plagued with uncertainties as to its reliability;
  • it will undermine arms control in general and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in particular;
  • it will in all likelihood stimulate new nuclear arms races with Russia and China by undermining their deterrence capabilities;
  • it will not prevent the possibility of hostile countries delivering weapons of mass destruction by means other than ballistic missiles;
  • it will be divisive among US allies;
  • it will be a major diversion of monetary and scientific resources from other security and social priorities; and
  • it will undermine adherence to the promises made at the 2000 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference to an “unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear-weapon States to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals.”

Alternative Means of Dealing with Security Risks

Realistic and credible means of dealing with the security risks posed by North Korea, Iran, Iraq and other potentially hostile nations include:

1. US leadership in developing an effective ballistic missile control regime to prevent the spread of this technology. This would require concessions by the nuclear weapons states to the phased dismantlement of their current arsenals of ballistic missiles.

2. Cooperative agreements between the US and the states of concern. Negotiations have already had positive results in the relationship between the US and North Korea. Negotiations with the other states of concern can begin by simply opening discussions on problem areas. Mediation by neutral states or by the UN may be needed.

3. The US and other nuclear weapons states must take steps to diminish the political importance of their nuclear arsenals. Such steps should include de-alerting all nuclear weapons, adopting clear policies of No First Use of these weapons, withdrawal of all nuclear weapons from foreign soil and international waters, and the opening of negotiations on a nuclear weapons convention.

US plans to develop and deploy a ballistic missile defense system are rooted in fear. It is worth noting that the US, the most militarily and economically powerful nation on Earth, fears from far smaller nations what it itself threatens to do to others. If the US would make a firm commitment to leadership in a global effort to eliminate nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and other weapons of mass destruction, it could forego the limited system of ballistic missile defense that it has been pursuing. This course of action would also have risks, but on balance it would be a more meaningful and decent course of action, one that could inspire its own people and people everywhere and one that could free up important resources to build a more solid future for all humanity.

*David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.