Missile Defense Is Not a Substitute for Arms Control

5772733 (1)

President Ronald Reagan had a dream of an impregnable shield that could swat away nuclear-tipped missiles like flies. Mikhail Gorbachev saw that as a nightmare. He feared that America’s missile defense system would leave Russia no option but to develop more and more nuclear weapons to overwhelm that shield. Fast forward to 2021 and $400 billion in missile defense funding later, U.S. advocates of missile defense still do not have a reliable missile defense system. However, Gorbachev’s heirs in the Kremlin are acting on their threat to build more and newer nuclear weapons as protection against the event, however unlikely, that the United States fields a missile defense system that could neutralize Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

The United States and Russia are at a critical juncture, and the next steps will determine whether the two countries escalate the arms race or chart a more stable path. Joe Biden extended the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) in one of his first acts as president, preserving the last treaty capping the nuclear weapon stockpiles of the two largest nuclear powers. Analysts have rightly begun asking, what comes next? Further steps to diminish the danger of nuclear war by addressing — in a future agreement — cyber threats to nuclear command, control, and communication or space-based systems would be desirable. However, these efforts have been stymied by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s insistence that U.S. missile defenses be part of the talks, and America’s insistence that nonstrategic nuclear weapons be on the table.



One recent commentary in War on the Rocks framed the question of discussing missile defenses in the next round of strategic talks as whether the United States should unilaterally place limits on its missile defenses “to entice Russia — which publicly opposes U.S. missile defense plans — back to the negotiating table.” In addition, the author argued that “[t]he 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.” This framing misses the mark. First, any unilateral limits on missile defense — particularly if they are unverified — would not address Russia’s long-term grievances with the program. Showing a willingness to discuss Russia’s concerns, however, could be an element of a practical approach to try to get Russia to put its own destabilizing technologies on the negotiating table as well.

Demonstrating an openness to including missile defense in strategic stability talks is actually a point of leverage for the United States. Russia has evinced little interest in further arms control in recent years, except where controls would apply to technologies it does not possess, and an openness to dialogue on something Moscow cares about may provide a way to unlock the door to progress.

As the Biden team prepares for a proposed summit with Russia in the coming months, signaling that the United States could be willing to discuss missile defense would put the United States on the front foot going into talks.

Both Russia and the United States Want More on the Table 

In recent years, Russia and the United States have blamed each other for the breakdown in arms control. Moscow argues that America’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 forced Russia to develop more weapons and newer weapons, like hypersonics, in response. Washington, naturally, blames Moscow. The Trump administration sought to extend New START for one year and to place a cap on warheads. When that failed, then-national security adviser Robert O’Brien said, “We hope that Russia will reevaluate its position before a costly arms race ensues.” Despite serious philosophical disagreements on the role of arms control, the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations agree on the need to address issues New START did not. Upon the five-year extension of New START, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the United States will use the time to pursue “arms control that addresses all nuclear weapons.”

This announcement reflects a consensus in Washington that the next agreement with Russia should seek to address nonstrategic nuclear weapons (shorter-range delivery systems with lower yield warheads for use on the battlefield), which make up a small portion of the U.S. arsenal (around 500 warheads) and make up a significant percentage of the Russian arsenal.

Russia has made clear that this is exactly what will not happen while the United States refuses to talk missile defense. To some extent, this may be a convenient excuse to avoid reducing some of the remaining trappings of Soviet power by demanding a unilateral concession. There is, however, room to maneuver. While Moscow has explicitly linked its participation in future arms control discussions to U.S. willingness to discuss missile defense, there should be no assumption that discussing missile defense is the same as offering to unilaterally limit missile defense. The way forward for the Biden administration should be to indicate a willingness to discuss and respond seriously to Russian concerns that its deterrent could be put at risk. While current plans to develop a layered missile defense system could not conceivably threaten Russia’s deterrent, ignoring Russia’s concerns about a long-term threat would also play into Moscow’s hands.

Incorporating Missile Defense in Future Arms Control Agreements 

Currently, New START allows no more than 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments (each such heavy bomber is counted as one warhead toward this limit). These limits have been verifiably met for a decade and can finally be used as a foundation for one of the treaty’s original purposes: to provide a new start to future arms control. 

Moscow — and Beijing for that matter — are legitimately concerned about U.S. missile defenses’ future expansion. While U.S. missile defenses are meant to protect against long-range missile threats from North Korea or, maybe in the future, Iran, efforts to stay ahead of rogue-state threats are pushing the technological envelope toward capabilities that, if ever perfected, might threaten Moscow or Beijing’s confidence in their nuclear deterrents. However, it will be years before technologies that would be of real concern to Russian and Chinese deterrents are even adequately tested, and then still more years to full development if they were ever proved reliable.

As a first step to restore some trust in the bilateral relationship, Russia and the United States should commit to publicly explaining the role of missile defenses in their nuclear deterrent strategy, and emphasizing that their missile defense systems do not target the other. This basic understanding is not as clear to both parties as one might assume. Trump muddied the water over the role of missile defenses in U.S. strategy when he announced the 2019 Missile Defense Review saying, “Our goal is simple: to ensure that we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States — anywhere, anytime, anyplace.” Presumably, this opened the door to using missile defense to defeat Russian missiles. These concerns have been amplified since the phrase “strategic stability” was stricken from the review, and Congress has given the president even more flexibility to inflame tensions with nuclear adversaries by eliminating the legislative language committing the United States to seek only protection against limited (meaning rogue state or accidental) strikes. Acknowledging that missile defenses do not target Moscow could go a long way to buttress strategic stability.

The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was in essence an admission that the concept of missile defense is in itself destabilizing and likely to lead to an arms race. Still, if the United States is unwilling to abandon its expensive folly, there are some who posit that development in cooperation with adversaries could mitigate such danger. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Russian Academy of Sciences recently published a joint report on the technical feasibility of ballistic missile defense cooperation. The report finds that “far from being destabilizing, cooperation on BMD [ballistic missile defense] may help improve overall strategic stability” and “some forms of cooperation are technically feasible, militarily beneficial to both countries, and a threat to neither.” The key recommendation from this joint effort: “The United States and the Russian Federation should establish, as soon as political conditions permit, joint information sharing of missile defense data from satellites and ground-based radar systems through a dedicated information-sharing center.” While this idea may seem idealistic in the current political climate, it is not dead on arrival.

Representatives from both countries plan to meet in “the coming weeks” to discuss a U.S.-Russian summit. Further, the paperwork to implement such an arrangement was actually drawn up in 1998 between Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin. Any future cooperation could be modeled on the proposed Joint Data Exchange Center, which could share militarily significant data on detecting and tracking of third countries’ ballistic missiles. Cooperation could be feasible as joint U.S.-Russian and NATO-Russian command post computer-based exercises were conducted even after the U.S. withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Dialogue on this issue would also allow Moscow to express its concerns about U.S. plans and remove a barrier to serious arms control discussions.

Time to Seize the Moment

The United States might be able to get Russia to discuss nonstrategic nuclear forces without bringing up missile defenses — but it’s highly unlikely. The Trump administration tried that approach and came up empty-handed. As recently as May 17, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov repeated Moscow’s position, arguing, “Everything that affects strategic stability (nuclear and non-nuclear arms, offensive and defensive weapons [italics added]) must be on the negotiating table. The Americans know our approach.”

The Biden administration should not give Russia an excuse to walk away from the negotiating table by refusing to discuss missile defense. There’s no time to lose — the White House has a few years to try to negotiate an extremely complex arms control agreement and figure out how to verify it. By demonstrating an openness to addressing missile defenses in strategic stability talks, the United States will remove one of Putin’s pretexts to evade serious negotiations with the Biden administration. This posture will put the United States in the driver’s seat.



John Tierney is a former nine-term Massachusetts congressman who served on the House Intelligence Committee and chaired the National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee of the Government Oversight and Reform Committee, which oversaw, in part, the ballistic missile defense program.

Samuel M. Hickey is a research analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. His areas of focus include the geopolitics of nuclear power developments in the Middle East, nuclear security, missile defense, and non-proliferation.

Image: U.S. Navy (Photo by Lt. Amy Forsythe)