The Endless Fantasy of American Power
Neither Trump Nor Biden Aims to Demilitarize Foreign Policy
TO DEPLOY OR NOT TO DEPLOY
Well before the 2000 election, George W. Bush and his inner circle were clear on a few things, one of which was missile defense. If they won, it would become the centerpiece of national security policy, even if all or most of the world's other major capitals see national missile defense (NMD), especially the U.S. approach to it, as irrelevant or unresponsive to plausible threats and a potential danger to global security.
There are various ways of looking at missile defense. Dispassionate advocates argue that it might actually have some deterrent value at some future moment against some violence-prone regime or possibly offer some protection against an accidental launch. And in any case, just deploying a missile defense could raise society's comfort level -- its confidence that the government was doing all that it could to prevent the irrational actors of the world from doing what has been called "the unthinkable."
Less candid proponents favor a system with the declared purpose of managing a threat from the rogues of the world but envisage it as the first step toward a system really designed to neutralize China's modest strategic arsenal or the expanded Chinese arsenal they expect to see. Other, even more strenuous advocates favor a "thick" multi-layered system -- combining land-, sea-, and space-based components -- that would neutralize Russia's forces, along with China's.
Many, probably most, opponents regard missile defense as capable of contributing nothing but trouble. They see it as threatening deterrence and the arms control structure, starting with the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty; as inevitably creating major difficulties with America's allies and greatly agitating its former adversaries, Russia and China. Also, they say, the assumption that it might even work and actually serve as a shield is badly flawed -- how flawed would be discovered only after an attack. Hitting ten or so bullets with ten other bullets under controlled testing conditions can prove nothing, they argue. And anyway, the argument runs, the offense can always outnumber and outperform any defense.
Less committed opponents would say the United States should not rule out all forms of missile defense. Indeed, building on smaller, theater missile defense systems (TMD) that are now under development would not agitate other governments or upend the arms control structure. However, the most effective way of coping with a supposed threat of missile attack is and will remain deterring it with awesome strategic power. The next most effective way is, or would be, prior restraint, meaning a blend of political measures aimed at infusing the global environment with greater stability. The various steps would include arms control agreements, preventive diplomacy, some provisions of international law (including constraints on using space for military purposes), lengthening the reaction time of missile systems, exchange of surveillance data, and more transparency.
Emphasizing missile defense would undermine prior restraint. Still, a system could be deployed not as the primary, let alone exclusive, response to a putative threat but as another string to the bow. And if deployment dictated an appropriate amendment of the ABM Treaty, so be it. However, the Bush administration has probably foreclosed any such moderate approach.
The deployment decision should not be driven by doctrine, the promise of a given technology, or the claim of affordability. The core question is whether Americans would be more secure and the world more stable if the United States deployed a national missile defense. The president's speech on May 1 purported to be about providing greater security for a greater number, but he was really proposing a radical change in U.S. strategic doctrine.
To defend the living by deploying a missile defense system is for most advocates an article of faith. They always opposed the ABM Treaty, signed in 1972, under which the United States and the Soviet Union each surrendered any meaningful right to defend itself against the other's nuclear weapons. Indeed, various members of the Bush administration judge relying on deterrence immoral: far better to defend society than to have to avenge it after a destructive attack. And they lost no time in telling the Russians that the ABM Treaty was "a relic of the Cold War"; they might, it appeared, work with Russia to change the treaty, but they would walk away from it if they had to.
The Cold War may be over, but the world is far from having settled into a new era or a less threatening environment. The danger of a nuclear weapon going off somewhere is actually greater now than it was then. And the threat to the United States in particular -- also greater than before -- is less from the rogues of the world than from the disrepair of Russian strategic forces.
In the Cold War era, serious people with some responsibility for nuclear weapons knew that neither superpower was going to make a calculated strike against the other and invite national suicide. The danger lay in the less remote threat of a nuclear weapon, or weapons, being used by accident or inadvertence. The command-and-control structures on either side were under stress, mainly because thousands of nuclear weapons deployed on silo-based missile launchers and on submarine-launched systems were kept on hair-trigger alert; the time available to decision-makers for reacting to an ambiguous event was -- is -- correspondingly short.
Remarkably, very little has changed except that the Russian structure is much weaker than it used to be. The early warning network is deteriorating and, like the rest of Russia's military infrastructure, is falling on increasingly hard times. But Russia still maintains a quick-launch posture for its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMS) and keeps missile submarines on so-called dockside alert. Its missile systems, like those of the United States, could be launched within a few minutes of receiving the launch command.
The sensible and direct way of reducing the immediate danger would be, in the jargon, "de-alerting" the weapons. De-alerting would amount to de-mating, meaning the physical separation of missile warheads from launchers.
Quite clearly, Russia is not going to de-alert unilaterally, or even start the process. Obsolescence and shoddy maintenance are steadily diminishing Russian strategic forces, thereby strengthening the case for keeping a portion of what remains of them on alert status.
Russia would see an extensive NMD system, together with the decision to scrub the ABM Treaty, as signaling an emergent U.S. bias toward reliance on defense and away from deterrence. Russia would be most unlikely then to agree to an American proposal to de-alert.
Moscow, Beijing, and worried European capitals see in Bush's design a quest for unilateral advantage by a power already in full possession of the relevant strategic advantages. And they deplore the administration's apparent unconcern with the arms control process.
The Bush team, in most cases, dislikes the nuclear arms control process because it sets limits in an area where they think the United States can best protect itself from the world's dangerous uncertainties. But cutting weapons unilaterally, as they prefer, could mean losing the on-site verification process. In that case, any reciprocal reductions by Russia could not be monitored, at which point confidence would decline and worst-case analysis would flourish, especially in an unstable environment. Arms control is a political process. Controlling nuclear weapons is less about cutting numbers of them than about building each side's confidence in the other. The mantra should be restraint, predictability, and transparency.
Washington's internal argument about what exactly to do, if anything, is an inward-looking exercise until allies and other big powers begin thinking and talking about what the U.S. decision may mean for them. The private reaction of major allies to Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) ranged from abusively critical to angry. By planning to send skyward high-power lasers and other futuristic directed-energy weapons to destroy offensive missiles, Washington seemed to be imposing a whole new strategy on European governments and Russia without warning, let alone consultation. The guarantor of Europe's security, it seemed, had opted for shielded insularity.
Then, as now, most Europeans hoped fervently that the ABM Treaty would be kept intact. They, like most orthodox American thinkers on the subject, were sure that any sizable defensive system would create an enormous spiral in offensive nuclear arms -- a situation in which there would be far less stability, and so less security for all.
Then, as now, Moscow more than shared that concern. The ABM Treaty, which forbade testing and deployment of the systems on which SDI was based, had become a Russian icon.
Left to himself, President Bill Clinton would have preferred to negotiate major cuts in offensive nuclear weapons rather than revive the hoary argument about whether a bullet can be made to hit another bullet or whether it is a good idea even to try. Instead, he approved the National Missile Defense Act of 1999, yielding to pressure from the missile defense lobby and denying Republicans a potentially powerful political issue. At the time, he laid down four sensible criteria on which to base a deployment decision: affordability, technological readiness, responsiveness to an actual threat, and consistency with foreign policy and arms control requirements.
Otherwise, there was a lot wrong with the Clinton approach, starting with the analysis of the threat but also with the Pentagon's so-called architecture. Clinton did not like it much himself. The system, most of which his successor may revive as part of something bigger, would use ground-based interceptors deployed eventually at two sites and supported by an extensive network of ground-based radars and space-based infrared sensors. It did not test well, partly because the program was hurried to meet an unrealistic and arbitrary deadline. (Only three tests were conducted; two of them failed to hit the target.)
The alleged threat lay in the prospect that North Korea or Iran would be able, possibly within a few years, to threaten the United States with strategic missile systems. But within and beyond the administration, as well as within the intelligence bureaucracy itself, the threat was widely seen as greatly inflated. And much of what occurred was reminiscent of the latter 1970s, a time when Cold Warriors in and out of government exaggerated the strength of Soviet strategic forces, in part by intimidating the intelligence community and skewing the intelligence product. A major player in that era, perhaps the key player, was current Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who in the summer of 1998 chaired a bipartisan commission mandated by Congress to examine the threat from ballistic missiles. Rumsfeld has had more to do with establishing the putative threat from North Korea and Iran than anyone else. His agenda is modest. He concentrates on just a few subjects, but these he routinely bulldozes into submission.
Both the Clinton and Bush inner circles read more into the Rumsfeld Commission report of August 1999 than was there, and Clinton, of course, used it to justify moving ahead as rapidly as possible. North Korea strengthened the case by launching the Taepodong I three-stage missile over Japan six weeks after the release of the Rumsfeld report.
A whiff of irony clings to this dawning of the national missile defense era. North Korea's test was a failure. The missile's third stage malfunctioned, and it failed to put the satellite payload in orbit. Also, in conducting the test, North Korea had neither telemetry nor down-range ships. So there was no way of knowing whether the re-entry vehicle survived the experience. Predictions by the U.S. intelligence community that North Korea would test the system again have not yet been borne out. Still, the Rumsfeld Commission report would have had far less impact if North Korea had not tested.
The State Department's intelligence people dissented from the assessment of the threat from North Korea as constituting a danger to the United States. They felt similarly about Iran, which would have little, if any, reason to develop an outright strategic threat to the United States. The obvious targets for Iran's missile systems are Iraq, Israel, and U.S. forces in the region. Its missile systems are being designed and tested accordingly.
Most of Clinton's national security apparatus feared a more imminent danger: that posed by nuclear weapons carried by terrorists or fired from ships. Once committed, Clinton should have adopted a different and broader approach to missile defense. Both the Rumsfeld Commission report and the unclassified version of a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that followed it were very similar. (Members of the commission served as outside reviewers of the NIE.) Both documents showed a range of threat, of which the most imminent, credible, and dangerous involved not unfriendly ICBMS, but short- or medium-range missiles launched from sea-based platforms deployed not far from the U.S. coastline. These systems were reported to be less expensive to develop, easier to produce covertly, and probably more accurate, at least for 15 or so years, than longer-range ones. The NIE went on to identify a gamut of nonmissile threats, which, taken together, were described as more immediate and less expensive than developing and producing ICBMS, more easily disguised, and probably more reliable than first-generation ICBMS.
Language in the documents about an ICBM threat from so-called rogue states was considered by some of those involved in preparing the NIE as "red meat thrown to right wingers on the Hill." But the Clinton team could have seized the high ground politically by using language from the two documents to argue for matching each rung on the ladder of threat with an appropriate defensive measure. Specifically, they could have declared that missile defense merits an approach that is both broad and precise, since the threat is broader and more imminent than the prospect of North Korea's or Iran's developing ICBMS in the near term, if ever. They could also have noted that all advances in technologies designed to counter threats from lesser-range missiles would benefit the development of weapons to neutralize any potential ICBM threat from rogue states; the technologies are complementary, not disparate.
But the tail has been wagging the dog. The emphasis in spending for research and development has been on NMD instead of systems designed to defend against short- and medium-range missiles that threaten U.S. coastlines and American forces stationed abroad. Ten years after Iraq attacked U.S. forces with Scud missiles, America still lacks a so-called theater missile defense.
Predictably, Bush's key advisers have taken a much darker view of the threat to the United States from long-range missile systems than did the Clinton people, who, like the president, were being shoved along by domestic politics. The dominant figures around Bush are Vice President Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. These three are much alike -- capable, knowledgeable, resourceful, experienced, well to the right of center, and hard-line on Russia, China, and arms control -- strong but wrong, as some have put it. Whether Secretary of State Colin Powell can or will try to influence the direction of policy on missile defense and related issues is somewhere between uncertain and doubtful.
Like Clinton, Bush will have to wrestle with cost -- determining whether an expansive missile defense system can be reconciled with the administration's other programs, notably its defense budget and tax cut. Whatever approach he takes will also bump up against the tougher issue of technology. Any system would have to work the first time it was used. Overcoming countermeasures designed to defeat it is the intractable, perhaps insuperable problem. Opponents, quoting the NIE and other authorities, cite a number of uncomplicated decoys that would be effective against an NMD system such as the one put forward by Clinton.
Clinton chose not to deploy an NMD system, in part because the testing program created major doubts and the two independent reviews were sobering. "This is the most difficult thing the Department of Defense has ever tried to do," according to Philip E. Coyle, who directed the Pentagon's weapons testing from 1994 until January of this year.
However, the battle seems to have been joined on arms control issues and relations with other major powers. The chief concern was and should remain the sentiments of Russia, China, and U.S. allies in Europe and northeastern Asia.
RUSSIAN AND CHINESE OBJECTIONS
Russian opposition has multiple sources. There is the fear that missile defense will create pressure to expand Russian strategic forces. The last thing Russians want is a competition in strategic arms. They see their increasingly worn-down offensive forces shrinking to very low levels and have little appetite or resources for a new arms race. They want to see a focus on arms-race stability, not crisis stability. They do not want to have to deploy a lot of countermeasures. They are, as noted, more reliant on nuclear weapons and launch-on-warning than either Washington or they would like. And their control of weapons through the nuclear chain of command is believed by some specialists to be deteriorating in physical, organizational, and human terms.
President Vladimir Putin is seen as a work in progress, his direction unclear. His high-energy diplomacy in Europe is bearing fruit. And he has proposed that Russia and the NATO membership jointly examine prospects for missile defense, a step that some in Washington see as an effort to divide America from Europe. But that will not happen unless the Bush administration causes it to happen.
A major and related Russian concern, one that China shares, is what both see as the militarization of space by the United States -- of missile defense turning space into an arena of competition. They have read the Air Force Space Command's Web site, which talks about American domination of space and about space as the fourth frontier of warfare. And they have read "Joint Vision 2020," a document produced by the Joint Chiefs of Staff that advocates "full spectrum dominance -- a capacity of U.S. forces ... to conduct prompt, sustained, and synchronized operations ... with access and freedom to operate in all domains -- space, sea, land, air, and information."
Probably more disturbing was another Rumsfeld Commission report, also congressionally mandated and dealing with threats to U.S. satellites. The report does not call for but implies a U.S. need to accelerate development of antisatellite weapons, some of them space-based. But deploying such weapons will press other countries to develop and deploy countermeasures. And in any such tit
for tat, the United States has the most to lose, since it is far more dependent on satellites for commercial communications and data-gathering operations than any other country. Among the effects could be a sharp rise in the cost of insuring commercial satellites and an outcry from industry.
Russian anxiety over what may transpire in space just might cause Putin to oppose any form of strategic missile defense, including the least threatening: a boost-phase system. A defense of this kind would target ICBMS in their first few minutes of flight, when they are easier to track because of the rocket plumes behind them and easier to destroy because they have not yet had a chance to launch decoys. A boost-phase defense system, moreover, could be designed to operate over an area small enough to be effective against emerging threats such as North Korea but nonthreatening against missile systems deployed in the vast expanses of Russia and China, thus making it more acceptable to the established nuclear powers. And because it has the virtue of its limitations -- nonthreatening to Russian or Chinese strategic forces -- a boost-phase system would be more acceptable to other governments.
Russia's concern is that space-based sensors and other components of a boost phase, or indeed any, missile defense system, could be upgraded to provide more data, thereby giving defensive systems more capacity. And looking ahead, it worries about a multitiered U.S. missile defense that would include space-based lasers and interceptors. "Space could become Russia's Stalingrad," says Roald Sagdeev, former director of the Space Research Institute in Moscow.
Just as western European leaders worry about Russia's reaction to missile defense, Russia worries about China's reaction (or overreaction). If Russia bends, China will claim the moral high ground.
The Chinese reaction to missile defense proposals is negative, strongly felt, and expressed mainly in terms of cross-strait relations. China worries about political trends leading Taiwan further away from the fold. The Chinese leadership, its control at home gradually eroding, cannot allow itself to be accused of "losing Taiwan," especially when President Jiang Zemin is trying to arrange his own succession.
Deeply conscious of its vulnerability, China believes a system such as the one Clinton put forward would wholly neutralize China's small strategic force and could therefore threaten China's survival. And since China undoubtedly thinks of North Korean strategic weapons as nonexistent and conjectural, its leadership assumes that a U.S. missile defense along those lines would actually be directed against Chinese forces. China will almost certainly hedge against the prospect by expanding its strategic forces beyond the modest upgrade now underway. China could equip them with multiple warheads, a step that missile defense makes more attractive.
As of now, China's nuclear deterrent is composed of 20 or so old, slow-reaction, liquid-fueled missile systems of dubious reliability; their warheads and fuel are stored separately. Also, China's strategic thinking has never had an American focus. Its forces have a largely regional focus, with many of them reserved for Russia. China's upgrade is most unlikely to alter that pattern by creating a force that is more than a deterrent -- one that might actually threaten its American counterpart. Still, Washington, as in the past, could overreact to whatever China does and set in motion a self-fulfilling prophecy. It used to be called the "action-reaction cycle."
A similar cycle could beget a nuclear arms buildup in South Asia. Washington tends to see Pakistan as India's major concern, even though China, which has been the main supplier of Pakistan's nuclear technology, is the abiding source of Indian insecurity. Indeed, India can deploy a more than ample retaliatory capacity against Pakistan but has almost no such ability to strike the Chinese heartland. And if China's upgrade enlarges its threat to India, as it probably will, India will expand its forces accordingly. Pakistan will follow suit. The world will indeed have become a more dangerous place. Missile defense can produce this scenario.
Among the parties most concerned with Washington's decision are Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. For them, U.S.-China relations are much more than a bilateral affair. They are uncomfortable whenever the two are seen as being close, but more so when Washington and Beijing are feuding. Treating China as a threat places Japan, for example, squarely between its principal ally and its mighty neighbor.
Over the past century, the United States has been instrumental in cleaning up Europe's messes. For a change, Europe is looking at a made-in-America mess and wondering what to do, apart from hoping that cost and technological difficulties will make NMD go away. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder and other Europeans have worried aloud that a U.S. decision to protect itself with NMD could lead to divergent security systems within NATO -- more specifically, a fortress America.
Well before Bush was inaugurated, Europeans were aware that he could and probably would create major rifts, first by gutting or killing the ABM Treaty; second, by ignoring or trashing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; and third, by mishandling the complicated Russian account or, much worse, humiliating Russia. For Europeans, missile defense is to a large degree a Russian problem. They do not want to be seen in Moscow as complicit in the death of the ABM Treaty or in the creation of NMD. And one of Europe's apparent options in the early going would have amounted to taking up Putin's suggestion of a joint approach to missile defense involving Russia and NATO members, including the United States. His proposal, a three-step affair put forward in February, would start with an assessment of the threat, followed by a hard look at alternative systems for coping with it, and finally, development and deployment of whatever response, if any, might be agreed to.
European leaders wondered for a time whether they could discourage a flat U.S. rejection of Putin's proposal that is consistent with language in the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997. Washington, they reckon, should understand the importance of having Russia on board. All parties, they could point out, are trying to reduce the threat from weapons of mass destruction.
Regarding Russia, President Bush, in his speech of May 1, said, "perhaps one day we can even cooperate in a joint defense." Whatever the intent of this language, European governments should at least try to make something useful of it. They could and should propose the broader approach to missile defense that Clinton did not take and Bush is not taking. Briefly, the Europeans could do the prudent and sensible thing by stressing the threat that is and will remain -- the threat from irrational forces with access to frightful weapons, including short- and medium-range missile systems. Putin's proposal, as noted, would begin by assessing the overall threat.
But the political cost of joining forces with Russia even in this way may be too much for Europe's diffident leaders. The cost would be exacted in Washington, a town that has become increasingly tone deaf since the Cold War ended. Long before the arrival of Bush II, Europeans were complaining that Washington was confusing consultation with edicts.
Missile defense, by exceeding its political tolerances, will become the poster child for multiple complaints about American unilateralism and indifference to the concerns of others. Besides weakening NATO, it could also induce a false sense of security in the United States about the threat of being attacked with truly frightening weapons or the danger of an accidental launch of a Russian ICBM.
A perverse irony lies within. A credible NMD -- one that could overcome the simpler and cheaper gadgets designed to spoof it -- might in the end be out of reach. But the necessarily huge effort in resources, time, and energy would not have been much ado about nothing. The political damage would have been done.
Along the way, national missile defense may breach some of technology's frontiers, but it is unlikely to remove or contain the serious threats to stability and security. Instead, it could make the world less stable and the United States a more insular and more vulnerable place.