Alternatives to National Missile Defence

Tasneem Jamal

Douglas Fraser

Col (Ret’d) Douglas Fraser is Executive Director, Canadian Council for International Peace & Security

Each of the panelists at the Consultation on NATO Nuclear Policy, National Missile Defence & Alternative Security Arrangement, held in Ottawa on September 28-31, 2001, was asked to submit a short paper relating to the topic of their presentation. The other Consultation participants were asked to submit brief papers responding to one or more of the following questions:

1. What changes to its nuclear policies should NATO be realistically asked to make, in the context of the current review, to move it towards fuller compliance with global nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation obligations and imperatives?

2. Are there realistic and credible alternative means of addressing the security concerns that underlie current U.S. interest in missile defense?

3. What are the most realistic short-term or interim measures that should be taken by nuclear weapon states and nuclear alliances to demonstrate a commitment to significantly reducing the political legitimacy and value of nuclear weapons in order to contribute to the goal of elimination?

The primary mission of the NMD system being developed is the defense of the U. S. – all 50 states – against a limited strategic ballistic missile attack such as could be posed by a rogue nation. Such a system would also provide some capability against a small accidental or unauthorized launch of strategic ballistic missiles from more nuclear-capable states.”

– William S Cohen, Secretary of Defense, January 20, 1999 1


Despite the fact that rogue nations/states have now become ‘states of concern’, the quotation above basically sums up the security concerns of the United States that are allegedly driving interest in the concept of a national missile defence (NMD) programme: deliberate attack from ‘states of concern’ and an accidental or unauthorized launch by a nuclear-capable state. While a very good case can be made that, for the foreseeable future, those threats are unrealistic at least and unlikely at best, this paper will not argue that case. Nor will it situate the debate on NMD in the context of a possible abrogation of the ABM Treaty and the impact that would have on the whole arms control and disarmament architecture. Those arguments, including the recent American tendency to identify threats from capabilities alone, rather than a combination of capabilities and intentions, will be left to others.

This paper will acknowledge the American articulation of the threat but suggest alternative responses to the development and deployment of NMD.

Whatever the response, it has become widely accepted that the technology dealing with ballistic missile development and, more ominously, weapons of mass destruction, is available to those actively seeking it. In addition, it is clear that possession of ballistic missiles, especially those with strategic range, has become a symbol of international power and prestige. The fact that this may be more symbolic than practical is balanced by the recognition that these are weapons of deterrence and coercive diplomacy.

States of Concern

The Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK), Iran and Iraq, are commonly identified as the states of concern. The U.S. assumes that at some point in the future these states will develop strategic ballistic missiles capable of delivering a weapon of mass destruction warhead.

In early August 2000 a National Intelligence Estimate warned President Clinton that the DPRK is the nation most likely to pose a threat of ballistic missile attack on the U.S. during the next 15 years. The same estimate reported that Iran and Iraq could test intercontinental missiles by 2010.2 A more near-term threat was defined by the Rumsfeld Commission which predicted that the DPRK would have missiles capable of striking the U.S. by 2005.3

Assuming that traditional deterrence may not be applicable against states some believe capable of irrational self-destructive behaviour, what other options exist to reduce or eliminate the threat as perceived by some in the U.S.? There are a number available ranging from diplomacy to a preemptive strike with conventional weapons, or, worst case, response in kind.

In dealing with the states of concern the U.S. has a number of limitations in exercising bilateral diplomacy but the possibility cannot be ruled out completely. However, indirect approaches may be more promising, e.g., working with ‘coalitions of like-minded’, some of whose membership may have more cordial relations with the state of concern. In particular, working to reduce regional tensions in both the Middle-East and East-Asia could assist in removing some of the ideological reasons for ‘locals’ threatening the U.S.

Diplomatic initiatives can be reinforced by exploring options for overseas development assistance and opening up trade relations. Near-term opportunities are hard to identify in these areas but they should not be ignored. In fact, the U.S. is engaged in two sets of discussion with the DPRK. The first deals with stopping the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons, the second with cessation of development of medium and long-range missiles and a halt to missile exports.

Current and future arms control arrangements, freely entered into, are means of controlling the action of suspect states. Regimes and agencies such as the NPT ( IAEA), CWC (OPCW), the BTWC and, hopefully, an agreement on restricting the production of fissile materials, all, to a greater or lesser degree, provide controls such as regular and challenge inspections, that restrict the actions of the states of concern. (The current situation with Iraq demonstrates the limits of such regimes in the absence of international resolve to effectively address ‘cheaters’.)

Moving away from the ‘soft’ options, there are others with a more punitive aspect. Denial of technology and materials through such mechanisms as the Missile Technology Control Regime; the Zangger Committee on nuclear equipment and materials; the Nuclear Suppliers Group on dual-use equipment, material and related technologies; the Australia Group on chemical substances and equipment; etc., is a traditional approach which can always be built on to tighten controls and slowdown, if not stop, weapon and missile development. These methods are a form of sanctions although not often referred to as such. The U.S. always has the option of imposing unilateral sanctions as well. These regimes have, almost certainly reduced the capacity of Iran and Iraq to develop both weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems.

Finally, there is always the option of a preemptive strike with conventional weapons, following the model of Israeli attacks on an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1978. While regrettable and perhaps illegal under international law, this option could be less destabilizing than NMD development

Accidental Launch

Russia and China are normally mentioned as states that could present a threat of accidental launch. Although Chinese strategic ballistic missiles are currently in a ‘non-fueled’ status, that situation could be changed in short order. Russia, on the other hand, maintains about 2,000 strategic weapons on high alert.

De-alerting (increasing the required response time) and de-mating (separating warheads from missiles) are the standard measures acknowledged as contributing to reducing the danger of accidental launch. These measures, reinforced in the Russian context by the U.S. – Russia Cooperative Threat Reduction Programme, has funded physical destruction of Russian launch facilities. Exchange of data from joint early warning systems would greatly reduce the misreading of an accidental launch, as would mutual provision of advance notice of missile tests. Both protocols are under discussion between the U.S. and Russia. Once agreed, they could become a model for arrangements with other states, China in particular.

At the end of the day, the best provision against accidental launch is to reduce the number of missiles and weapons systems. In the near-term, the implementation of agreements reached within the U.S. – Russia START series would seem to be the way ahead. Once START III levels have been achieved, the U.K., France and China might also become engaged.

Unauthorized Launch

Russia and China have been the traditional ‘suspects’ in this scenario but the 1999 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate rated the possibility as “highly unlikely.” At the same time these states are often described as ‘states in uncertain transition’ and the threat cannot be ruled out entirely. Measures designed to reduce the possibility of an accidental launch are also applicable here. They must be reinforced by strict civil-military controls on procedures as well as effective physical security.

Iran and, possibly, Iraq are susceptible to non-state actors who might take matters into their own hands and decide to either blackmail or attack the U.S. It will be essential for the U.S. to maintain some form of discrete communication with contacts in both countries in order to have early warning of suspect activity. Given warning, the U.S. could take appropriate countermeasures, some of which were mentioned above. It is less likely that such a situation would arise in the DPRK due to the tight control of the state and the homogeneity of the people.

The Unofficial Threat – China

China is not mentioned officially as presenting a direct WMD threat to the U.S. Comments are normally related to China exporting technology to states of concern. However, especially on Capitol Hill, there are those who argue that the ultimate threat is China’s ability to strike the U.S. or to use their weapons to deter U.S. action in support of South Korea or Taiwan.4 Some say that NMD is really designed to counter this Chinese threat and not that from states of concern. China has been most vehement in its condemnation of the proposed US action, and, along with Russia, has accused the U.S. of seeking, “unilateral military and security advantages.”5 The fact that China maintains only about 20 single-warhead, ground silo-launched ICBM’s explains their rationale, the proposed system, if developed successfully, could negate the deterrent effect of China’s nuclear arsenal.

China claims that its primary goal is prosperity and economic liberalization. In order to achieve that it needs peace and assistance from the West, in particular from the U.S. The latter should exploit its advantages to support China in pursuit of its goal, using diplomacy and economics as the main tools. By not developing and deploying NMD the U.S. would allow China’s current deterrent capacity to be addressed in appropriate arms control fora


There are a number of alternative approaches that the U.S. could adopt in place of the NMD option. There are voices in the U.S. that are open to flexibility on this issue and it is the duty of allies to support those voices whenever possible. The 1 September decision of President Clinton to delay proceeding with NMD presents just such an opportunity.

1 Fact Sheet, Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, Washington, February, 1999.

2 See, The Washington Post, ‘Study Sees Possible China Nuclear Buildup’, August 10, 2000.

3 Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, 15 July 1998.

4 See, The New York Times, ‘U.S. Study Reopens Division Over Nuclear Missile Threat’, July 5, 2000.

5 See, The Washington Post, ‘National Missile Defense Assailed at Meeting’, 19 July 2000.

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