The Myths of Missile Defence

Tasneem Jamal

Ernie Regehr

Published by The Globe and Mail online

This piece was submitted in response to The Globe and Mail editorial, “Missile-defence myths” of August 27, 2004

In “Missile-defence myths” (Aug. 27/04) the Globe and Mail dismisses warnings of the negative strategic and space implications of ballistic missile defence (BMD) as “nonsense,” argues that arms races and the spread of nuclear weapons technology are inevitable, and implies that arms control is futile. Then, admitting that the proposed North American BMD system is “extraordinarily expensive,” that “some aspects of it may never work,” and that it is “plagued with technical problems,” the editorial concludes that, even though the same was true of the failed Star Wars plan of Ronald Reagan, it had the redeeming virtue of spawning the Patriot Missile, implying that BMD will also yield as yet unspecified benefits.

“Would it cause an arms race?” The editorial answers its own question by acknowledging that Russia, China and “other great powers” are already or will soon be engaged in a missile defence race. To that must be added the race, also already underway, to develop missiles with countermeasures to confound BMD technology.

Furthermore, there will be no additional deep reductions in strategic nuclear arsenals as long as the prospect of strategic missile defence remains. Russian arsenals will remain on high alert, and the Chinese will work to advance the alert status of their strategic arsenal as long as they fear that the highly accurate US Trident missile will be twinned with strategic ballistic missile defence.

All this is a consequence, not of any proven missile defence capability, but of the potential. And the real tragedy is that it is not inevitable.

The ABM Treaty successfully warded off strategic missile defence competition for three decades, and it would still be doing its work had the current US Administration honored the US commitment made at the 2000 NPT Review Conference to “preserve and strengthen the ABM Treaty as a cornerstone of strategic stability.” Instead of demonstrating the futility of arms control, the ABM experience demonstrates that it is in the American and Canadian interest to restore the ban on strategic defence. As the editorial implied, without it, any anticipated technological advantage will inevitably be lost as others pursue the same technology and countermeasures.

Opponents of BMD have consistently argued that it will lead to the weaponization of space. Initially, BMD advocates denied any connection between the two, but now the argument is shifting, with the Globe and Mail suggesting it is a non-issue because “the reality is that space is already weaponized” – even though that is not the reality.

Space is used for military purposes, but there has been no deployment of weapons in space, thanks to a long-standing global norm against such use. Indeed, the focus of the newly energized space discussion at the Geneva Conference on Disarmament is to enshrine that non-deployment of weapons in space in international law. On August 26 Canada’s Ambassador to the CD reminded delegates that “Canada’s position, as confirmed by Prime Minister Paul Martin, is profoundly opposed to the weaponization of space and strives to protect space as a universal good.”

The Outer Space Treaty already bans weapons of mass destruction in space, and it already articulates the principle of “the common interest of all mankind in the . . . use of space for peaceful purposes.” That global norm is affirmed annually through a UN General Assembly resolution (passed each year without negative votes, with only the US and a few others abstaining). The noted US arms control diplomat Jonathon Dean has pointed out that through the Treaty and the annual actions of the UN General Assembly, “an important norm has emerged against the weaponization of space, for keeping armed conflict out of space, and for ensuring its peaceful use.”

BMD’s challenge to the effort to enshrine space as free of weapons is not a trifling matter. Another feature of evolving pro-BMD discourse is the suggestion that arms control is futile – or, as the Globe and Mail editorial put it, “once the [BMD] technology exists, it’s a matter of time until it becomes generally available, just as nuclear technology did.”

Nuclear weapons technology is decidedly not generally available. It is very difficult to acquire, partly because the technology is challenging and substantially because the political and legal impediments put in place by the international community are generally working. The relevant law is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and to date North Korea is the only clear case of the successful violation of the NPT (India, Israel, and Pakistan are in violation of the global norm against the spread of nuclear weapons, but they have never been part of the NPT and thus remain a major challenge to the international community; Iran is in potential violation and thus appropriately the subject of intense scrutiny).

BMD is not a substitute for failed arms control. Indeed, any BMD success depends on arms control being hugely successful. BMD has no capacity against Russian and Chinese missiles, and to stand even a remote chance against “rogue” missiles, arms control efforts need to continue to be sufficiently effective to contain the threat to a very few missiles, preferably from a single location – if nuclear-armed missiles were to spread any further, even the pretence of defence would be off the table.

Then there is the spin-offs argument. The August 27 editorial argues, for example, that despite the failure of the Star Wars of the 1980s, their progeny, the Patriot missiles, have been faithfully defending Israel and coalition troops in Iraq ever since.

Again, reality is elsewhere. The Patriot missiles derive from ground-based anti-aircraft rockets, not Star Wars. The Patriot’s mission is tactical/theatre-range interception of aircraft, cruise missiles, and short-range ballistic missiles. It is a battle-field, point-defence system that operates within the atmosphere. The “Star Wars” ambitions of Reagan, as well as the currently-pursued ground-based mid-course interception system were and are entirely oriented to intercepting strategic range missiles in space (the missile kill vehicle on the Alaskan-based interceptors are designed to operate only in the vacuum of space) – with commensurately different strategic consequences.

Even so, the Patriot example is apt but makes quite a different point. The Patriot’s missile’s “kill rate” in the 1991 Gulf War turned out to be in the 10 percent range, rather than the initial Pentagon claims of about 90 percent. And in the current Iraq War, the Patriot mistook allied fighter aircraft for enemy missiles and shot down a UK Tornado and a US FA-18, killing the pilots in both cases. In other words, even in its relatively straight-forward tactical application, and after two decades of operational testing and battlefield experience, ballistic missile defence is extraordinarily complex and prone to costly failure. In its strategic applications, missile defence is exponentially more difficult and the consequences of failure immeasurably greater.

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