Implications of National Missile Defense

Tasneem Jamal

George Lewis

George Lewis
Security Studies Program, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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 United States is moving towards deployment of a limited National Missile Defense (NMD) system, intended to protect the entire country from small-scale attacks by long-range ballistic missiles armed with chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. The primary official justification for NMD deployment is the possible emergence of a missile threat from countries such as North Korea, Iran or Iraq, with an accidental or unauthorized missile launch from Russia as a secondary justification. Many NMD supporters also argue that it is needed to counter China’s nuclear missile force. Opponents of NMD deployment argue that the defense is not needed, will not work, and will have a number of serious and adverse consequences for U.S. and international security.

A decision to begin deployment could come as early as this fall. However, most observers believe that President Clinton will make only decisions needed to preserve an early deployment date, in effect passing the decision on to the next president.

Under the current U.S. plan, the NMD system could be operational by 2005, although this seems likely to slip to 2007. The initial system would deploy 20 hit-to-kill interceptor missiles in central Alaska and an X-band missile defense radar at Shemya, at the western end of the Alaskan Aleutian island chain. These locations are clearly directed against North Korea (although China may view see them as directed against itself). Coverage for missiles approaching from other directions would be provided by upgrading five existing early warning radars (in Alaska, California, Massachusetts, Greenland and Britain) to enable them to track targets accurately enough to guide interceptors.

The full NMD system, which would be operational sometime after 2010, would add a second interceptor site, most likely at the former Safeguard site in North Dakota, and bring the total number of interceptors up to 200-250. It would deploy many more X-band missile radars, at sites at sites spanning much of the northern hemisphere. It would also deploy a space-based missile tracking system (known as SBIRS-Low) able to track missiles accurately enough to guide interceptors. SBIRS-Low would provide coverage over almost the entire globe, and could also be used to enhance the capabilities of planned theater missile defense (TMD) systems such the THAAD and Navy Theater Wide systems.

The only available cost estimate (from the Congressional Budget Office) for this system is that it would cost $60 billion to build and operate through 2015, although the actual cost would certainly be higher. Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush has already stated that this NMD system is inadequate and that a larger system is needed. Democratic candidate Al Gore’s position is less clear, although he has indicated that he would be willing to deploy an NMD system if conditions justify doing so.

One of the most important characteristics of the planned NMD system is its extensive sensor infrastructure, which could support a rapid expansion of the number of interceptors. Such an expansion could involve deploying more land-based interceptors, or, as a 1999 Ballistic Missile Defense Organization Report to Congress acknowledged was possible, by incorporating sea-based TMD interceptors, such as the planned Navy Theater Wide Block II interceptor. This interceptor, currently the subject of a joint research program with Japan, would be available sometime after 2010, at about the same time that the NMD system would be completed.

NMD critics argue that, although the NMD system may eventually work on the test range, it will not be effective in the real world. In particular, its hit-to-kill technology appears to be vulnerable to defeat by countermeasures that are within the means of any country capable of building both an intercontinental-range missile and a nuclear warhead small and light enough to be delivered by such a missile. Although NMD supporters reject these criticisms, the currently planned NMD test program lends support to the critics’ arguments. This series of 19 intercept tests, which would extend up until the initial NMD system is deployed and operational, consists entirely of intercepts against “sitting duck” type targets, in which no countermeasures capable of challenging the defense will be used.

The adverse consequences of deploying the currently planned NMD system and its recent test failures have spurred searches for alternatives. Recent interest has focused on boost-phase defenses that would use high-speed interceptors deployed near the missile launch sites to destroy them during the first few minutes of their flight. This approach may be less threatening to Russia and China, since it is designed to be effective against relatively small countries such as North Korea, and may not be readily usable against much larger countries. It may also be more effective, since countermeasures are more difficult against boost-phase defenses. However, this approach is not part of the current NMD plan, nor has it been analyzed in enough detail to be confident that its potential consequences are fully understood.

Consequences of NMD Deployment

Deployment of even the initial phase of the planned NMD system would violate the ABM Treaty, although precisely when that violation would occur is in dispute. In August 1999, the U.S. began discussions with Russia on modifying the Treaty, but Russia has been firmly opposed to any modification, and no progress has been made so far.

The Clinton Administration claims that it is possible to simultaneously deploy its limited NMD system and preserve the ABM Treaty. However, the planned NMD system is fundamentally inconsistent with the Treaty. NMD deployment would of course put in place a prohibited nationwide defense. More importantly, however, it would also establish a sensor and command and control infrastructure that would allow the number of interceptors to be rapidly increased. The fundamental problem that the proposed NMD system poses for the ABM Treaty is that there is no way to guarantee that it will stay “limited.” There are other approaches to limited NMD that would be more difficult to expand rapidly, but these have not received serious consideration.

The negative consequences of NMD deployment result primarily from the likely responses of Russia, China, and other countries.

Russia’s economic difficulties are likely to prevent from undertaking an offensive buildup, but there are steps it could take to preserve its deterrent capabilities. The August 2000 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) “Foreign Responses to U.S. National Missile Defense Deployment,” indicated that Russia might respond by withdrawing from a range of arms control agreements, putting multiple warheads on missiles that currently have only one, and deploying additional tactical nuclear weapons. Russia might also increase the fraction of its missile forces on alert for immediate launch, thereby increasing the risk of an accidental launch – perhaps the greatest nuclear danger to the United States.

In a very optimistic scenario, Russia might concede that it cannot prevent NMD deployment and that arms control provides the only way to reduce the growing disparity between its own declining strategic nuclear forces and those of the United States. In this scenario, Russia would not withdraw from existing arms control agreements, but would seek further nuclear reductions. This outcome is far from certain, particularly given that NMD deployment will certainly be exploited by those in Russia seeking political objectives such as increased defense spending. Moreover, even in this optimistic case, NMD deployment will establish a minimum level of nuclear forces that Russia will be unwilling to go below, locking the U.S. and Russia into at least this level of nuclear forces for the indefinite future. In the longer term, Russia may deploy its own missile defenses, which would likely provoke a U.S. offensive response and raise the possibility of a renewed nuclear arms competition.

Even the first phase of the NMD system would pose a direct threat to China’s small force of intercontinental-range ballistic missiles. China is also concerned about possible US TMD sales to Japan and Taiwan. As noted above, the U.S. and Japan are engaged in joint research on a TMD interceptor that the Pentagon has already stated could be incorporated into the U.S. NMD system.

China clearly is able to expand its nuclear forces to overwhelm any limited U.S. NMD system. The August 2000 NIE raised the possibility that China might increase its long-range missile warheads to about 200 by 2015, and even greater increases are likely within China’s means.

NMD deployment may have consequences that go well beyond the direct Russia and Chinese responses. As the NIE noted, India and in turn Pakistan may well respond to a Chinese nuclear buildup with buildups of their own. An earlier, September 1999 NIE noted that U.S. NMD deployment might endanger Chinese and Russian cooperation on non-proliferation, thereby increasing the global threat from missiles and weapons of mass destruction. Ultimately, the halting of U.S. and Russian nuclear reductions, and the potential nuclear buildups by other countries that could follow from NMD deployment could imperil the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which is based in part (at least in principle) on a commitment by the nuclear weapons states to reduce their nuclear arsenals.

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