The Pentagon’s repeatedly delayed Missile Defense Review finally has been released. Defense analysts and think tankers are poring over it, debating the pros and cons of its various announcements. Yet the most important aspect of the document so far has received the least amount of sustained attention. This is the explicit admission in the review of what critics of missile defense, including Russia and China, have asserted for 20 years: that the U.S. missile defense system ultimately is aimed at defending against the arsenals of other nuclear-armed major powers.
In launching the review, President TrumpDonald TrumpGraham says he hopes that Trump runs again Trump says Stacey Abrams 'might be better than existing governor' Kemp Executive privilege fight poses hurdles for Trump MORE was careful to emphasize that the system is designed to defend against missiles “launched against the United States, anywhere, anytime, any place.” The review states that Russian and Chinese missiles are part of “the realities of the emerging missile threat environment” that American missile defense “must address.”
Since the George W. Bush administration unilaterally withdrew from the 1972 Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, officials in Washington have maintained that Russia and China have nothing to worry about. This system was said to be a limited one and only aimed at defending against attacks from “rogue states” such as North Korea and Iran.
This was never a serious argument. Of course the initial deployments of interceptors and radars would be limited; this is new and expensive technology. But, bit by bit, the system has expanded and improved.
The Russians and the Chinese were not concerned about what was deployed today; rather, it was what these moves signaled about what eventually would be deployed in the future. Nor were they necessarily concerned about U.S. intentions today. Foreign policy outlooks and intentions can change — look at the shift from presidents Obama to Trump. Therefore, it is the capabilities of tomorrow that matter, not the intentions of today.
But Americans should be concerned about the missile defenses being deployed today. This seemingly innocuous system of radars, tracking technology and interceptors undermines stability in Washington’s strategic relations with Moscow and Beijing. Defending against attack flies in the face of the idea of mutually-assured destruction, the idea reluctantly embraced during the Cold War (and after), to lower the risks of nuclear first strikes. Both sides being equally vulnerable to nuclear retaliation, means that neither has incentive to strike first. Developing missile defenses, by definition, means abandoning the concept of mutual vulnerability. But this has been glossed over too easily in debates over the issue.
If the United States can defend against a nuclear retaliation, what is it that is going to deter Washington from attacking first? Goodwill? Unending benevolence even during military crises? It may seem counterintuitive, but having the advantage of striking first is not good for American security.
If U.S. adversaries suspect that Washington may be about to attack first, what will stop them from attempting to beat Washington to the punch? They may still get one or two missiles through the defenses — why not try? If they are convinced that the United States is going to attack anyway, waiting would be suicide. They will have nothing to lose in striking first. Therefore, paradoxically, missile defense increases the threats to American national security. It encourages adversaries to develop more weapons (to attempt to overwhelm the defenses) and to be more likely to use those weapons early in a crisis.
To make matters worse, missile defense is only one piece of a much larger puzzle. Other high-tech, non-nuclear weapons now complement the system, such as the development of hypersonic precision strike missiles, anti-satellite and anti-submarine weapons, as well as nascent cyber capabilities. Whether offensive or defensive, all of these weapons can be used together to compromise an adversary’s nuclear arsenal — and their use does not require crossing the nuclear threshold.
Now that the fiction of a missile defense system aimed only at rogue states has been abandoned, the question the Pentagon must answer is: What will replace mutual vulnerability as the cornerstone of stable nuclear-armed relationships? This question is the single most important thing that should dominate discussions about the missile defense review. Yet it is likely to get lost in debates over costs, placing sensors and maybe even interceptors in space, the location of a proposed East Coast site for interceptors, and other ultimately less important issues. What political scientists refer to as the “normalization of missile defense” has become so complete that the real implications of deploying a large-scale system aimed at defending against other nuclear-armed major powers is hardly discussed, even by defense experts.
The release of the Missile Defense Review is important but not because of what it tells us about the Trump administration’s priorities in the next few years. Its significance lies in the openness with which its authors in the Pentagon have chosen to discuss the purpose that the system is meant to serve.
The official policy of the United States is to no longer rely on nuclear deterrence based on mutual vulnerability to keep the chances of nuclear war as low as possible. That is a profound and potentially extremely dangerous policy position that deserves intense scrutiny. Mutually assured destruction never was a perfect condition. But its abandonment is going to require a coherent replacement, sooner rather than later, if missile defense is to make Americans more, rather than less, safe.
Benjamin Zala is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School. Follow him on Twitter @DrBeeZee.