BMD and Arms Control Implications

Briefing 04-2

Ernie Regehr

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It is not credible to continue to argue that BMD has no strategic implications and no implications for non-proliferation. The key reality about current BMD pursuits is that they are being carried out within an overall strategic security structure that is not at all stable; that involves increasing tensions and proliferation threats, as well as ongoing wariness, to put it in its most benign form, among former Cold War rivals. And it is an environment that is not being made more stable by the introduction of BMD development.

Conventional wisdom says that ballistic missile defence (BMD) is neutral in its impact on arms control and the strategic environment. In the “take note” debate in the House of Commons (Feb. 17, 2004), the Ministers of Defence and Foreign Affairs and the Official Opposition speakers for the most part addressed the issue only in passing, and only long enough to acknowledge what everybody is now supposed to know: that ballistic missile defence is of no concern to the Russians or the Chinese, and that neither of them is being prompted to take any countermeasures and, for sure, no new arms race is in the offing.

On the other side, of course, are the alarmists, who are always raising dire warnings about a new arms race and about the reversal of any progress made toward greater strategic stability and disarmament.

There is one sense in which the official line is correct: BMD is not now igniting a new and unique strategic arms race. Arms races are neither fomented nor stopped by single weapons systems or events (after all, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty did not prevent a massive arms race during the Cold War, and its abrogation has had little short-term impact on the post-Cold War strategic environment). Arms races occur, but in the context of an entire strategic architecture that is already leaning in a particular direction.

The key reality about current BMD pursuits is that they are being carried out within an overall strategic security structure that is not at all stable; that involves increasing tensions and proliferation threats, as well as ongoing wariness, to put it in its most benign form, among former Cold War rivals. And it is an environment that is not being made more stable by the introduction of BMD development.

Relations among the United States , Russia , and China , as far as nuclear weapons are concerned, remain within what is essentially a Cold War framework. All the Cold War dynamics of strategic nuclear confrontation and deterrence remain, although, thankfully, under political conditions that are much less hostile, and are sometimes even cordial. But, the current nuclear disarmament environment is still characterized by:

  • strategic missiles on high-alert;
  • concerns about first-strike capabilities against vulnerable land-based strategic systems;
  • continued upgrading and modernizing of arsenals, including research on new nuclear weapons;
  • prospects for resumed nuclear testing; and
  • concerns about the vigorous pursuit of strategic missile defence.

Arms control has already suffered as a result of this environment.

  • No more than two years after agreeing to the principle of irreversibility in arms control agreements (Step 5 of the 2000 NPT review conference final document)1, the US and Russia entered into an arms treaty, the central pillar of which is reversibility. While the 2002 Russian-American Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT) provides for significant reductions in deployed strategic arsenals, it does not require the destruction of any warheads or delivery systems and places no limitations on other deployments.2
  • There are no prospects for a PAROS (Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space) agreement in a strategic environment dominated by missile offence-defence competition and in which the predominant power has made an overt commitment to pursue space-based missile interception forces.3 
  • Arms control will not thrive in an environment in which any power pursues missile defence interceptors that can be converted into offensive satellite strike weapons.4

On February 17, 2004, Foreign Affairs Minister Graham told the House of Commons that “there is no suggestion that this plan has anything to do with measures against Russia , or destined against Russia , China or other states of that nature.” Unfortunately, Canada is not in a position to decide whether Russia or China regards BMD as having anything to do with them. Both already seem to be signifying that it has plenty to do with them and are beginning to take countermeasures:

  • Russia has made a point of announcing that it has successfully tested a new generation of ballistic missile capable of avoiding any missile defence system through quick maneuverability, changing altitude and direction in its space flight. While the announcement stated that this test was not related to US BMD developments, the message was clear: US defence capabilities would be matched by offence innovations in an ongoing defence-offence competition (Associated Press 2004).
  • The Center for Defense Information (2004) reports on a December 12, 2003 article in the Chinese Communist Party newspaper that stated China ‘s concerns about US space control ambitions, including space-based ballistic missile interceptors. China called for new efforts to ban the testing, fielding, or use of space-based weapons. However, although China does not threaten a vigorous military response, it would be a grave error for the US and the international community to ignore these Chinese concerns. If China finds that its concerns are ignored, it has the means to react in other unilateral and dangerous ways.
  • When the United States abandoned the ABM Treaty, Russia announced that it was no longer bound by the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START II); thus it retains its Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicles (MIRVed) SS-18, SS-24 mobile missiles, and SS-19s. As Canadian analyst Philippe Lagassé (2003, p. 19) writes: “Suggestions that the Russian response to the American withdrawal from the ABM treaty was ‘muted’ are thus demonstrably false. In truth, Russia reacted decisively to the end of the ABM treaty: it once again turned to MIRVed ICBMs [Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles] – the system described as ‘the single most dangerous innovation since the mating of nuclear weaponry with ballistic rocketry.’”
  • This development leads to another dangerous consequence and that is that Russia will increasingly rely on a “use ’em or lose ’em” high-alert strategic posture. To save money, and due to the opening afforded by the demise of START II, Russia will concentrate more and more of its warheads on fewer land-based missiles. In the context of the combination of the growing accuracy of US strategic missiles like the Trident II D-5 (Regehr 2003)5 and missile defence, Russia will increasingly perceive its retaliatory deterrent forces to be vulnerable and thus will be led to keep them on a high-alert status.6
  • Russia’s active development of supersonic cruise missiles is further evidence of its determination to stay well ahead of any possible American progress in developing strategic defence capabilities (Ross 2003).
  • While Russia ‘s deterrent remains in place, dangerously poised to be fired off within minutes of a warning that could turn out to be false,7 China ’s response, as the Pentagon has been warning, is ongoing rearmament. China ’s current arsenal of about 20 ICBMs capable of targeting the US will be expanded to about 30 by 2005 and possibly 60 by 2010. China is also actively pursuing a program to develop ballistic missile defence countermeasures (electronic countermeasures to confuse X-band radars, as well as Patriot Advanced Capacility-3 [PAC-3] and sea-based interceptors; modifications to re-entry vehicles/warheads to counter ground radars; countermeasures to lasers; renewed attention to exploring Air-Launched Anti-Satellite Missile [ASAT] capabilities; renewed interest in MIRVs, and so on [Nartker 2002; Gertz 2003]).

The present strategic environment is proving to be inimical to credible nuclear disarmament, and ballistic missile defence is contributing to that dangerous situation.

And the horizontal proliferation threat is also affected. Minister Graham used the phrase, “states of that nature,” to refer to states with more than a few nuclear missiles, and to make the point that such states are not the focus of BMD. The message is therefore clear: if you want to be immune from the effects of missile defence (including vulnerability to superpower intervention), you have to acquire more than just a few nuclear-tipped missiles. When China in the early years of its nuclear arsenal had just a few weapons, it was deemed not to be amenable to deterrence. Then Defense Secretary McNamara used China ’s intransigence as a rationale for the American pursuit of ballistic missile defence. But as China acquired more than a few missiles, the US incorporated it into the strategic deterrence framework. In other words, BMD is an incentive to go beyond a minimal nuclear capacity to one that is not amenable to being intercepted by BMD.

It is not credible to continue to argue that BMD has no strategic implications and no implications for non-proliferation. There was a reason why strategic planners decided 30 years ago to block strategic ballistic missile defence systems. And those reasons largely remain inasmuch as BMD creates incentives to build nuclear arsenals large enough to overwhelm defence systems and sets in play an ongoing offence-defence competition.



  1. The 2000 Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty adopted, by agreement of all states parties, a set of 13 practical steps to systematically and progressively achieve complete disarmament. Step 5 is: The principle of irreversibility to apply to nuclear disarmament, nuclear and other related arms control and reduction measures.
  2. Implementation of the Treaty seems also to be moving at a slow pace since US and Russian officials have not yet convened a commission intended to help implement it, despite treaty language calling for the commission to meet twice a year (Global Security Newswire, 2004).
  3. PAROS is the focus of planned discussions at the Conference on Disarmament and the subject of an annual resolution in the UN General Assembly.
  4. For more information, see Wright and Grego 2002.
  5. The Trident II D5 missile can deliver each of its Mk-5/W88 warheads to home plate, the Navy boasts, whereas the earlier C4 can only guarantee delivery within the base paths of a baseball diamond (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 2003, p. 75).
  6. That, by the way, is a violation of Step 9 of the 2000 Review Conference 13 practical steps, by which the nuclear weapons states pledged to take “concrete agreed measures to further reduce the operational status of nuclear weapons systems.”
  7. See Phillips 2002 for a discussion of how to mitigate this threat.


Associated Press, Moscow 2004, “Russia: Star Wars useless against new weapon,” February 19.

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 2003, “Nuclear Notebook: U.S. nuclear forces, 2003,” May/June.

Center for Defense Information 2004, Space Security Update, #1-2004, Jan. 13.

Gertz, Bill 2003, “Pentagon says China refitting missiles to hit Okinawa,” The Washington Times, July 30.

Global Security Newswire 2004, “Moscow Treaty Commission to Begin Soon, Russian Official Says,” Feb. 2.

Lagassé, Phillipe 2003, The SORT Debate: Implications for Canada, Institute for Research on Public Policy Working Paper No. 2003-01.

Nartker, Mike 2003, “New Report Details Chinese Missile Defense Countermeasures,” Global Security Newswire, September 25.

Phillips, Alan F. 2002, No Launch on Warning, Project Ploughshares Working Paper 02-1.

Regehr, Ernie 2003, Canada and Ballistic Missile Defence, Liu Institute for Global Issues, University of British Columbia, December.

Ross, Douglas A. 2003, “Foreign policy challenges for Paul Martin,” International Journal, Autumn, Vol. LVIII, No. 4, pp. 533-569.

Wright, David and Grego, Laura 2002, Anti-Satellite Capabilities of Planned US Missile Defense Systems, Union of Concerned Scientists, December 9.