Missile Defense Is Compatible with Arms Control

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What will it take for Russia and the United States to make progress on arms control? In announcing the Biden administration’s intent to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) for another five years, Secretary of State Anthony Blinkin offered a hint. He noted that the next negotiation must include all of Russian and American nuclear weapons, not just the long-range strategic systems limited by New START. Since New START was ratified in 2010, Russia has been unwilling to discuss limits on its shorter range systems. When it does address the subject, it immediately lays down a number of pre-conditions, including limitations on U.S. missile defense systems.

Some analysts suggest that the United States should place limits on its missile defense systems to entice Russia — which publicly opposes U.S. missile defense plans — back to the negotiating table. According to one recent commentary, “limiting defenses would therefore be an essential first step to constraining the nuclear arms race.” In War on the Rocks, Naomi Egel and Jane Vaynman recently argued that U.S. officials should “reassess whether the gains from preserving missile defense are worth the tradeoffs.”



These arguments sound reasonable enough. After all, the Russian side never misses an opportunity to register its opposition to missile defense anytime arms control is mentioned or when the United States deploys a new missile defense system at home or abroad. And there is a large body of literature stretching back to the early days of the Cold War arguing that missile defense is the leading cause of the action-reaction arms race. But is this correct in practice? Do limits on missile defense secure restraints on offensive nuclear forces? Does the United States really have to limit its homeland missile defenses as a precursor to nuclear force reductions?

The problem with offering to limit U.S. missile defense plans up front is that it allows Russia to use missile defense as a point of leverage in the talks. More importantly, the notion that limits on missile defenses are necessary to avoid arms racing and to allow progress on arms control is not supported by the historical record. In fact, Moscow and Washington have agreed to significant nuclear arms reductions even as the United States has pursued protection of its homeland from ballistic missile threats. As the Biden team begins its preparations for post-New START negotiations with Russia, it should reject any preconceived notion of what animates Russian opposition to missile defense and should certainly not offer any concessions limiting missile defense at the outset of negotiations.

History of Arms Control and Missile Defense

The historical record demonstrates that limits on missile defense do not secure restraints on offensive nuclear forces. Likewise, arms control agreements have been negotiated even after the United States has expanded its missile defense capabilities. The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty limited the United States and the Soviet Union to two missile defense sites in the homeland, each with 100 interceptors. One would expect this limitation on missile defenses to lead to restraints on strategic nuclear offensive forces. As it turned out, the Soviet Union added some 10,000 nuclear warheads between 1972 and 1984, while United States nuclear forces also grew. Writing in 1985, the renowned arms control theorist Thomas Schelling observed, “Since 1972, the control of strategic weapons has made little or no progress.”

Leading defense intellectuals worried that President Ronald Reagan’s 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative — which envisioned a ground and space-based comprehensive defense against Russian ballistic missiles — would torpedo arms control. McGeorge Bundy, George Kennan, Robert McNamara, and Gerard Smith argued in Foreign Affairs that it was “wholly impossible” to reach good arms control agreements while pursuing missile defense. Yet the Reagan administration secured the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty only three years later. By the time Reagan left office, his administration had all but completed negotiations on the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) treaty, which reduced Soviet and U.S. deployed strategic nuclear warheads from over 12,000 each to 6,000. Clearly, the threat of Reagan’s massive space-based missile defense program did not dissuade the Soviet Union or Russia from agreeing to deep reductions in their nuclear forces.

President George W. Bush’s decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 was controversial. Many at the time thought the end of the treaty would stimulate a new nuclear arms race. Despite Washington’s move on missile defense, Russia yet again agreed to limit its nuclear arsenal, this time as part of the Moscow Treaty, which reduced  strategic nuclear arsenals from 6,000 deployed warheads under START to a new lower range of 1,700 to 2,200 deployed warheads. Faced with a potential expansion of U.S. missile defenses after withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Russians nevertheless agreed to substantial nuclear reductions.

Finally, the Russians insisted upon limitations on U.S. missile defenses during negotiations leading to the 2010 New START treaty. No such limitations were written into the treaty, yet the Russians agreed to reduce their nuclear arsenal to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads.

U.S. policy on missile defense has drawn criticism for other reasons. Some suggest that the withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty prompted Russia’s development of new novel nuclear systems and “so began a new phase in a global arms race.” Yet there may be other motives for President Vladimir Putin’s introduction of these Cold War-era nuclear systems that have not altered the strategic nuclear balance.

Rose Gottemoeller, former undersecretary of state and New START chief negotiator in the Obama administration, suggests that Putin “is after nuclear weapons for another reason — to show that Russia is still a great power to be reckoned with. These exotic systems have more of a political function than a strategic or security one.” Other scholars argue that Russia’s domestic political situation and power struggles in and around the Kremlin account for Russia’s criticism of U.S. missile defenses.

If there has been a nuclear arms race since the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, then it has been one-sided. Ash Carter, secretary of defense under Barack Obama, has observed, “During the past 25 years, the United States has made no major new investments in its nuclear forces, yet other countries have conducted vigorous buildups. This history does not support the contention that US investments fuel the nuclear programs of others.”

Why Russia Really Opposes U. S. Missile Defense

According to official statements, Russia opposes U.S. missile defenses because they could someday provide the United States a strategic advantage during a nuclear exchange. While elements of Russia’s position are no doubt genuine and rooted in its confidence in America’s technological prowess, there are likely other, more compelling reasons for Russia to oppose U.S. missile defense, ones having more to do with geopolitics than nuclear strategy. In short, Moscow appreciates that it can use this issue as leverage with the United States while creating tension among its allies.

Obama understood this. In commenting about Russia’s opposition to the deployment of U.S. missile defense systems in Europe, he observes in his recent book that Putin “correctly understood that the main reason Poland and the Czech Republic were eager to host our system was that it would guarantee increased U.S. military capabilities on their soil, providing an additional hedge against Russian intimidation.” Russia’s opposition to U.S. missile defense in Europe was not because it feared that 10 ground-based interceptors could jeopardize Russia’s nuclear retaliatory capability, but rather such cooperation was an affront to Russia’s former influence in Eastern Europe. Russia also viewed this as an opportunity to sow dissension among the allies.

The modernization and expansion of Russian nuclear forces has not been driven by U.S. missile defense deployments. Since pulling out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the U.S. has deployed a modest 44 ground-based interceptors (40 in Alaska and four in California) for the protection of the nation against North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles. That number is projected to rise to 64 should the Biden administration follow through with plans initiated by the Trump administration.  Russian leaders surely realize Russia deploys more homeland defense interceptors than the United States, and that their S-400 and S-500 air defense systems are comparable to U.S. theater missile defense systems. Finally, Putin himself has noted that by 2021, 90 percent of Russia’s nuclear forces will be modernized and, in his words, “capable of confidently overcoming existing and even projected missile defense systems.”

Implications for the United States

What does this mean for the Biden administration as it formulates its negotiating objectives and strategy? Most importantly, the United States should not make any concessions on missile defense as a precondition for negotiations. Instead, it should agree that these matters can be discussed along with other Russian and U.S. concerns. What then transpires during negotiations is another matter. The Biden team, I am certain, is well aware that many in Congress would oppose limitations on missile defense. But a familiar phrase in Congress is, “nothing is settled until everything is settled,” which is to say we have to see all that is in play in any prospective agreement.

During negotiations, Russia no doubt will insist upon limitations and constraints on U.S. missile defenses in return for an agreement. U.S. negotiators should hear them out and then explore ways to reassure the Russian side, through technical cooperation and other confidence building measures, that U.S. missile defenses pose no threat to Russia’s formidable nuclear forces. Washington should remind Russia that its growing stockpile of shorter-range nuclear weapons, not limited by New START, is impervious to U.S. homeland missile defenses.

Russia has agreed on at least three occasions to reduce its strategic offensive nuclear forces even in the face of U.S. homeland missile defense deployments. That the United States has deployed only 44 ground-based interceptors since its withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 should provide some reassurance to Russia that U.S. missile defense procurements have been directed against rogue states such as North Korea and not against Russia.

To the extent Russia fears the potential for U.S. missile defenses in the future, Moscow can take comfort from knowing that such plans will be revealed well in advance through the normal Congressional oversight process — and thus provide Russia adequate time to take evasive actions.

U.S. plans to build limited homeland missile defenses against rogue nations like Iran and North Korea, or even missile defenses deployed abroad to protect allies against such threats, should not be incompatible with future nuclear arms control agreements with Russia. To be sure, given the gamut of intractable issues, such as non-strategic nuclear weapons, space strike systems and hypersonic capabilities, the next round of nuclear arms control negotiations will not be easy. But missile defense, as history shows, will not be the deal breaker.



Robert Soofer is a non-resident senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He was deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy from April 2017 to January 2021 and participated in the Vienna arms control talks with Russia in 2020.

Image: Missile Defense Agency