by Kingston Reif
Published in DoD Buzz on March 16, 2010
Article summary below.
In their recent commentary on DoD Buzz (“Will START Talks Go MAD,”), the Heritage Foundation’s Baker Spring and Helle Dale recycle a snake oil sales pitch that first emerged at the dawn of the Atomic Age. The illusion is that the awesome destructiveness of nuclear weapons can somehow be neutralized by a panacea—in this case impenetrable missile defenses. Such reveries call to mind journalist Fred Kaplan’s conclusion in “Wizards of Armageddon” about analysts flogging magical cure-alls: “The nuclear strategists had come to impose order -– but in the end, chaos still prevailed.”
It may offend Spring’s and Hale’s moral sensibilities, but the fact remains that the United States is, and will continue to be, vulnerable to nuclear attack so long as nuclear weapons exist. Dumping tried and true deterrence and arms control strategies that manage and minimize nuclear dangers in favor of an uncertain missile defense-centric approach, as Spring and Hale recommend, would needlessly endanger U.S. security.
It is technologically possible for missile defenses to protect against limited nuclear threats posed by regional aggressors such as North Korea. Yet the technology required to intercept a large number of long-range missiles equipped with decoys and countermeasures does not exist and may never exist. Even the most futuristic missile defenses will likely be overwhelmed by a well-equipped adversary that is willing simply to build more offensive missile forces. Political and military leaders will never be completely sure that missile defenses will intercept all of an enemy’s incoming missiles.
None of which means that the United States and Russia shouldn’t jointly pursue efforts to develop more capable missile defenses. To their credit, Spring and Hale recognize that their missile defense-centric scheme can only be pursued if the United States and Russia both develop defenses, although they don’t stipulate that any realistic effort would have to be joint in order to avoid mutual suspicions and arms racing. Spring and Hale also neglect to justify why they believe continuing development of missile defenses must come at the expense of a follow-on agreement to START I, which will not reduce nuclear forces to a level where missile defenses might plausibly threaten retaliatory capability. The two efforts are not mutually exclusive and framing them as such presents a false dilemma.