Missile Defense: Big Risk, Little Reward?

In a difficult fiscal environment, the United States continues to throw billions of dollars down the drain on missile defense systems.  Instead of making us more secure, the system has limited capabilities to actually protect the United States and its allies.  And it makes Russian (and Chinese) military planners nervous, a situation that could quickly spiral out of control and into a Cold War-esque arms race.

This is the conclusion of a sobering special report, “Upsetting the Reset: The Technical Basis of Russian Concern Over NATO Missile Defense,” released last week by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). According to authors Yousaf Butt and Theodore Postol, the latter phases of the Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA) for missile defense in Europe could:

Threaten to provoke Russia’s exit from New START, in addition to possibly restarting a nuclear arms race – while providing no credible defense against possible future Iranian or North Korean missiles hosting simple countermeasures. Russia and China might increase their arsenals, end future arms reductions talks with the United States, and decrease their assistance with worldwide counter-proliferation efforts. Such a result would diminish U.S. – and global – security and would be at odds with President Obama’s vision of a nuclear-weapons-free world.

Put more simply, Butt and Postol believe the planned missile defense system doesn’t work and that it could undermine international cooperation on core security challenges such as preventing new states – like Iran – from acquiring nuclear weapons.

“Proven, Cost-effective and Adaptable?”
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The Obama Administration announced the PAA in September 2009 as an alternative to George W. Bush’s European missile defense initiative. The Bush plan called for ground-based interceptors in Poland and a large radar site in the Czech Republic. This approach – coupled with the Bush Administration’s disdain for arms control – provoked intense Russian concerns and contributed to the deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations.

The PAA was supposed to be a more pragmatic approach “based on an assessment of the Iranian missile threat, and a commitment to deploy technology that is proven, cost-effective, and adaptable to an evolving security environment.”

Despite the stated intention to deploy technology that is proven and cost-effective, current missile defense programs seem to be falling short in both categories. In their report, Butt and Postol outline the technical limitations of the system and explain that the defense could be defeated by countermeasures.

Undermining the Reset
Nonetheless, the PAA still puts many Russian military planners on edge. The authors note that Russian officials “fear the possibility that the missile defense system might undermine the smaller Russian strategic nuclear forces post-New START.”

Whether or not these concerns are rational, cautious military planners have to anticipate worst-case scenarios. As a result, as Butt and Postol write, “they may be forced to reevaluate and possibly upgrade their war plans even if their technical experts are confident of defeating the planned defenses.”

This brings us to what Butt and Postol call the central conundrum of midcourse missile defense: “while it creates incentives for U.S. adversaries and competitors to increase their missile stockpiles, it does not offer the combat capability needed to defend the United States or its allies from these weapons.”

The end result: a lose-lose situation for the United States.