Feb. 1, 2001
Vol. 20 No. 9

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    Weighing the options for National Missile Defense

    Charles Glaser

    Charles Glaser, Professor and Deputy Dean of the Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies, is a distinguished scholar of international security and defense policy whose research is focused on arms races between nations. He maintains that adversaries can sometimes best achieve their security goals through cooperative, rather than competitive, policies. His current scholarship includes an analysis of how the deployment of a National Missile Defense system will affect U.S. foreign and defense policy.

    What role will the NMD play in the initial defense policies of the Bush administration?

    The NMD is the most visible element of President Bush’s proposed defense policy. The Bush administration is considering other controversial policies, including removing U.S. troops from the Balkans and further expanding NATO. However, the NMD will be the most controversial issue, at least in the near term. A couple of years ago, the new Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld chaired a bipartisan commission that forcefully raised an alarm about the missile threat posed by such rogue states as North Korea and Iraq. Though he is not an expert on the NMD, he is committed to the deployment of some form of it to defend against these rogue threats. The Bush administration is reported to be interested in deploying a more robust and ambitious NMD system than the one favored by the Clinton administration.

    What makes the NMD so controversial?

    If the United States deploys even a limited missile defense system, there will be significant impacts on our strategic nuclear policy and on our political relationships with Russia and China. Both countries will be threatened by the American NMD. China, which has only a small number of warheads on intercontinental range missiles, will be most immediately and seriously challenged. Russia, which deploys a much larger nuclear force, will have to worry that the United States will expand its limited system, originally designed against rogues, to a full system directed at Russian forces.

    How will the NMD affect the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty?

    All NMD systems under consideration will require either Russia to agree to an amendment to the ABM Treaty or the United States to exercise its right to abrogate the treaty. NMD proponents, including Bush foreign policy advisers, believe that if necessary this is an acceptable tradeoffóan effective defensive shield against rogue states that possess long-range missiles and weapons of mass destruction is more valuable than the ongoing military cooperation with Russia afforded by the ABM Treaty.

    How technologically feasible is an effective NMD?

    There is currently extensive disagreement about the ability of the ground-based NMD system proposed by the Clinton administration to defend against rogue state missiles. Experts outside the U.S. government have now studied this issue carefully and have concluded that if these countries can develop intercontinental range missiles, they also will be able to develop countermeasures that will defeat the U.S. NMD. I find their analysis convincing. Other NMD technologiesóboost phase systems in particular, which would be deployed close to rogue missiles and would intercept them shortly after they were launchedómay be more effective against certain rogue missiles, but these NMD systems have been studied less extensively. However, feasibility isn’t everything. An equally important question is whether any rogue state, no matter how irrational and unpredictable its leader, will actually mount an attack against the United States and invite virtually certain and devastating retaliation. Still, since we can’t be sure how rogue leaders will act, there is a case for the NMD as an insurance policy, if its economic and political costs are not too high.

    Where do you think the analysis of the NMD should start?

    Obviously, whether the NMD is technologically feasible against a reactive threat must be thoroughly studied. In addition, and more controversial, I believe that U.S. relations with other powers should be a primary consideration. If our relationships with Russia and China will be seriously degraded by deploying a limited NMD system, intended primarily to defend against rogue states, then doing so would be a mistake. However, if the political costs with Russia and China can be minimized, then the case for a limited NMD, if technologically feasible, is much stronger.

    What political steps would you recommend on possible deployment?

    Assuming the NMD technology turns out to be effective against small missile threats, before proceeding with deployment, the United States needs to make a greater effort to make the system less threatening to Russia and China.

    With Russia, this could include arms control agreements that reduce offensive strategic forces, with more reductions in U.S. offenses, to compensate Russia for the U.S. NMD.

    The challenge is harder with China, because it currently has such a small nuclear force. One possibility is to keep the U.S. NMD as small as necessary to defend against rogue systems, which will make it easier for China to build a missile force large enough to defeat the U.S. NMD. Maybe equally important, U.S. leaders need to accept from the outset that China will react to the U.S.

    NMD by enlarging its missile force. The United States should interpret such a build-up as a defensive reaction, not as an indication that Chinese motives have become more malign. U.S. leaders will need to work hard to manage elite and public reactions to ensure that a Chinese build-up is not misinterpreted, leading to an unnecessary spiral in U.S.-Chinese hostilities.