US Missile Defense · 5 March 2001

US National Missile Defense (NMD), or mini-Star Wars

Jeff Schubert’s 5 March 2001 presentation to the Australian Institute of International Affairs (Sydney Branch)

(1)……………The Proposed United States NMD

The US NMD proposal at this stage appears to be for the deployment of several hundred missiles that would be able to shoot down missiles on their way to attacking the US. Initial deployment would be around in 2006.

The NMD is essentially a ground based limited version of the Ronald Reagan era Star Wars concept which was supposed to be able to handle a deliberate Soviet first strike in which thousands of warheads were launched against the US.

The rationale for the NMD is that the US is concerned about the ability of rogue states (governments) to acquire and use nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The US says that the NMD system is aimed at preventing an attack from such countries as Iran, Iraq and North Korea (the latter launched a long-range rocket over Japan in 1998).

US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, has said that the US is prepared to assist friends and allies threatened by missile attacks to deploy such defences.

The NMD would appear to be in breach of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty signed by Leonid Brezhnev and Richard Nixon. This allowed each side two ABM deployment areas so restricted and located that they cannot provide a national ABM or become the basis for one. Each country thus leaves unchallenged the penetration capability of the others retaliatory missile forces. One limited ABM system could protect the capital and another was to protect an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) launch area at least 1,300 km away so as to prevent he creation of the beginnings of a nationwide system. No more than 100 interceptor missiles and launchers could be at each site.

In 1974, Brezhnev and Nixon signed a protocol limiting each side to one ABM site only, with the USSR choosing Moscow and the US choosing North Dakota. The North Dakota site is no longer in use, although the Moscow site is claimed by the US to still be operational.

Donald Rumsfeld has called the ABM Treaty ancient history and the US is now trying to persuade Russia to accept a modification of the Treaty to allow its larger scale NMD system to be deployed. The US can withdraw from the Treaty with six months notice.

The US is telling the Russians that the NMD system will never be extensive enough to prevent a nuclear attack by Russia because of the sheer number of missiles possessed by Russia.

At this stage the Russians are saying nyet, and have sought to divide the US from its European allies with a stick and carrot approach. The Russians have threatened to withdraw from other treaties (such as START I and START II) which still allow thousands of warheads. The Russians have also suggested an alternative European-Russian anti-missile defence system, which would also include the US. This alternative seems to involve mobile defensive missiles that would shoot down offensive missiles soon after take-off. The Russians say that their proposal would not breach the ABM Treaty.

The Russians may yet say da to the NMD as part of a complex trade-off involving negotiations on the number of attack missiles under the START treaties. Basically, the Russians want to reduce the number of their attack missiles to save money. They might thus be persuaded to do a deal in which they accept an NMD if it is accompanied by a massive reduction in US offensive weapons which in turn allows Russia to reduce expenditure on its own offensive weapons.

Some commentators have suggested that there is a Russian dilemna in that its nuclear arsenal is presently so dilapidated that after a first strike by the US its remaining lunched ICBM’s could be mopped up by a fairly limited US NMD system.

I know that the response to this by many commentators is that the US would never launch a first strike, but this may not be how the Russians see it and I want to come back to the issue of seeing things from the other side a little later.

(2)……………The Case For

The case for the NMD, or the case against the case against, seems to consist largely of four arguments:

(a) The first for is that any fears that the NMD might lead to an arms race is Cold War logic.

(b) The second for argument is the “missile defense has the potential to transform the logic of international security, and genuinely allow States to rely on defensive measures for their essential security needs”. This argument includes the idea that advanced technologies can be relied upon to secure the defense needs of the US (and its allies).

(c) The third for argument has been put to me by an economist in the following terms: The potential for NMD to trigger an arms race is actually one of the strongest arguments in its favor. Communism in the USSR broke down largely as a result of the expense of an arms race with the US. If China tries to up the ante on NMD it risks the same fate.

(d) The forth argument, which is an argument against the argument against, seems to
be along the lines of So what if Russia objects, it is so weak it will be able to do nothing.

(3)…………..The Case Against

In presenting the case against the NMD, I want to first address these four for arguments before moving on to other matters.

(a) Fear of an Arms Race is Cold War logic

In my view, the essential problem with the proposed NMD system is that it threatens to lead to another international arms race which will eventually move further into space. This will work to heighten the eventual nuclear threat to Australia.

While this arms race will essentially be about nuclear missiles, it will encompass all types of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Colin Rubenstein, Executive Director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, has written that much of the opposition, including some adverse comment in Australia, seems to be trapped in the Cold War logic of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. At that time it was argued not unreasonably that missile defense systems might encourage leaders in Moscow or Washington to miscalculate that a nuclear war with the other superpower was winnable or panic out of fear that the other side could launch a successful first strike.

US Defense Secretary Rumsfeld likewise dismisses fears of an arms race as Cold War thinking.

My counter to this argument is that arms races are not only Cold war logic. It is a universal logic based on historical experience. History shows that arms races can lead to fatalism that conflict is inevitable and so help bring it about.

World War 1 was essentially caused by mutual fear, which both caused and was nourished by an arms race. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand at Sarajevo in June, 1914, was only a spark an excuse for those who wanted to fight what they saw as the inevitable war.

In pre-WWI Europe, Germany regarded war with an increasingly powerful Russia as inevitable. This was probably the driving factor in the actual implementation of the Schlieffen Plan in August 1914—which saw Germany march through Belgium to defeat France before taking on Russia. The reason for fighting France was that Germany feared any war with Russia would inevitably lead France to seek revenge for Bismark’s victory in 1871 so, if Germany had to fight Russia, it also had to fight France.

Britain could have stayed out of WW1, but chose to fight because it feared both German domination of Europe and growing German naval power. Not surprisingly, this German naval build up had helped drive Britain closer to France and Russia and this in turn intensified German fears of a war on two fronts with Britain backing France.

The German naval build-up from 1900 had, in turn, been partly driven by Britain’s own naval dominance. In 1889 Britain had formally announced that it was keeping its navy at a scale that should at least be equal to the naval strength of any two other countries. While Britain thought this policy was justified by its small homeland army and the need to protect its colonies and trade routes, many in Germany saw it as aimed at containing Germany.

Ironically, but not surprisingly, British policy during the drawing up and enforcement of the Treaty of Versailles was to be concerned to not weaken Germany too much lest France come to dominate Europe.

The pre-WW1 arms race was not the first in history, but does nicely illustrate the point that countries have interests, and that big countries have big interests and that they will ultimately act to defend them. Moreover, it is not only government officials who think in these terms. Large parts of public opinion often do as well.

Thus, it is important when considering the possible impact of the NMD that we do not only look at it from the US perspective, but also from the perspective of others. Russia, China, India and others will feel that they also have great power interests. It does not matter whether policy makers in the US (or Australia) disagree with these views—the fact is that they will be there.

Unfortunately, the interests mean that the NMD proposals will indirectly lead to an acceleration in missile building in China, India and Pakistan.

China is particularly opposed to the NMD system because, unlike Russia (in the absence of a US first strike), it does not necessarily have sufficient numbers of attack missiles to overwhelm a US NMD. For China, this may be particularly relevant if the US ties to push them around (from their point of view) on the issue of Taiwan. To maintain its own credible nuclear deterrent the Chinese will increase their attack missile force.

India, which has sometimes had a tense and violent relationship with China, may respond by increasing its own nuclear forces. In response to this, Pakistan would surely do the same.

In his January AFR article, Colin Rubenstein accepts that the acquisition of nuclear weapons and / or long range missiles by India, Pakistan, North Korea, Iran and Iraq will mean that other states will react by seeking their own weapons of mass destruction. He writes the criticism that missile defense systems could spark arms races is an argument for good institutional arrangements for the deployment and use of this technology, not an argument for attempting to suppress it.

But why, I ask, should it be easier to control NMD’s than offensive weapons?

Colin Rubenstein also wrote about Russia’s possible cooperation in developing such systems. My view is that if Russia does cooperate it will be only because of the poor state of its finances. Once these recover sufficiently, Russia will be full on building its own extensive NMD and new offensive weapons to overcome the US NMD. China will be doing the same, as will a number of other countries as time goes by.

In contrast to the Russian ABM system deployed around Moscow, the proposed US NMD does not use nuclear weapons to destroy incoming missiles. Rather, it just hits them like you would by throwing a stone. However, other countries lacking US technology will certainly decide that their NMD’s will be nuclear. In turn, this may eventually force the US to do the same just in case the stone type does not work.

If they cannot match the US NMD with a least a nuclear version of their own, other countries may use so-called asymmetric responses. These may include arming existing missiles with multiple war heads, development of other (more basic) weapons delivery systems, assistance for friendly rogue states to develop missiles that can be used to tie down the defensive capacity of the US NMD, etc.

(b) Technology Will Solve Defense Problems

The US seems to believe that technology will solve its defense problems. President Bush has said, The best way to keep the peace is to redefine war on our own terms.

Indeed, arms races are often about getting the technological upper hand.

But as French President Jacques Chirac has said: If you look at world history, ever since men began waging war, you will see that there’s a permanent race between sword and shield. The sword always wins. The more improvements that are made in the shield, the more improvements are made in the sword. We think that these systems are just going to spur sword-makers to intensify their efforts.

That the shield never wins is what has led to the development of ever better modern weapons to overcome better shields, just as the defensive power of the machine gun lead to the attacking tank in WW1.

The sword-shield problem is now compounded greatly because we are now talking about weapons that can obliterate whole cites not just parts of battlefields.

Once again, history has some lessons for us. While the Royal Navy appears to have had a tradition of not pushing innovation which devalued existing ships, things changed after the Battle of Tsushima in 1905 between Japan and Russian naval forces. Long-range fire power derived from big guns gave the Japanese victory and led Britain to design and build the Dreadnought battleship.

The Germans responded with their own Dreadnought type ships, and went from having the worlds fifth most powerful navy in 1906 to the second most powerful by 1914. Instead of allowing Britain to redefine war on its own terms, the Dreadnought caused existing fleets to be obsolete and everyone now started from scratch.

While the US may think that its technology will always win, diffusion of that technology inevitably occurs and may eventually benefit the other side. We just don’t know how another arms race will play out—- except that it would make conflict more likely.

(c) Destroying Communism

As noted above, the third for argument seems to be that an arms race is attractive because Communism in the USSR broke down largely as a result of the expense of an arms race with the US. If China tries to up the ante on NMD it risks the same fate.

Having spent quite a bit of time examining the Russia economy, industries, and individual privatised companies between 1991 and 1996, I believe that the arms race argument concerning the collapse of the USSR is too simplistic While the demand of Russians for goods and services was far from satiated, it was more than just the diversion of resources to bomb and missile building that brought down the USSR economy.

In my view, the industrially centrally managed economy was struggling to cope with the move toward advanced electronics, services (and information) activities. The gigantic factory approach of Russian central planners, workable for an earlier simpler age, was incapable of taking the Russian economy further.

But even if the arms race killed the USSR argument is largely true, I have to ask whether we want the large densely packed Chinese population to suffer the same fate as the population of the USSR. What would be the consequences for the people of China and China’s neighbors and eventually for Australia.

(d) Russia is so weak it can do nothing to respond to the NMD

This argument for (or perhaps case against the case against) is that it does not matter if Russia is opposed to the NMD because it is now so weak, or is falling apart in a way similar to the USSR, that its opposition is irrelevant.

Firstly, in my view, Russia is not falling apart. Geographically, Russia now is the same as it was when it was part of the USSR. Chechnya aside, there have been no serious attempt or movements to break from Russia. After the chaos of Yeltsin, President Putin is moving to reestablish considerable central control.

Secondly the country is rich in resources and talent and I think that it will post some surprisingly strong GDP growth rates over the next decade. For those who would simply extrapolate present conditions into the future, I suggest reflection on the 1980’s story that based on then current trends the Japanese economy was on the way to becoming bigger than that of the US. Or reflect on the differing pre and post WW1 British attitudes to the relative power of Germany and France in Europe.

Russia will eventually have an enhanced economic capacity to respond in similar kind to the NMD. It might take a decade or more, but it will do it. In the meantime, look out for the so-called asymmetric response.

(e) Seeing the issue from the point of view of the other side.

I want to come back to dwell for a moment on the point I made earlier about seeing things from the point of view of the other side.

Condoleeza Rice, the US National Security Adviser, says American values are universal. Their triumph is most assuredly easier when the international balance of power favors those who believe in them.

The other side to this is that Russia’s 145 million people generally have values that although similar to America have their own features. Russians are generally nationalist and can be somewhat xenophobic.

A legacy of its history is that Russia takes defense issues very seriously, and it will not feel comfortable when the international balance of power favors others.

Many Russians see NATO expansion as aimed at Russia (the Poles and Baltic countries certainly see it this way) despite NATO denials. I marvel at the words of George Robertson, Secretary-General of NATO, when he says that NATO enlargement to possibly include countries of the former USSR carries no threat to Russia and that NATO’s enlargement follows precisely the post-Cold War logic. (That term, Cold War logic again!)

Indeed, how would Americans feel if Cuba decided it wanted closer ties with Russia and if this included a much heavier (and possibly nuclear) presence?

The US, however, seems set on ignoring these Russian sensitivities. In the words of a liberal minded Russian journalist, while Clinton’s Washington uncritically endorsed everything that the Russian elite did, the Bush administration seems bent on criticizing everything. This may be because, also in her words, the new administration is staffed by people who know Russia primarily from the books of old Sovietologists.

Foolishly, in my view, the Who lost Russia? debate at the end of the Clinton administration has become a Who needs Russia? attitude in the Bush administration.

Some Australian commentators have expressed a belief and relief that the NMD does not mean that the US will become isolationist.

I agree that it is generally very desirable that the US remains internationally engaged.

However, from the NMD debate perspective it might be better for the world if the NMD is accompanied by increased US isolation. Other countries (eg China, Russia etc) will feel less threatened by increased US defense capability if they feel that a less internationally engaged US will not be out there causing trouble for them. That is, that US policy makers will not be sitting there comfortably in their walled home, coming out occasionally to biff the neighbors around the ears before retreating inside again.

International engagement is not always positive. In the decades prior to WW1, Britain attempted for as long as possible to combine an isolationist policy, which consisted of hiding behind its powerful navy and resisting strong formal alliances, with one which was prepared to take action to prevent domination of Europe by one country be it Germany or France. However, when Britain eventually abandoned this policy partly in response to growing Germany military power and entered into the Triple Entente with France and Russia, Germany’s fear of a war on two fronts was magnified and WWI hastened.

(f) Other arguments against include:

Expanded nuclear arms production that is stimulated in response to the NMD inevitably increases the prospect of leakage of materials and knowledge to other non-nuclear countries (and, ultimately, terrorists) the very thing the US says it fears. The US attempt to protect itself from rogue states may thus actually increase the number of countries capable of a credible nuclear threat.

The simple way for a nuclear rouge state to threaten another state and avoid any NMD system may be to simply land an aircraft carrying a nuclear device at a major airport and threaten to explode it unless whatever demands are carried out, or to carry out some other relatively simple delivery.

Remember that France built the Maginot Line of fixed fortifications along its eastern frontier in the 1930’s to keep out aggressors, and it was considered impregnable. At the start of World War Two the Germans simply went around it.

(4)…………..Consequences for Australia

The proposal to extent NMD protection to US allies is unrealistic as far as Australia is concerned. Australia is too far from the major geographical areas of US concern for any sort of NMD to be put in place. Apart from being technically difficult, the expense of putting such a system in place at the bottom of the world would be prohibitive.

An effective northern hemisphere NMD would leave Australia sitting like a shag on a rock. While it is not presently easy to conceive of rational reasons why a rogue state would want to threaten Australia with weapons of mass destruction, Australia would be a soft target unprotected and unable to fight back.

The US, comfortable and safe behind its NMD might be more inclined to help us. Just as likely, however, the people of the US might prefer to stay home behind their shield. They could form the view that if Australia wants protection, then it should build its own NMD.

Indeed, in my view, Australia’s support for the NMD is encouraging a series of events that suggest Australia itself should acquire nuclear weapons over the next few decades. Australia may need its own offensive capacity for defensive blackmail. This would be a sort of mini-MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction).


This still leaves the problem of how to handle the threats that are there. I accept and agree with Rubenstein and NMD proponents that the risks from rogue nations are real, or will become real.

As discussed above, alternatives to the NMD include boost-phase interceptors stationed close to potential missile launch sites in rogue nations. For example, missiles launched from North Korea would be shot down by interceptors fired from ships stationed close to that rogue state rather than waiting for them to get closer to the US (or Japan etc).

While perhaps better than an NMD system in its arms race implications I have to admit that I find the idea of such quick fire all knowing defense systems a little unconvincing.

However, my view is that the NMD itself brings so many potential new problems that some drastic alternative international measures to counter the threats might be needed.

I think that the US should be putting the proposition to Russia, China etc that it will forsake its NMD if they agree to cooperate in enforcing (with non-nuclear guns and bombs if necessary) weapons control in “undesirable” countries such as North Korea, Iraq etc. While there are some unpleasant aspects to such a suggestion and many unanswered questions (like who is “undesirable”), they are better than the NMD alternative with its inevitable consequences.

A basic starting point may be that any country is automatically undesirable if it refuses to show its nuclear hand or is suspected of hiding one. This would apply to Israel as much as North Korea.

This approach would also attempt to tackle the issue of weapons delivered by more basic means such as ships, planes etc by eliminating the weapons themselves.