Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies at MIPT

Missile Defense:

For Russia, little loss, little gain

by Pavel Podvig

This paper was published in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, (Novemeber-December, 2001)

Welcome to visit the Center's START Web site (events, publications and discussions on nuclear disarmament related issues) - this information section is updated daily

The terrorist attacks on the United States will certainly lead to a reevaluation of the nature of threats faced by the countries in the modern world as well as the policies of dealing with them. Among the policies that will get the most scrutiny in this reevaluation is the U.S. intention to build a ballistic missile defense to protect its territory. Since the missile defense system that the United States is planning to build could not have possibly prevented the destruction caused by the terrorists, many commentators quickly concluded that the missile defense program will soon come to an end. However, it would be wrong to assume that the attacks would affect the U.S. missile defense plans in any serious way. A close look at the forces that have been driving the program in the recent years shows that the missile defense efforts may as well get a boost from the tragic events.

One of the main reasons why missile defense has been generally supported by the American public was that it claims to offer protection from terrorist attacks of similar or even bigger scale of destruction, than the ones we saw in New York, but delivered by the means of ballistic missiles. Now that the destructive effect of an attack of this kind has been so brutally demonstrated, any effort that promises to protect the population is likely to receive virtually unqualified support. Moreover, it is very likely that in the current circumstances the questions of effectiveness and appropriateness of this effort will not receive the highest priority.

This probably means that the missile defense program will emerge from the current situation largely unchanged if not strengthened. Besides, the program has already gained a momentum that makes building some kind of missile defense system almost inevitable, although the scale of a future deployment is not yet clear.

The actual system that the United States would be able to deploy will most likely be quite modest, especially if judged by today's high expectations. The United States will probably complete development of a number of theater missile defenses and deploy significant parts of infrastructure for the defense of its national territory-radars and some satellite systems. At the same time, as the United States will be proceeding with these deployments, it will be increasingly clear that the capabilities of the deployed systems are so minimal that they have no military utility and add virtually nothing to the U.S. security. The concerns about possible consequences of missile defense deployment, however, have very little to do with the capability of those systems to shoot down ballistic missiles. The most serious effect that missile defenses could bring to the world is directly linked to the effect that their development will have on the existing framework of international security agreements and treaties. The first victim of the current missile defense program will be the ABM Treaty, which limits missile defense development and deployment and provides a foundation for the system of arms control and disarmament treaties that were build by the Soviet Union and the United States during the cold war.

These trends in the U.S. policy are very alarming, for they threaten to undermine the existing security framework without offering anything to replace it. At the same time, whether we like it or not, the current U.S. policy merely responds to the changes in the U.S.-Russian relationship that occurred in the last ten years. Of course, it is more than unfortunate that this response has taken a form of missile defense development and other unilateral steps. But it is equally inappropriate to counter the unwelcome U.S. policies by trying to return to the old cold-war confrontation.

Nothing illustrates this point better than the debate on the ABM Treaty. The most common argument against U.S. withdrawal from the treaty is that it would trigger a new arms race. The link between defensive and offensive weapons was exactly the argument that led the United States and the Soviet Union to conclude the treaty in 1972 and its role in limiting the scale of offensive weapons deployment cannot be overestimated. At the same time, if we apply the logic of the ABM Treaty to the current situation, we may get quite a different result.

The action-reaction escalation that the treaty prevented in the seventies assumed that the United States and the Soviet Union required thousands of nuclear weapons to deter each other and were willing to build up their offensive arsenals in order to preserve the capability to inflict "unacceptable damage" to the adversary. Today's situation is quite different, since the threshold of an "unacceptably large nuclear attack" in the United States, as well as in Russia, is no longer thousands or even tens of weapons. It is most likely a single-digit number. For this, the current nuclear arsenals are so excessive that the actual number of deployed nuclear warheads simply does not matter. From a practical point of view it does not make any difference for the United States, for example, whether Russia has 3500 nuclear weapons or 1500-both numbers are equally too high. Similarly, Russia has no reason to be concerned about any missile defense system, since no defense would ever be able to intercept every missile and some would get to the U.S. territory in any circumstances.

The result is a situation in which deployment of a missile defense provides no serious incentives to increase offensive forces, since they are already much larger than it is necessary to provide reliable deterrence. This means that the main goal of the ABM Treaty, which was to remove incentives for offensive buildup rather than to limit missile defenses, is achieved without the treaty. The changes in the relationship between Russia and the United States simply have made the legal restrictions of the ABM Treaty redundant.

The most important characteristic of the current relationship between Russia and the United States is that the role of nuclear weapons in it is not nearly as important as it was in the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. As the situation with the ABM Treaty shows, this generally positive trend may have quite unexpected and sometimes very unwelcome consequences. Another example of this is the stalemate at the U.S.-Russian arms control negotiations. However regrettable it is, it shows very clearly that neither country perceives nuclear forces of the other side as immediate threat and therefore neither sees any urgency in reducing their size.

As we can see, the new situation makes the task of arms control more difficult than ever. After all, the size of nuclear arsenals still maters, for there are significant security risks associated with nuclear weapons even if the militaries do not consider them a threat. New relationship notwithstanding, Russia will respond to U.S. decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty, and regardless of whether this response is mild or strong, it would hardly make the task of reducing nuclear arsenals any easier. At the same time, artificial inflation of the risks, associated with missile defense development, even if it made with the intent of making arguments against it stronger, is wrong if not outright dangerous. It neither provides compelling arguments against missile defenses nor helps decrease those risks.

The "arms race" argument is the best example. This argument against missile defense is still been made quite regularly, despite the fact that nothing in the current Russian policy suggests that a reaction to abrogation of the ABM Treaty will be strongly negative, let alone spark a new arms race. About the most serious measure mentioned by Russia was deployment of multiple warheads on its new land-based missiles. However, when Russia suggested that it might do so in response to U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, the United States reacted with unusual calm. Indeed, not only Russia has no resources to start a serious arms race, the fact that it might deploy some additional nuclear weapons apparently would not change anything in the current U.S.-Russian relationship and therefore could not deter the United States from pursuing its missile defense program.

The dangers of Russia's placing its strategic forces on high alert, which was mentioned as another possible response to U.S. missile defense development, are also highly overstated. To begin with, Russian officials have never mentioned this possibility or otherwise indicated that this option is being considered. In addition, Russia has never had a true launch-on-warning capability and probably could not maintain its forces on high alert even if it wanted to.

As we can see, technical and economical problems alone make a new arms race very unlikely. However, an even more important factor that will eventually shape the Russian response is the position of its leadership. On the one hand, Russia's leaders insist very strongly on preserving the ABM Treaty and warn about possibility of a collapse of the framework of arms control agreements. On the other hand, the Russian leadership has clearly shown that it sees the issue of missile defense not as a matter of military importance, but rather as a tool in its efforts to assert its influence in international relations and achieve status of one of the leading world powers.

In addition to this, for several months now, Russia and the United States have been trying to reach an understanding that would allow them to avoid confrontation on the issue of the ABM Treaty. It is not clear whether the consultations that they have would bring any concrete results, but the very fact that Russia was willing to discuss the issues of missile defense indicates that it will not take any strong measures in response to U.S. withdrawal from the treaty.

Nothing of this, of course, makes missile defense a good idea. U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty will not go unnoticed and, even absent a strong negative reaction from Russia, could still have adverse effect on international security. This is exactly why it is important to concentrate attention on the real problems associated with missile defenses rather than to invoke old cold war-style arguments against it. Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies at MIPT, 2000

Your questions and comments to START Web Site Editor | START Forum

Search the START Web site