Getting Serious about the Ballistic Missile Threat

Tasneem Jamal

Ernie Regehr

The Ploughshares Monitor Spring 2002 Volume 23 Issue 1

North America, like the rest of the world, faces serious ballistic missile threats and our governments have a duty to try to offer us some protection. Any “homeland security” policy worth its name should obviously make the homeland safer, so the Bush Administration is not wrong to mark ballistic missiles for prominent attention.

The threat takes three forms. First and foremost are American and Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles loaded with nuclear weapons. They still number in the thousands, many of which are poised at high alert, ready to be launched within minutes of an order to do so. Their special danger owes not only to their civilization-destroying potential, but also to the fact that Russia’s missile warning system is badly compromised and vulnerable to false alarms – and thus to mistaken and irretrievable retaliatory launches.

Two of the world’s most dangerous hot spots, the Middle East and South Asia, represent the next most urgent ballistic missile threat. These political and military tinder boxes both include intermediate range ballistic missiles, as well as nuclear and possibly other weapons of mass destruction. They may not threaten North America directly, but in addition to obviously and imminently threatening the safety and well-being of the people of those troubled regions, their use in a regional conflict would not leave North America, nor much of the rest of the world, immune to either the human tragedy or the impact of the spreading chaos that would ensue.

Then, finally, we get to President Bush’s preoccupation: the possibility that Iraq and a very few other states with an enduring hostility towards the US could acquire weapons of mass destruction and intercontinental-range missiles. Washington’s National Missile Defense (NMD) hope, which it expects Canada to embrace as well, is for now aimed primarily at this, the third and currently least threatening, tier of missile threats.

Whether hope and tens of billions of dollars ever produce the capacity to intercept isolated missile attacks from the likes of Iraq or North Korea (should they actually acquire the capacity to launch such attacks) remains an open question, but the first test of any security initiative is not whether it is likely to work, but whether it is likely to make things worse.

Applying the “do no harm” principle to NMD and its likely impact on the continuing, though now relatively stable, Russian/American nuclear standoff, is not encouraging. Already, one source of strategic stability, the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, has been sacrificed at the NMD altar. Washington’s continuing pursuit of NMD also jeopardizes ongoing reductions in US/Russian nuclear arsenals due to Russia’s fears that its nuclear deterrent could be neutered if its arsenal dropped close to or below the levels that an American missile defence system might theoretically be able to intercept.

Furthermore, the dangerous practice of keeping arsenals on a high alert or launch-on-warning status is further entrenched by NMD ambitions. Russia again fears a scenario in which the Americans could launch a pre-emptive strike to reduce Russia’s retaliatory capacity to a level that could be intercepted by the American NMD system. It is a scenario given new force by the US January 2002 Nuclear Posture Review which calls on the Pentagon to elaborate the case for a pre-emptive strike against Russia, and a list of other countries. To counter that possibility, Russia retains the capacity and option to retaliate as soon as any warning of attack presents itself (to use its weapons rather than lose them), with all the attendant dangers that Russia’s deteriorating warning system might produce a false warning and precipitate a retaliatory launch before the error was found out.

NMD intentions also serve to exacerbate, not reduce, the threat from China. Though it now has a relatively small nuclear arsenal, it has warned the US that NMD would force it to expand its nuclear arsenal in order to preserve its deterrent force – the Nuclear Posture Review also contemplates a pre-emptive strike against China. A nuclear expansionist China would send shock waves throughout its region, with India taking special note. Of course, any Indian response in kind would set off more of the same in Pakistan.

In the Middle East, the introduction of theatre ballistic missile defence through American patriot missiles supplied to Israel offers no sure protection. Instead, coupled with Israel’s nuclear capacity, missile defence increases the demand for a ballistic missile capability in other states in the region.

NMD is spectacular primarily for the degree to which it fails the “do no harm” test, but that still begs the question of credible alternative responses to the full range of missile threats. While there is no silver bullet to eliminate the threat, prudence points to a multi-dimensional strategy focussed on measures that incrementally reduce threat levels and on avoiding other measures that tend toward threat expansion.

In the context of Russian, Chinese, and American nuclear-armed missiles, threat reduction has three primary elements. The first is further and ongoing reductions in arsenals. Second is the need to de-alert existing arsenals – to make launch-on-warning impossible and thus eliminate the danger of a launch in response to a false warning. And the third is cooperative missile monitoring in support of verified missile reductions and enhanced stability through an international monitoring mechanism.

A variety of Russian and American proposals identify four basic functions for such a monitoring agency: 1) to monitor, assess, and share information on the ballistic missile development programs of all states; 2) to provide surveillance and monitoring of the pre-launch status of missiles in nuclear weapon states to facilitate and verify de-alerting measures; 3) to receive advance notification of missile launches for accepted purposes, such as satellite launches; and 4) to detect and track ballistic missile launches and flights and share the information in real time.

The latter two functions are already central to the slowly evolving US/Russian Joint Data Exchange Center (JDEC), which is to be a jointly managed facility to provide near real-time exchange of information on US and Russian launches of ballistic missiles and space launch vehicles.

In South Asia nuclear weapons are not on alert-operational status, and preventing a move to such a status would be aided by similar monitoring. Reversing nuclearization in South Asia and the Middle East, however, ultimately depends on progress in resolving their respective decades-old conflicts. Easier said than done, of course, but there is no alternative. Neither the international community nor the states of those regions can ignore the reality of conflict as a central factor there in the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. For them, safety from nuclear attack or terrorism will not finally come through technology, but through a changed political environment.

The world also needs to confront the danger that states harbouring a particular hostility toward the US, like President Bush’s famous axis of evil of Iraq, North Korea, and Iran, could acquire the means to fire missiles bearing weapons of mass destruction at intercontinental range. But rather than try to build an extraordinarily expensive defence system aimed at a threat that does not yet exist, that cannot be guaranteed to work, but that can be guaranteed to exacerbate other threats, the prudent response is prevention.

A number of approaches to preventing or retarding further missile development in the likes of Iraq, North Korea, and Iran are available – not the least of which might be called economic pressures or buy-offs or, more diplomatically, non-proliferation incentives. For example, the Clinton administration negotiated extensively with North Korea to get it to forego its missile program in exchange for certain diplomatic and economic incentives. The Clinton administration was nearing an agreement that would stop the development of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) and Intermediate-range Ballistic Missiles (IRBM), as well as ending the export of North Korean technology to Iran, but the Bush administration cut off all talks, primarily, one must assume, to preserve both the Korean and Iranian missile threats (since they provide the primary rationale for Washington’s NMD ambitions). North Korea is now threatening to resume plutonium production, having halted production in 1999 in exchange for economic benefits and the construction of two light-water nuclear reactors.

Another key element of prevention – preventing the proliferation of missiles and the weapons of mass destruction they would deliver across continents and oceans – is the promotion of good governance. Current demand for ballistic missiles outside the acknowledged nuclear weapon states is particularly prominent in unaccountable, repressive regimes that ignore the security of their citizens in favour of provocative policies aimed at regime aggrandizement or survival. In the end, the only credible long-term hedge against the pursuit of ballistic missiles and of weapons of mass destruction by such states is an emboldened indigenous civil society that claims the right and acquires the capacity to give direct expression to alternative national interests and aspirations. In states in which the people define public need, public demand is more likely (though not guaranteed) to focus on schools and hospitals than on strategic missiles.

Canada has been supporting threat reductions through the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), by advocating a set of global principles to inhibit missile proliferation and to encourage “responsible missile behaviour” (e.g., for launching satellites rather than delivering nuclear weapons). Principles include transparency with regard to national missile programs, as well as incentives to encourage countries to renounce missile development.

A fundamental global principle that needs attention is rejection of the double standard that Washington has just pushed to absurd levels through its Nuclear Posture Review – the idea that weapons of mass destruction and the ballistic missiles to deliver them are not only fine but essential for some (“us”) but evidence of great evil when sought by others (“them”). The missile threat is global. The threat to use them to deliver weapons of mass destruction is wrong – make that evil – no matter who does the threatening. Protection against it requires global standards and action. A North American “homeland” solution is not available.

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