Early in the Cold War, renowned strategist Bernard Brodie gave a chilling prognosis for the dawning nuclear age: "No adequate defense against the bomb exists, and the possibilities of its existence in the future are exceedingly remote." That strategic judgment -- that the vulnerability of superpowers would be pervasive and enduring -- has divided hawks and doves ever since. Hawks have sought to refute what came to be known as the principle of mutual assured destruction, both on philosophical grounds and through technological advances in offensive weapons and ballistic missile defenses. Doves have sought to cement the principle of joint annihilation as a cornerstone of arms control.

Each side has viewed the other's approach as fundamentally incompatible with its own. The purest expression of the hawks' camp was the Strategic Defense Initiative or "Star Wars," which was introduced in 1983 by President Reagan. The embodiment of the doves' camp has been the Antiballistic Missile Treaty of 1972, which maintains nuclear threats indefinitely and rests on the paradoxical idea that more offensive weaponry does not contribute to greater security. The fruition of one approach has been regarded as the demise of the other.

Despite the end of the Cold War, this rhetorical battle continues within the confines of Washington's Beltway and Moscow's ring road because the debate over strategic vulnerability in the nuclear age remains unresolved. During the 1980s, the Star Wars battle was waged over astrodome defenses of orbiting weapons that would protect entire countries against Soviet attacks. The battle line now forms over the issue of missile defenses for circumscribed areas -- troop concentrations, airfields, and ports -- against ballistic missiles held by worrisome Third World states. The Clinton and Yeltsin administrations are currently negotiating new ABM treaty guidelines to permit deployment of missile defenses such as the U.S. Army's Theater High-Altitude Area Defense system. THAAD has become the focal point of a high-stakes battle involving strategic doctrine, bilateral relations, global proliferation, arms reduction, defense budgets, and billions of dollars in contracts for defense companies. As usual, both arms control advocates and missile defense backers have developed zero-sum arguments that suggest -- wrongly -- that there is no middle ground between support for the ABM treaty and deployment of effective missile defense systems.

GETTING OFF THE GROUND

Under the ABM treaty, Washington and Moscow are barred from setting up any nationwide defense against strategic ballistic missiles. The treaty was challenged during the Reagan administration, which sought to deploy space-based sensors and weapons that, in theory, would shield against ballistic missile attacks. Since nullifying the treaty outright was politically untenable, the Reagan administration endorsed a disingenuous legal interpretation of it, concluding that all manner of testing for prohibited deployments was permitted. This novel view was successfully contested by Congress.

Reagan's beliefs and proposals, however, provided enormous negotiating leverage for deep bilateral cuts in nuclear weapons. At the time, Soviet fears were nourished by ample U.S. defense expenditures. The physics of producing workable space-based defenses, however, proved as impregnable as the ABM treaty. Despite the extraordinary advances in computers, radar, and miniaturization in the decade leading up to Reagan's decision -- and massive Pentagon spending thereafter -- defense advocates still lacked the wherewithal to build effective and survivable missile defense hardware. The technological challenges were too great and too costly, and their results would be too easily countered by offensive forces. Arms control advocates were right: homeland defense against a determined nuclear attacker armed with thousands of warheads was -- and is -- an expensive and futile quest. By the end of the Bush administration, there was much less emphasis on plans for space-based components guarding immense areas and more attention to designs of land-based defenses of narrower scope.

Two recent developments have helped sustain political momentum for smaller-scale ballistic missile defenses such as THAAD. In 1991, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein used rudimentary ballistic missiles in the Persian Gulf War to terrorize cities, a reprise of the tactics Hitler used against Londoners in World War II. For the United States and its allies, the war was a chastening experience. scud missiles fell on Tel Aviv, Riyadh, and Dhahran, where 28 U.S. soldiers died in their barracks. Patriot missiles, used against incoming scuds, garnered wide acclaim during the war. However, the Patriot was not designed or tested to combat scuds, and later surveys found its performance lackluster. While Saddam's missiles were inconsequential in military terms, they were meaningful as weapons of terror and alliance disruption. They underscored the lesson that future enemy missiles might deliver a more lethal punch in all three respects.

More recently, smuggling of nuclear materials from the successor nations of the Soviet Union has raised the specter of nuclear proliferation and the increasing possibility that weapons of mass destruction will be used in regional conflicts. Intelligence community estimates in the United States paint a grim picture: more than 25 countries have or seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction and the missiles to carry them. Even if this assessment were wrong by a factor of two, it would be unsettling.

The Clinton administration is now seeking to clarify provisions of the ABM treaty so it can develop and deploy THAAD and related programs, which are far more advanced than Russia's SA-10 and SA-12 air-defense missiles. Russian and U.S. negotiators in Geneva are now trying to agree on new guidelines covering the speed of interceptor and target missiles for flight tests and deployment of theater missile defenses. This negotiation is required because the difference in the ranges of strategic and shorter-range theater ballistic missiles is closing as Third World states improve their offensive capabilities. Since effective theater missile defenses may also be able to intercept less capable strategic missiles, treaty compliance concerns inevitably arise. The ABM treaty bars signatories from giving non-ABM components the "capabilities to counter strategic ballistic missiles or their elements in flight trajectory" and from testing them "in an ABM mode."

INCOMING ARGUMENTS

The Clinton administration has formally buried Star Wars and the expedient interpretation of the ABM treaty it required. Massive reductions in nuclear forces are under way. Meanwhile, U.S. and Russian ground forces carry out joint exercises. All these changes signal an unparalleled opportunity to find common ground on the issue of theater missile defenses. Yet ABM treaty defenders continue to echo their arguments from the SDI debate, while their opponents persist in employing familiar negotiating tactics, such as arguing that if hard-line negotiating positions do not result in Russian concessions, unilateral action should follow.

During the Cold War, the superpowers cooperated quietly on proliferation concerns even when they agreed on little else. Future cooperation on the flight testing and deployment of more effective theater missile defenses should be easier as bilateral cooperation and concerns over proliferation increase. Moscow now has a more flexible attitude toward the issue of ballistic missile defenses. Russia's periphery is aflame in the Caucasus, where ethnic scores are still being settled. The "backlash" states that Washington worries about most cannot reach the continental United States with missile attacks. In contrast, Russia's borders are within range of theater ballistic missiles. As a result, the Yeltsin government is showing more negotiating flexibility than protectors of the ABM treaty in the United States.

Varying perceptions of the threat posed by theater ballistic missiles continue to fuel the debate in Washington over remedies. ABM treaty protectors argue that few missiles now in the possession of rogue states or likely to be deployed over the next five to ten years necessitate defenses like THAAD, which is optimally designed to shoot down ballistic missiles with ranges of up to 3,500 km. In this view, a preferred alternative would be to upgrade the Patriot system so that it could deal with missiles of 1,000-km range, where most threats are likely to arise.

Such an approach would pose no treaty compliance problems, but would not be helpful if rogue states develop and launch missiles of greater range against U.S. troops, allies, or friends. Supporters of THAAD point out that development and test programs are most useful to commanders in the field before the appearance of significant threats, not after them. Money is also an issue, with critics questioning the $10.3 billion outlay for THAAD and its new radar over the next 15 years. Supporters counter that spending less than one percent of defense outlays annually for THAAD is prudent. More outlays would flow to the Navy and Air Force, which are clamoring for theater missile defense programs even more capable than THAAD. Taken together, theater missile defense programs are likely to constitute less than two percent of Pentagon spending.

DOING WHAT WE CAN

Times have changed, and so has the validity of these contending arguments. The theater ballistic missile inventories of rogue states number in the tens and hundreds, not in the thousands. Unlike the nuclear forces of the former Soviet Union, missile arsenals of rogue nations are not sophisticated. Interception of these ballistic missiles in the upper reaches of the earth's atmosphere is not a hopeless task. Moreover, missiles that penetrate defenses, or "leakers," may not be carrying weapons of mass destruction. In sum, even if theater missile defenses are far from perfect, they can still be militarily effective, unlike the SDI program favored by the Reagan administration.

Politically, theater missile defenses can be even more pivotal. Not trying to intercept rogue missiles -- or trying ineffectually -- can have a corrosive effect on alliance relations, especially if backlash states graduate to nuclear or chemical warheads. The prospect of these warheads heading toward foreign cities and U.S. expeditionary forces reinforces the need to intercept them at THAAD's distant ranges. Friendly states facing neighbors armed with weapons of mass destruction will be more inclined to retaliate in kind without such tangible means of protection. Theater missile defenses provide an opportunity to reaffirm alliance relations and nonproliferation regimes.

While the deployment of THAAD might prompt rogue states to redouble their efforts, it is in the U.S. interest to overtax their missile capabilities, not to provide them with a free ride. Unlike strategic defenses against bloated superpower arsenals, U.S. theater missile defenses can outpace Third World ballistic missile programs. Limiting U.S. anti-missile programs to dealing with 1,000-km range missiles in order to preserve the abm treaty could encourage what we seek to halt. Theater missile defenses need to be part of a broader strategy, along with diplomatic efforts, negotiated arms reductions, and export controls, to persuade states to forgo the threat or use of weapons of mass destruction.

During the Cold War, even a modest transition from offense to defense was not possible: increments of defense invariably led to more offense. Foremost, superpowers feared falling behind. Today, the nuclear arms race is over; U.S. and Russian strategic missile production is approximately one-tenth that of Cold War levels. Ongoing programs are no longer driven by one-upmanship but by electoral politics, job protection, and obsolescence. This situation could, of course, change with a dramatic turn for the worse in Russia, but for now fears of an offensive buildup driven by effective theater defenses lack plausibility.

ABM treaty defenders also argue that THAAD-type defenses, with their inherent capabilities against some strategic missiles, will retard further reductions in offensive arms. Worst-case projections depict THAAD missile batteries defending Washington, D.C., and having the potential -- with help from advanced space-based sensors -- to protect a geographic area encompassing Albany, Cleveland, Boston, and Charleston. But these scenarios require extraordinary suspension of disbelief. Would hundreds of defensive missiles be deployed around the nation's capital, a move that was politically unacceptable in 1972? In the intervening years, the protection of politicians has not become more popular. Could theater missile defenses save cities against a Russian attack when strategic defenses could not? Would they work properly every time against missiles they were not designed to intercept -- unlike the Patriot? Would Congress, which refused to spend untold billions of dollars for anti-Soviet defenses that would not work, do so now? Would the military services support vast expenditures for continental missile defense systems instead of for tanks, planes, and ships?

Strategic vulnerability will continue to be a fact of life. Nonetheless, if U.S. and Russian military planners embrace the worst-case scenarios of staunch ABM treaty defenders, they will have added reason to oppose deeper cuts in their strategic forces. Public debate in Russia suggests deep divisions over the equity of start ii, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that requires reductions to 3,000-3,500 warheads. Influential voices in Russia oppose the further devaluation of nuclear weapons -- Moscow's "great-power card" -- especially in light of post -- Cold War conventional inferiority to the West and the prospective eastward expansion of NATO. Thus it is not very likely that deeper cuts in Russia would be thwarted by the possibility of effective theater missile defenses. President Yeltsin and his advisers do not view THAAD as an impediment to deeper cuts, covered under the proposed start iii treaty. This issue now resonates more in the U.S. arms control community than in Moscow.

Another argument against THAAD is that it makes Chinese, British, and French strategic arms reductions more remote, since their arsenals are more likely than Russia's to be undermined by advanced theater missile defenses. The lesser nuclear powers, with several hundred warheads each, have shown little inclination to reduce their arsenals except as required for budgetary cuts. Forgoing THAAD to facilitate reductions these nations do not want would also sacrifice missile defenses they may someday need.

KEEPING THE ABM TREATY ALIVE

Preserving strategic vulnerability, or a balance of terror, is not an end in itself; it is a means of liquidating the consequences of the nuclear arms race while preventing brinksmanship. With the offensive arms competition in a deep freeze, effective theater missile defenses can be safely deployed. This must be done with great care, however, to avoid additional perturbations in U.S.-Russian relations. Flight tests and deployments must be the result of joint decisions, not unilateral fiat. Broad and permissive legal interpretations of the ABM treaty were unacceptable when the superpowers were mortal enemies; they are even more so now that the United States and Russia are trying to forge a friendship.

Devising new rules of the road for theater missile defenses will be one test of that friendship. Successful negotiations will allow both countries to deal more effectively with emerging proliferation problems and give new meaning to hazy notions of strategic cooperation. Contentious negotiations marked by crude efforts to extract Russian concessions by defense enthusiasts in the Pentagon or Capitol Hill will short-circuit this process, helping those in Moscow who prefer their old habits. The natural tendency of missile defense supporters is to keep every option open, notwithstanding funding and technological constraints. This approach is guaranteed to polarize Congress and breed misgivings in Russia.

The new Republican majority in Congress will loosen the purse strings for missile defenses and reinforce unilateralist trends on Capitol Hill. This, combined with President Clinton's inclination not to override Pentagon preferences, could easily deadlock U.S.-Russian negotiations on theater missile defenses.

Arms controllers and missile defense advocates have been fighting so long that they risk losing a golden opportunity to reduce nuclear danger. Paradoxically, the introduction of effective missile defenses requires the ABM treaty, which facilitates cooperation with Russia and far deeper cuts in nuclear arsenals. A return to adversarial relations cannot be ruled out, which is another reason for maintaining the treaty's viability. To endure, however, the ABM treaty must be adapted to vastly changed circumstances.

To begin this debate by asking whether theater missile defenses diminish the national vulnerability at the core of mutual assured destruction confuses the ABM treaty's intent with its practical effect. The treaty's preamble measures its worth in terms of deep cuts, not by imposing strategic vulnerability, which would persist even if the treaty died. To argue that new guidelines covering theater missile defenses would violate the ABM treaty misses the essential point that treaty partners have every right to clarify, reinterpret, or amend provisions to their liking -- as long as they do so by agreement and with the consent of their respective legislatures.

The United States and Russia have embarked on such a course. The Clinton administration has wisely chosen to negotiate rather than act unilaterally. THAAD is needed to deal with missile proliferation nightmares, and the ABM treaty is needed to foster continued cooperation with Moscow. By steering a sensible course between hawks and doves, President Clinton can have both effective theater missile defenses and deeper cuts in nuclear weapons.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Michael Krepon is President of the Henry L. Stimson Center and the author of Strategic Stalemate: Nuclear Weapons and Arms Control in American Politics.
  • More By Michael Krepon