The Cold War is over. But some hardliners in Congress would have you believe it is 1980. In order to avoid problems in the future, the US must focus on three key areas in its relationship with Russia: the conflict in Ukraine, nuclear non-proliferation treaty compliance, and Russian national security needs.
On April 8th 2010, President Obama and President Medvedev signed New START, a nuclear weapons treaty designed to increase transparency and decrease deployed nuclear forces. While tension between Russia and the U.S. has inhibited diplomatic engagement on most issues, both countries are still working towards the agreed goal of 1550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads by February 2018. But as we celebrate the national security benefits of New START, looking past the agreement towards the future of nuclear arms control requires a crystal ball.
Last week marked the 4 year anniversary of New START, the most recent arms control treaty responsible for further reductions to the bloated nuclear arsenals of both the United States and Russia. The treaty is a landmark agreement, demonstrating the value of diplomacy and the ability to increase security while simultaneously reducing both nuclear weapons and spending.
Yesterday the Wall Street Journal published a letter to the editor by yours truly in response to a recent op-ed by Keith Payne and Mark Scheinder’s alleging that Russia is a serial violator of arms control treaties and the Obama administration has been uniquely weak in calling out Russia’s bad behavior. Here’s an excerpt:
In addition, the claim that Russia cheats on all treaties is overstated and overlooks the national security case for arms control. Overall, the implementation record of arms-control agreements with Russia has been highly successful—which is why both Republican and Democratic presidents have pursued such agreements. Without these efforts Russian forces would be unconstrained, our ability to verify what Russia is doing would be curtailed and we would have few options but to engage in a costly arms race.
You can read the full letter here.
On the issue of arms racing, it’s certainly true that even if, for example, Russia wasn’t constrained by INF, the United States would still have powerful economic, political, and strategic reasons for not responding by building and deploying intermediate range nuclear forces. What’s more, the United States and Russia have a long history of reducing nuclear forces unilaterally without treaties. Furthermore, the current budget environment in the United States might require reductions in the US arsenal with or without Russia reciprocity.
But at the very least, the absence of constraints on Russia’s forces would increase the incentives and pressure to engage in costly worst case scenario planning that Washington would otherwise not engage in. It’s not clear what leverage we would have to reduce the Russian nuclear threat in the absence of say, INF. The United States and Russia have far more nuclear weapons than they need for their security. Negotiated limits on Russian nuclear forces can still play a role in reducing nuclear risks – especially at at a time of increased tensions between the two countries.
Some hawkish members of the House Armed Services Committee and conservative missile defense advocates are promoting a vastly expanded missile defense system that could entail huge new expenditures and be of dubious effectiveness.
That is the message of a recent House Armed Services Committee hearing on missile defense.
The current system to defend the U.S. homeland against intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) is called the Ground-Based Mid-Course missile defense system (GMD). GMD is designed to counter an attack by a rogue state with a single or very few missiles (for example a future North Korean or Iranian ICBM threat), or an accidental or unauthorized missile strike from Russia or China.
While serious questions remain about whether the existing GMD system can perform its intended mission, the proposed expanded roles for missile defense are the height of folly.
The House Armed Services Committee Strategic Forces Subcommittee hearing was entitled, “Adapting U.S. Missile Defense for Future Threats: Russia, China and Modernizing the NMD Act.”
The main question posed to the witnesses was, “Does a policy of limited missile defenses against limited threats continue to make sense in today’s threat environment?”
Here is the deal.
In 1999, Congress overwhelmingly adopted legislation endorsing a National Missile Defense system to defend “against limited ballistic missile attack.” The language also called for deployment only if the system is “effective” and “as soon as is technologically possible.”
Some of the committee Republicans, led by Chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL), now think that it is time to go beyond “limited” missile defense. So too does the conservative Heritage Foundation and others.
In other words, these members of Congress and others would like to see our missile defense system efforts go beyond the ability to defeat one or two missiles from a rogue state and instead design the system to defeat all out attacks by Russian or Chinese ICBMs.
During the hearing, Ambassador Robert G. Joseph explicitly endorsed expanded missile defense that could include directed energy and space weapons previously rejected as impractical and too expensive. He also called for shifting emphasis from theater defenses and shorter-range threats to national missile defense.
Republican Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) also embraced space based defenses and directed energy weapons, options previously rejected by governments of both parties.
The two problems: even the limited GMD missile defense currently deployed is not “effective” as required by the legislation, and an expanded defense against the Russian and Chinese nuclear forces would be a prohibitively expensive scarecrow.
The witnesses were Philip Coyle, Senior Science Fellow, Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, former CIA Director James Woolsey, Jr. and Former Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security and Ambassador Robert G. Joseph.
Coyle is a recognized expert on U.S. and worldwide military research, development and testing. He has served under four U.S. Presidents, mostly recently as the Associate Director for National Security and International Affairs in President Obama’s White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Coyle’s remarks hit the nail on the head. In his opening statement, he outlined three important reasons why it would be unwise for the United States to pursue an expanded missile defense against Russia and China.
First, the technology simply does not exist to deal with a deliberate Russian or Chinese ICBM attack. U.S. missile defenses against ICBMs can at best deal with very limited attacks—say from Iran or North Korea—and even that goal continues to be a technological challenge.
Second, the costs of trying to deploy a system to deal effectively with a Russian or Chinese attack would be staggering. In 2002, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost of several different proposed missile defense programs that would be integrated into one layered system in 2025. The CBO estimated that a system of ground-based interceptors would cost between $27 and $74 billion, a system of ship-launched interceptors would cost $50 to $64 billion, and a Space-Based Laser system would cost $82 to $100 billion. All of these systems are meant for only a “limited” attack. CBO has not yet estimated the costs of a system designed to defeat Russia and China’s ICBMS, but it would necessarily be considerably more expensive.
Third, if the U.S. had missile defense that could effectively defeat Russian and Chinese ICBMs without being overwhelmed, it would be strategically destabilizing and provoke military responses from Russia and China. If Russia and China perceived their ICBM arsenals had been rendered useless, Russia and China would need to respond with new forces—perhaps more attacking missiles, cruise missiles (against which our missile defense systems are useless), or perhaps even the deployment of troops areas of the world that are currently peaceful.
Furthermore, Russia would certainly not agree to further reductions in its nuclear arsenal and may then use new U.S. missile defense programs as justification to withdraw from New START and other important arms control agreements that have significantly reduced the threat from nuclear weapons.
Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral James A. Winnefeld Jr., in a May 28 talk at the Atlantic Council, punctured the expansive views of those who argue for massive new missile defenses as he explained why limited defenses are in the best U.S. interest.
“As you know,” he said, “we’ve told Russia and the world that we will not rely on missile defense for strategic deterrence of Russia because it would simply be too hard and too expensive and too strategically destabilizing to even try.” Later the Admiral reiterated this point, saying, “And let me be clear once again: it’s not the policy of the United States to build a ballistic missile defense system to counter Russian ballistic missiles.”
Spring intern Andrew Szarejko and I have a new piece on the Center homepage on the Ukraine crisis and the role of strategic forces. Here’s how we begin:
Like a bad penny that always seems to find its way back into your pocket, critics of the Obama administration are using a crisis abroad to recite their favorite talking points about the importance of nuclear weapons and missile defense to U.S. security.
Further Russian aggression toward Ukraine could be avoided, they suggest, if only President Obama would revive a Bush-era missile defense plan for Europe or at least accelerate the current plan, the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA). If only Obama would consider deploying tactical nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe and provide additional billions (on top of the hundreds of billions already planned) to accelerate the modernization of the American nuclear arsenal, Putin would never show his bare chest again and return Crimea to Ukraine.
Some of these and other proposals can be found in the recent legislation sponsored by Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) titled “The Russian Aggression Prevention Act of 2014”. The legislation calls for accelerating implementation of the EPAA, halting nuclear weapons reductions under New START and any further reductions until Russia is in compliance with its arms control obligations and is no longer threatening Ukraine, and prohibiting overflights of U.S. territory by Russian aircraft under the Open Skies Treaty using new digital surveillance devices.
These actions may satisfy a political desire to poke Russia in the eye and make the Obama administration look weak, but they are wrong-headed and don’t respond to the threat. U.S. nuclear weapons and missile defenses are largely irrelevant to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. While augmenting nuclear and missile defense capabilities and ditching existing arms control mechanisms will not dissuade Russia from engaging in more mischief in Ukraine, they could amount to pouring gasoline on an already large fire.
You can read the whole thing here.