The Difficult Road to Defense
Pictured: The U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald launches an SM-3 interceptor missile as part of a joint ballistic missile defense exercise in the western Pacific Ocean, on October 25, 2012. (U.S. Navy photo/Released)
In 1983, when U.S. President Ronald Reagan launched the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), also known as Star Wars — a research program aimed at developing missiles to protect Americans from a Soviet nuclear attack — he was accused of engaging in “red-scare tactics.”
At the root of the criticism was the assumption that the nuclear balance between the Soviet Union and the United States could only remain stable if both sides adhered to the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). That doctrine led to the ratification in 1972 of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which prohibited the deployment of missile defenses by both the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. beyond a minimal amount of interceptors.
The ABM Treaty had come about in large part as a result of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s announcement in 1967 that the U.S. was going to embark on a missile-defense effort aimed at protecting the country from a small but expanding Chinese missile arsenal. Although then-President Lyndon Johnson was concerned about the growing Soviet missile threat, McNamara talked him into a far more limited endeavor.
Even McNamara’s limited proposal, however, provoked a hysterical response, with, for instance, political cartoonists drawing caricatures of Uncle Sam “bullying” the Kremlin.
The assumption apparently made by these and other critics of the plan, including the Soviets, was that the Johnson administration was trying to trick everyone by describing the defense measure as aimed at China, when it was in fact directed against the U.S.S.R.
McNamara pushed back, arguing that although China’s nuclear arsenal was small, given the aggressive and unstable nature of the Chinese regime, it was particularly dangerous. Therefore, according to McNamara, an emergency insurance policy of a limited missile-defense system made sense.
Moscow did not see it that way. In 1968, Soviet Secretary-General Leonid Brezhnev phoned the newly elected U.S. president, Richard Nixon, to request a summit. Brezhnev not only wanted nuclear arms limited; he wanted anti-ballistic missile defenses to be basically prohibited.
Nixon’s view — certainly his State Department’s — was that the next four years should become an era of “negotiation” and “détente,” to establish a “structure of peace,” not conflict. Soviet officials were happy to go along with this idea. It fit into their long-term objective: to use the cover of “détente” to continue to arm the Soviet Union to defeat the U.S.
The 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I) nuclear agreement, signed on May 26, 1972 by Nixon and Brezhnev, was part of this agenda. Although described as an arms-control deal, SALT I allowed the Soviets to add 10,000 new nuclear warheads to their missile arsenal. At the SALT I signing ceremony, the ABM Treaty was also signed, pending Senate ratification, which it ultimately received.
Under the ABM Treaty, the U.S. could build a nominal 100 missile interceptors to protect its Minuteman missile field in North Dakota from incoming Soviet warheads. After building the ABM site, however, the U.S. Army determined it was not worth the cost, because a mere 100 missile interceptors could not protect against a potential Soviet attack. Thus, in 1974, Congress decided to mothball and dismantle the defenses.
For the rest of the decade, missile-defense research and development were placed on the back burner, while nuclear arsenals continued to grow in both the U.S. and Soviet Union. Although described as an “arms control” agreement, SALT I allowed for the addition of thousands of nuclear warheads to Soviet and American arsenals.
The SALT II treaty, which further codified how each country could increase its nuclear arsenals, was signed in June 1979 by Brezhnev and U.S. President Jimmy Carter. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December that year, however, caused Carter to withdraw the treaty from consideration by the Senate. It remained in limbo for the rest of the Carter administration.
At his first presidential press conference in January 1981, Ronald Reagan was asked whether his administration would proceed with SALT II. Reagan replied that a treaty that allowed the Soviet Union to build up its arsenal of nuclear weapons to more than 10,000 could hardly be characterized as “arms control.”
Reagan also expressed opposition to the policy of détente, and stated that Soviet leaders “reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat… and we operate on a different set of standards.”
Two years later, Reagan launched SDI, understanding that it would take many years, even decades, to achieve its goal of appropriate defense against nuclear weapons. He also knew that nuclear deterrence would remain primarily a matter of balancing U.S.-Soviet offensive nuclear weapons and maintaining a highly secure retaliatory capability. Still, the U.S. under Reagan was finally challenging the Soviets in a realm in which America excelled: high technology.
SDI not only got the Soviets’ attention; it brought them to the negotiating table. This led to two key treaties — the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the 1991 Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (START I) — which, for the first time ever, eliminated thousands of nuclear warheads.
When presented with the moral logic of defending the country from nuclear attack by competing with the Soviets on the high-tech plane, some of Reagan’s key critics in the Democratic Party decided to support his “peace through strength” strategy. That is how — as was explained to this author recently by Reagan’s then-National Security Adviser, Robert (“Bud”) McFarland — in spite of the House of Representatives being controlled by the Democrats (244-191), Reagan was able to secure an increase in defense spending and funding for missile-defense research, as well as to modernize America’s nuclear arsenal.
With the end of the Cold War, many analysts assumed that there was no longer a need for missile defenses. Yet, in negotiations with the new Russian government, led by President Boris Yeltsin, the administration of U.S. President George H.W. Bush secured a general agreement to have both countries build robust missile defenses, capable of intercepting some 200 incoming warheads, and the deployment of space-based interceptors.
Yeltsin then proposed that the U.S. and Russia not only reduce their nuclear arsenals by many additional thousands of weapons, but simultaneously deploy robust global and layered missile defenses.
Tragically, however, when President Bill Clinton took office in January 1993, he nixed the proposal, and his defense secretary, Les Aspin, eliminated most missile-defense funding from the defense budget, boasting that he was “taking the stars out of Star Wars.”
In spite of this setback, the 1990s did see progress in U.S. missile defense. Both Iraq’s use of missiles in the 1991 Gulf War to attack Israel and American forces in Saudi Arabia got the attention of missile-defense proponents, such as Curt Weldon in the House of Representatives, and Ted Stevens and Thad Cochran in the Senate.
Moreover, sufficient evidence accumulated during that decade about missile threats from North Korea and Iran to cause Congress, having flipped to Republican control in 1995, to pass the Missile Defense Act of 1999.
Nevertheless, the Clinton administration refused to go ahead and test a national missile-defense system in the summer of 2000, keeping the US completely vulnerable to nuclear-armed missile attack. Ironically, a few months earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin had adopted a strategy of threatening to use nuclear-armed missiles in a limited manner early in a crisis or conflict. In parallel, Russia’s parliament (the Duma) in 2000 rejected the START II requirement that the U.S. and Russia deploy only a limited number of missiles and bombers, as single-warhead land-based missiles became too expensive to hold most of the Russian arsenal. Each warhead requires building an entire missile to put it into the field. While submarine-launched missiles could have multiple warheads, only one-third to one-fourth of a submarine fleet is on patrol and alert at any one time, dramatically reducing the number of warheads available for a first strike.
In that context, with huge numbers of warheads backing up his threats, and no U.S. missile defense to blunt an attack, Putin seems to have assumed that his threats, even of limited nuclear missile strikes, would be highly credible, and that the U.S. would stand down in a crisis or conflict, and not be willing to risk the cost of coming to the defense of America’s allies.
Less than a year later, in January 2001, George W. Bush assumed the office of the U.S. presidency. More concerned with ballistic-missile threats than his immediate predecessor, Bush sought actually to implement the Missile Defense Act of 1999, and announced that the U.S. would be withdrawing from the ABM Treaty: “I cannot allow the United States to remain in a treaty that prevents us from developing effective defenses, ” he said.
Bush also secured Congressional support for the deployment of a missile defense system in Alaska and California to safeguard the continental U.S. against missile strikes, especially from North Korea and Iran.
Bush subsequently got Russia to agree to a deal that would drastically reduce the number of American and Russian nuclear weapons allowed in START I. The Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) , also known as the Treaty of Moscow, was signed by both countries on June 1, 2003, and would remain in force until the end of 2012.
The Bush accomplishments above completely flummoxed arms-control enthusiasts who had predicted that the end of the ABM Treaty would also mean the end of arms control. In fact, however, the withdrawal from the treaty, coupled with the deployment of a missile-defense system and the SORT Treaty, actually contributed to arms control.
Equally important, as a result of Bush’s three-pronged strategy, the previous view that missile defenses somehow undermined Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) diminished significantly.
As retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Henry (“Trey”) Obering, former director of the Missile Defense Agency, told Gatestone, “Missile defense is now seen as a key, critical part of strategic deterrence,” because it is imperative to place uncertainty in the mind of an enemy force about its ability to achieve its objectives.
In this context, with the advent of a new Russian policy to use limited nuclear strikes in a conflict, or to threaten to do so in a crisis, it is highly likely that a robust U.S. missile-defense system — on land, air, sea and space — would effectively deter or blunt a limited strike.
Moreover, the U.S.’s current land-based missile-interceptor system is roughly 85% effective in a one-on-one engagement. A simultaneous use of multiple interceptors raises that percentage to nearly 100.
According to the proposed 2020 defense budget, the U.S. will increase its deployed interceptors in Alaska from 44 to 64, hopefully on the way to 100. Such a deployment, Obering explained to Gatestone, would seriously complicate the plans of any attacker using a limited number of missiles as a form of coercion. A sound and robust missile defense, both for the U.S. and its allies, would make such coercion “obsolete,” Obering said. In addition, the old criticism that missile defenses had to be 100% effective against even large-scale attacks in order to be worth funding can now be discarded.
Furthermore, U.S. defense-system tests against long-range missiles are getting more and more effective — so much so that five of the recent six tests of U.S. interceptors have been successful. Even more significant is the latest successful interception of two ICBM-class targets.
The U.S. is also successfully building missile defenses in Romania, Spain and Poland, using Aegis ship-based systems, and in the Arabian Peninsula, using land-based THAAD and Patriot systems. They have intercepted more than 100 missiles launched by the Iran-allied Houthi terrorists in Yemen.
There are also Israel’s missile-defense systems, such as the Arrow, David’s Sling, and the short-range Iron Dome, which have successfully intercepted hundreds of Hamas rockets.
Finally, there are the THAAD, Patriot and Aegis deployments in Japan, the Republic of Korea and in the Pacific, which further reinforce America’s new effort to challenge China’s illegitimate missile deployments, as part of Beijing’s efforts to establish itself as the hegemon in the region.
Taken as a whole, missile defense today not only defends America’s homeland, but protects U.S. allies, assets and military forces abroad.
As for the cost: Since 1983, the U.S. has spent $200 billion on missile defense. This pales in comparison to the cost of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, which has been estimated at $3.3 trillion. Imagine the cost — in lives and money — of a nuclear strike on New York or Washington.
Unless the United States moves with what General John E. Hyten, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, recently called the “speed of relevance,” the requirement to deploy more effective and advanced defenses in the future will not be met. Without such technologies as space-based interceptors — a testbed capability required in the defense bill passed by Congress last year — the promise of continued peace and prosperity envisioned by Reagan in 1983, when he announced the launch of SDI, cannot be realized.
Dr. Peter Huessy is President of GeoStrategic Analysis, a defense consulting firm he founded in 1981, as well as Director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. He was also for 20 years, the senior defense consultant at the National Defense University Foundation.