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The Logic of Missile Defense

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
May 7, 2007


U.S. missile defense policy has a checkered history. In 1983, when President Ronald Reagan first proposed his Strategic Defense Initiative, dubbed Star Wars by its detractors, the plan raised eyebrows in the scientific and diplomatic community. Scientists doubted whether space-based interceptors could create an impenetrable shield; diplomats questioned whether it was wise to abandon the military doctrine of mutually assured destruction, or MAD—the foundation for Cold War-era stability.

Fast-forward two decades. The Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty has been scrapped, Iran is widely believed to be pursuing a nuclear program for military purposes, and the United States and Russia are no longer mortal enemies. But there is residual distrust. Once again, Washington wants to build a missile shield consisting of radar and interceptors in Poland and the Czech Republic, ostensibly aimed at rogue states like Iran, yet the Kremlin opposes the move (IHT). To signal his disapproval, President Vladimir Putin announced Russia would suspend its obligations under the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, the implications of which are explained in this new Backgrounder. He has hinted he may abrogate other arms treaties, including the two-decades-old Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Questions still hang over the efficacy of missile defense. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates say the limited system is “oriented against a potential enemy with a small arsenal, attempting to blackmail our people, sow chaos, and sap our collective will.” Yet the problem, writes Ivan Eland of the California-based Independent Institute, “has always been that an adversary can more cheaply build decoys and other countermeasures, or even additional missiles, to overcome or defeat an expensive and limited defense system.” But arms control experts Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press say that misses the point. Sure, it is unlikely the system would protect the United States from a major nuclear attack, they write in Foreign Affairs. But this does not make it worthless, they say, as it “would be valuable primarily in an offensive context, not a defensive one—as an adjunct to a U.S. first-strike capability, not as a stand-alone shield.”

And that is what concerns the Russians. The diplomatic storm over missile defense is just the latest in a series of spats stretching back to 2001. Since then, the U.S. government has pulled out of the ABM Treaty, heaped criticism on the Kremlin for its rollback of democracy, and drawn the ire of Russians for what they perceive as U.S. complicity in the pro-democracy “color” revolutions in Moscow ’s near abroad. Talk of a new Cold War, while premature and sensationalistic, saturates the air. In February, Putin lashed out at U.S. interventionism in Munich and decried what he called a “unipolar” world.

Andrew Kuchins of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says Putin’s speech before parliament in April was a calculated effort to divide Europe by “playing the old Europeans off the new Europeans,” but his tough talk risks backfiring. Moreover, because the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) poses no threat to Russian interests, writes Alexander Khramchikhin of the Moscow-based Institute of Political and Military Analysis, “Unilateral withdrawal from [the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty] would not be in Russia’s interests (RIA Novosti) because it would help Washington achieve what it wants the most: to unite NATO in the face of a ‘new threat from the East.’”

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