Understanding Ballistic Missile Defence

Ballistic missile defence has drawn heated debate in the international community in the recent years. On the one hand, the US has made it a national policy to develop a limited ballistic missile defence program, with a key decision to be made this year regarding whether to deploy the system. On the other hand, the US missile defence build-up has been much criticised by other countries. It is often argued that missile defence would, if unchecked, tilt the balance of power and therefore affect the international political and security order.

To be honest, there is indeed a genuine concern over the proliferation of ballistic missiles and other types of delivery means. Coupled with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, ballistic missile proliferation presents a major challenge to international security and stability. This was manifested during the second Gulf War of 1991, when Scuds fired against Saudi Arabia and Israel took on great psychological importance. Ever since then, more and longer-range missile flight tests, in South Asia and Northeast Asia, have been reported.[1] While the countries concerned may have quite reasonable grounds to acquire missiles for their defensive purposes, such a trend of proliferation does not bode well for global as well as regional stability.

Ballistic missile proliferation has thus raised concern among states. There have been three kinds of responses. First, denying the intention of those who would seek such delivery vehicles. This would require the creation of a more secure environment in order to reduce the incentive to acquire them. Second, denying the missile-related technology available through transfer, if denial of intention fails to work. Third, establishing a certain level of ballistic missile defence as a protection against incidental and/or unauthorised attack, or a limited intentional attack with ballistic missiles.

In this context, it is not impossible to understand the need for a limited missile defence, especially for a global power as the United States, which has vast overseas presence and interests, often in turn a reason to invite attack.

In fact, the US has never given up its attempt to build various missile defence systems. The US set out to build sentinel antiballistic-missile program in 1967 against China’s nascent nuclear deterrent when it first came into being.[2] For the last two decades, the US government has persistently pursued missile defence. The Reagan Administration launched its Strategic Defense Initiative, a land- and space-based multi-layer missile defence system which was never successfully developed. The Bush Administration converted the Star War dream into Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS). The Clinton Administration has decided to continue ballistic missile defence, with components of both National Missile Defence (NMD) and Theatre Missile Defence (TMD).

This paper will address China’s position on missile non-proliferation regime, and its concern on National Missile Defence. It is suggested that the US and China should address their respective security concerns and seek a win-win solution in missile non-proliferation and missile defence issues.

China and Missile Non-proliferation Regime

Over the last decade, China has been increasingly exposed to a missile-proliferation-prone peripheral environment. Key neighbouring states either have a formidable missile arsenal, a significant missile programme, a fast developing missile capability or an alliance with a nuclear superpower. As such, missile proliferation has clearly affected China’s international environment.

Therefore, the PRC has taken a series of steps addressing this problem through joining international missile non-proliferation efforts. It has been cautious concerning the transfer of missiles, adopting strict and effective controls over the export of missiles and related technology. Beijing has committed to missile non-proliferation and kept its obligation.[3]

In February 1992, China committed to observing the then guidelines and parameters of Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).[4] With the enhanced dialogue which emerged between China and the US in the missile area, the two countries signed a joint statement in October 1996, reaffirming China’s promise and obligation of not exporting ground-to-ground missiles inherently capable of reaching a range of 300 kilometres with a payload of 500 kilograms.[5]

Although China has not joined the MTCR’s formulation and revision, it has signalled that it would study the feasibility of joining the regime. This came as a result of the Jiang-Clinton Beijing summit of 1998, reflecting their effort to cultivate a constructive partnership. It is understood that China has conditioned its joining the MTCR on the question of the US arms sales to Taiwan, especially US TMD development and deployment in this part of the world.

The two countries were engaging on this matter until their talks on non-proliferation, arms control and international security were, unfortunately, suspended in the aftermath of NATO’s bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in May 1999. Their arms control talk is not resumed till July 2000, following their security consultation in Beijing in February.

NMD Undermining Russia and China’s Security

On 17 and 18 March 1999 respectively, the US Senate and House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved National Missile Defence System legislation, stating “That it is the policy of the United States to deploy a national missile defence”.[6] This has evoked tremendous repercussions around the world, drawing negative responses from all other nuclear weapons states and even US allies in NATO.[7]

According to the NMD plan, the US will deploy 100 interceptors in Alaska in its first configuration. Assuming a 1 in 4 rate of interception, the US could at most hit 25 incoming missiles, a more than sufficient capability to take care of the alleged threat from those “rogue” states’ said to be developing long-range ballistic missiles with which to target America. At later stages, the US would deploy further kinetic kill vehicles in North Dakoda in order to provide nationwide missiles defence.

The US has stated clearly that China has not figured in its NMD calculations. However, China views the situation differently and remains strongly suspicious of the US intentions in terms of NMD development. From China’s perspective, it is untenable that the US would spend 60-100 billion dollars on a system which has only “rogue” states in mind.

Such capability of intercontinental strike by ballistic missile owned by “rogue” states does not yet exist. Excluding the P5, only Israel, Saudi Arabia, India, Pakistan, DPRK and Iran are currently believed to have medium-range missiles with ranges above 1,000km. Only four of these states, India, Pakistan, DPRK and Iran, may also have active programmes to develop intermediate-range missiles with ranges of over 3,000km.[8] It is highly unlikely that any of them will acquire an ICBM capability within a decade or so. The CIA’s classified 1998 Annual Report to Congress on Foreign Missile Development recognised that the ICBM threat to the United States from so-called rogue states is unlikely to materialise before 2010, with the possible exception of DPRK.[9]

Only Russia and China currently have the capability to hit the United States with nuclear warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles. However, this is not a new phenomenon. Both the US and Russia have maintained their nuclear arsenals of thousands of deployed nuclear weapons. Their nuclear arsenals are at basically comparable levels in terms of quality and quantity. It is the ABM Treaty signed in 1972 that has prevented the US and the former Soviet Union from embarking on unlimited strategic arms race.

The ABM Treaty does allow the US and the former Soviet Union (now Russia as its sole legitimate successor) to deploy limited anti-strategic ballistic missiles capability for the sake of incidental and/or unauthorised launches. It has doubly served strategic stability. First, for limited nuclear attack due to incidental/unauthorised launch, it permits limited capability to intercept. Second, for an all-out nuclear attack and counterattack, it assures the rivals of their mutual destruction. Indeed, the Treaty has helped dissuade the two nuclear weapons superpowers from further escalating their strategic offensive build-up.

With Russia’s ongoing social and economic disruption, its military capability has been affected significantly. In the context of strategic offence-defence relationship, Russia is being pressed three-fold. First, a significant amount of Russia’s strategic force is ageing and has to be phased out. Therefore, Russia needs deep bilateral nuclear weapons reductions with the US, but it refuses to do this at the expense of revising ABM, permitting the change of balance of power in favour of the US. Second, START II would eliminate Russia’s land-based MIRVs. At a time of the US rhetoric of abrogating ABM anyway, the Russia has to reconsider the necessity to disarm its MIRVed weapons. Third, Russia’s missile defence, permitted under ABM, is eroding as its early warning satellite system can no longer provide full coverage.[10]

As such the world is experiencing a double danger. Russia cannot properly execute its launch-on-warning of strategic force as it is unable to fully track missile launch and flight. Russia’s refusal to cut its nuclear force, when it has to cut it, also creates difficulty in nuclear disarmament. However, the latter issue is a result of the US missile defence build-up in violation of ABM Treaty.

Consequently, the US NMD build-up will be harmful to US-Russia relations. It presses Russia to be hesitant in continuing strategic nuclear disarmament, and may force Moscow to strengthen its offensive capability. By revising or even abandoning the ABM Treaty, the US will seek absolute security regardless its negative effect on the security of other countries.

From China’s perspective, the US national missile defence would cause even worse strategic relations between Beijing and Washington. Though China has not publicly made its nuclear capability transparent, its CSS-4 ICBM force, capable of reaching the US with a range of 13,000 kilometres, is largely believed by the Western strategic analysts to number around 20.[11]

China’s concern over the US national missile defence in violation of ABM has been expressed through various channels many times.[12] Primarily China is concerned about two issues. One is that the NMD will destabilise the world order, and harm the international relations. The other is that NMD will undermine China’s strategic deterrence, undermining China’s confidence in its strategic retaliatory capability.

A limited anti-ballistic missile capability, as allowed by the existing ABM Treaty, would be enough to defend the strategic assets of the US against potential missile threats from outside the P5. Indeed the one-site base of anti-ballistic missile deployment under ABM framework cannot immunise the whole US from being hit. It is exactly this reason that has given Russia (as well as other nuclear weapons states) a confidence that they retain a credible nuclear deterrence vis-à-vis the US. Theoretically, part of the US would thus be exposed to some missile threat from “rogue” states. However, either that threat has been too remote, or the overwhelming strength of the US in both nuclear and conventional weapons will be powerful enough to deter potential adversaries from initiating hostilities.

Also the envisaged NMD cannot stop an all-out Russian nuclear attack, considering the thousands of strategic weapons at Russia’s disposal. Therefore, Beijing can only take the view that US NMD has been designed to effectively neutralise China’s strategic deterrence.

Given the reported level of China’s full-range ICBM force (CSS-4), the NMD plans requiring ABM revision would (if successfully implemented as advertised) compromise China’s strategic capability in two respects. Geographically, it will protect the whole US from being deterred. Numerically, even interceptors deployed on a single site may be enough to knock out all Chinese CSS-4s.[13] Hence China’s national security interest is greatly endangered.

To hold the US credibly deterred is just to reciprocate, to a much lower extent, what the US has long done against China during the nuclear age. In fact, it was US nuclear threats to PRC on a number of occasions that prompted Beijing to start its nuclear weapons programme.[14]

Though the US has the most formidable nuclear arsenal and most powerful and sophisticated conventional arsenal, it retains the option of a first-strike with nuclear weapons as its deterrence policy. Now the US would even revise or abolish the ABM which assures nuclear weapons states of their mutual security.

The PRC has one of the smallest nuclear arsenals and least advanced conventional weaponry among all the nuclear weapons states, but it still adopts a nuclear no-first-use policy, and a nuclear no-use policy against non-nuclear weapons states or nuclear weapons free zones.

The PRC’s national security thus rests with what ABM provides. The US indeed can develop and deploy anti-strategic weapons capability, as permitted by the ABM, in order to gain certain sense of security against incidental and/or unauthorised attack by nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, it ought to take into account the common security of all nuclear weapons states. When the US improves its own security at a time of ballistic missile proliferation, it should mind not to undermine the national security of others. Indeed there is an internationally acceptable limit that the US can pursue, i.e. developing its NMD capability in compliance with the Treaty.

Addressing China’s Concern

The US can argue that it is its sovereign rights to develop and deploy NMD beyond ABM Treaty. However, if the US were to go ahead regardless of the other states, it certainly would not create a win-win situation. Indeed, it would be counterproductive in terms of US interests.

Some in the U.S. have been indifferent of the negative security impact the revision of AMB would bring upon other states. In this theory the US shall at most care to some extent Russia’s concern. As ABM involves the business between US and Russia, there seems no need to address China’s concern.

The US shall understand the ABM is both a balancer of power between US and Russia, and, more fundamentally, a cornerstone of global security. In the latter context, China’s security is affected by the standing of ABM. The PRC has expressed its interest in multilateralising ABM, in the hope of expanding ABM membership.[15] This reflects Beijing’s interest in maintaining ABM by raising the stake of altering a multilateral treaty. Being a member of the ABM, Beijing would be situated in a better strategic position to enhance world stability.

There have thus far been two interception tests of NMD systems. The first was carried out on 2 October 1999 and was found to have flaws.[16] The second test on 18 January 2000 was a complete failure due to a “plumbing leak”.[17] The US has self-imposed a deadline for making a decision on NMD deployment in June/July, after one more test. Even though future tests could be more or less “successful”, it would be still quite irresponsible to make a decision to go ahead.[18] It will be in neither America’s ultimate interest, nor the interest of the rest of the world.

If the US insists on hurting the national interests of Russia and medium nuclear weapons states, it is hard to see how it will be possible to gather international support for non-proliferation initiatives in other fronts. The Fissile Materials Cut-Off Treaty (FissBan) is an obvious example. Were the US to break the ABM Treaty, medium nuclear weapons states would be unlikely to give up their option of retaining the right to re-open production of fissile materials for weapons purposes, if they feel their deterrence is eroded.

It should also be pointed out that there are ample means to defeat a missile defence.[19] Various means such as submunitions, high as well as low altitude countermeasures, balloon decoys, chaff and missile fragment decoys can all be considered. MIRVing and ASAT approaches might also be tempting. It goes without saying that if a state is able to independently develop a strategic missile capability, it should also be able to develop a capability to cost-effectively defeat missile defence.[20]

Some argue that there is a growing threat from China as it is modernising its strategic forces. Looking at the CSS-4 force developed and China’s sea-based deterrence, one can hardly reach this conclusion. A land-based strategic force of about two dozens of intercontinental ballistic missiles, and a very small submarine-based missile force, is hardly any match for those of the United States.

As China intends to adopt a no-first-use strategy, it serves China’s interest to keep a moderate force. However, China has a need to modernise its force as its defensive policy requires to do so, and as all other countries are doing the same. This is especially true at an age of precision-guided weaponry. An ICBM force of some two dozens of missile does not justify the US to revise or abolish ABM Treaty. Quite to the opposite, China’s moderate strategic force and moderate modernisation play a key role in assuring the US adequate security, which serves a stabilising role in terms of China-US relations, and world security.

In sum, the United States does have legitimate concern over missile proliferation. That concern is shared by Chinese side. Major powers of the world, along with other countries, should work together to address such international problems, and to find solutions which serve both international stability and their respective national interests. Moving along the lines provided for by the ABM Treaty provides such a way forward. On the contrary, going ahead with damaging ABM and other countries’ interests can only be counterproductive.


* Dingli Shen is a professor and Deputy Director of Fudan University’s Centre for American Studies, as well as Deputy Director of University Committee of Research and Development. He co-founded and directs China’s first university-based Program on Arms Control and Regional Security at Fudan. The views presented in this chapter are purely of his own. This piece is adopted and updated from a longer version, “BALLISTIC MISSILE DEFENCE AND CHINA’S NATIONAL SECURITY”, Jane’s Special Report, May 2000.

[1] For instance, India has tested Agni and Prithvi, and Pakistan has tested Ghauri ballistic missiles a number of times in the 1990s. DPRK is alleged to have developed and tested No-dong and Taepo-dong intermediate-range ballistic missiles. Reportedly some other countries are developing their ballistic missile capabilities.
[2] Edward N. Luttwak, “Clinton’s Missile Defense Goes Way Off Its Strategic Target”, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, June 14, 2000, p.2.
[3] “China’s National Defence”, Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, Beijing, July 1998.
[4] MTCR was set up in April 1987, and modified in July 1993 to target missiles capable of delivering any type of weapons of mass destruction.
[5] “Joint United States-People’s Republic of China Statement on Missile Proliferation”, Washington, D.C., 4 October 1994.
[6] The House version, sponsored by Curt Weldon (R-PA), was a bill of one-sentence as quoted in the text.
[7] Joseph Fitchett, “Washington’s Pursuit of Missile Defense Drives Wedge in NATO”, International Harold Tribune, 15 February 2000, p.5.
[8] “The Missile Threat: An Intelligence Assessment”, Issue Brief (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace), 10 February 2000.
[9] Craig Cerniello, “CIA Holds to Assessment of Ballistic Missile Threat to US”, Arms Control Today, October 1998, p.24.
[10] David Hoffman, “Russia’s Missile Defense Eroding: Gaps in Early-Warning Satellite Coverage Raise Risk of Launch Error”, Washington Post, 10 February 1999, p.A1.
[11] CIA put the number as about 20, see Craig Cerniello, “CIA Holds to Assessment of Ballistic Missile Threat to US”, Arms Control Today, October 1998, p.24, and, SIPRI Yearbook 1999: Armament, Disarmament and International Security (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1999), p.555; IISS estimated it as 15-20, see The Military Balance 1999-2000 (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1999), p.186. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimated the number in 1993 as 4, see Robert S. Norris, Andrew S. Burrows and Richard W. Fieldhouse, Nuclear Weapons Databook Volume 4: Britain, French, and Chinese Nuclear Weapons (Westview Press: Boulder, 1994), p.11.
[12] For instance, Sha Zhukang, “International Disarmament on A Crossroad”, World Affairs (Beijing), February 2000, p.17; Gao Junmin and Lü Dehong, “A Dangerous Move”, PLA Daily, 24 January 1999, p.4.
[13] Assuming China has 20 CSS-4s, the 100 interceptors deployed on a single ABM site will be more than enough to hit all of them under a 1 in 4 interception ratio.
[14] See, Dingli Shen, “The Current Status of Chinese Nuclear Forces and Nuclear Policies”, Princeton University/Centre for Energy and Environmental Studies Report No. 247, February 1990; McGeorge Bundy, Danger and Survival: Choices about the Bomb in the First Fifty Years (Random House: New York, 1988).
[15] See luncheon speech of Ambassador Shu Zhukang at Seventh Carnegie International Non-Proliferation Conference: Repairing the Regime, 11-12 January 1999, Washington, D.C.
[16] James Glanz, “Flaws Found In Missile Test That U.S. Saw As A Success”, New York Times, 14 January 2000, p.1.
[17] Robert Suro, “Missile Defense System Fails Test”, Washington Post, 19 January 2000, p.1; Bradley Graham, “Plumbing Leak Foiled Anti-Missile Test”, Washington Post, 8 February 2000, p.A1.
[18] However, Richard Garwin has pointed out that “the proposed NMD system would have essentially zero capability against the most likely emerging threat – an ICBM from North Korea”. See, “Effectiveness of Proposed National Missile Defense Against ICBMs from North Korea”, http://www.fas.org/rlg/990317-nmd.htm.
[19] See description in Joseph Cirincione and Frank von Hippel ed., The Last 15 Minutes: Ballistic Missile Defense in Perspective (Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Danger: Washington, D.C, 1996); Countermeasures: A Technical Evaluation of the Operational Effectiveness of the Planned US National Missile Defense System (Union of Concerned Scientists and MIT Security Studies Program), April 2000.
[20] See cost analysis in Dingli Shen, “Security Issues Between China and the United States”, IFRI Report (Institut Fran¹ais des Relations Internationales, Paris), to be published.

Paper presented at the International Conference on “Challenges for Science and Engineering in the 21st Century” Stockholm, Sweden, June 14-18, 2000, Session D3