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Missile Defense Is Inherently Destabilizing and Provocative
Even though missile defense doesn’t really work, it encourages arms racing as if it did.
There is no limit to the number of arms races that John Bolton wants to fuel:
Such efforts will need to be far more ambitious than previous attempts. When Mr. Bush withdrew from the ABM Treaty 20 years ago, he created a missile-defense program to defend against “handfuls” of incoming missiles from rogue states and accidental launches from Russia and China, as was entirely appropriate for the threats at the time. Today, rogue state capabilities are more sophisticated, Russian rhetoric is becoming more belligerent, and China’s nuclear arsenal is growing rapidly. In response we must urgently increase our homeland missile defenses across the board, which will also have the collateral benefit of aiding our allies.
There is limited value in responding to anything Bolton writes, but his fixation on expanding missile defense is a useful example of a basic error in hawkish thinking that plagues our arms control debates. Hawks look at other states’ growing arsenals and conclude that the answer is to increase missile defenses, but they are mistaken. Because it is relatively easy and cheaper to overwhelm these defensive systems, the other states can and do respond to expanded missile defense with still-larger and more sophisticated arsenals. We know this because it is has already been happening.
The U.S. repudiation of the ABM Treaty was a serious unforced error by the Bush administration that encouraged other nuclear weapons states to expand and modernize their arsenals. Russia and China have both developed new delivery systems for the express purpose of getting around missile defenses because they perceive U.S. missile defenses as potentially negating part of their existing arsenals. Last year, James Acton wrote about the error of withdrawing from the ABM Treaty on the twentieth anniversary of Bush’s blunder:
Yet those defenses have succeeded in fueling arms races with Russia, whose hostility toward the United States is alive and well, and now with China too. This experience should prompt Washington to try to negotiate new limits on missile defenses, and it provides a cautionary tale about the very real costs of withdrawing from international agreements.
Having championed withdrawal from the ABM Treaty and having been part of the administration responsible for fueling arms racing, Bolton would have the U.S. repeat this error on a much larger scale. When the U.S. pulled out of the treaty in 2001, the official line was that missile defenses were needed only to guard against “rogue states” and accidental launches. The U.S. maintained that established nuclear weapons states had nothing to fear from withdrawal from the treaty. It has become much more fashionable in recent years to begin talking about missile defense in the context of countering Russian and Chinese arsenals, and Bolton makes this explicit in his piece: “Our defenses need to be deployed to deal with rogue-state threats, as well as China and Russia, and against all phases of hostile launches: boost, midcourse and terminal.”
The more that the U.S. builds up missile defenses, the more incentive other nuclear weapons states have to expand their arsenals and to build new delivery systems in response. In other words, greatly expanding missile defenses would not make the U.S. more safe, but it would with absolute certainty result in increases in Russian, Chinese, and North Korean arsenals so that they could overwhelm these defenses. The answer is to negotiate arms control treaties with as many of these states as possible and to include missile defense as part of the bargain.
It is worth noting here that existing missile defense technology is unreliable and missile defense is a decades-long boondoggle, but other governments are inclined to assume that missile defense could work and to plan accordingly. This is why missile defense has always been inherently destabilizing and provocative, and it is why the ABM Treaty was negotiated in the first place. As Laura Griego put it several years ago:
Missile defenses can also increase nuclear risks by blocking arms control and providing incentives for Russia and China to build more and different kinds of weapons; preventing this dynamic was a core reason for the ABM Treaty’s limits.
Even though missile defense doesn’t really work, it encourages arms racing as if it did. In that respect, it is the worst of both worlds in wasteful military spending. It not only doesn’t make the country any safer, but it also directly contributes to making it less secure than it was before. It solves nothing and it makes existing problems harder to manage.
It is not difficult to imagine that the Russian and Chinese governments would respond to a massive surge in missile defenses with further increases of their own weapons. Like most hawks, Bolton detests all arms control agreements, and if the U.S. were to do as he wishes we could forget about ever negotiating another arms control treaty with anyone. It would be off to the arms races with no end in sight. Bolton’s proposal is an extremely dangerous idea, and with any luck no one in government will pay any attention to it. Unfortunately, the missile defense boondoggle has lots of supporters in Congress and Washington think tanks, so I fear that we have not heard the last of this.