Missile defense: ever the fly in the ointment of U.S.-Russia relations

Missile defense systems against nuclear strikes are often considered “destabilizing” to the strategic balance.” On May 3, Russia’s RIA Novosti demonstrated this principle in action.

Russia does not exclude preemptive use of  weapons against [NATO] missile defense systems in Europe but only as a last resort, the Russian General Staff said on Thursday at a missile defense conference in Moscow.

“The placement of new strike weapons in the south and northwest of Russia against [NATO] missile defense components … is one possible way of incapacitating the European missile defense infrastructure,” Chief of the General Staff Nikolai Makarov said.

Taking into account the “destabilizing nature of the missile defense system… the decision on the pre-emptive use of available weapons will be made during an aggravation of the situation,” he said.

Exactly why missile defense is destabilizing can be difficult to grasp (at least it was for me). After all, it only seems natural for a state to seek to protect itself against nuclear attack. Besides, how can a parry be considered as aggressive as a thrust? I once endeavored to explain in a post.

Here’s how it works. A state — Russia again — is considered vulnerable to a first, or initial, strike by the United States, during the course of which many of its surface (as opposed to those based in submarines, which are, of course, mobile) nuclear weapons would be wiped out. (This argument requires a suspension of belief that Russia would refrain from launching a counterattack on warning, that is, while the U.S. missiles were in the air, instead of waiting until they struck  — still the only sure-fire method of verifying a nuclear attack.)

Russia’s retaliatory force would be further diminished if much of it was destroyed while in the air by U.S. missile defense. (This requires a suspension of belief that the day when missile defense is that effective will ever come). The crux of this theory is that since Russia knows that under this arrangement it’s going to lose missiles both on the ground and in the air it’s motivated to build more to compensate. (Why Russian missile defense isn’t considered destabilizing to America’s “deterrent” is a question seldom, if ever, raised.)

More from the RIA Novosti article:

“By 2018-2020 – that is the third and fourth phases of the deployment of the Euro-missile defense in Europe – the continent should have enough [NATO] anti-missile defense to be able to intercept part of Russia’s intercontinental ballistic missiles, and submarine launched ballistic missiles,” Patrushev said at an international conference on Euro-missile defense in Moscow.

At the Christian Science Monitor, Yousaff Butt backed this up.

The problem with European missile defense is that while it’s designed to counter Iran, the faster interceptors due to come online in 2018 will also be able to engage Russian warheads, upsetting this all-important perception of parity.

Though what Butt probably meant by “designed to counter Iran” was in the highly unlikely event that Iran develops missiles that could reach Europe, not to mention the nuclear weapons that would be affixed to them as warheads. Meanwhile RIA Novosti reported that NATO’s Deputy General Secretary Alexander Vershbow said:

“In fact, we have no desire at all to disturb global strategic stability,” he told the conference. “Quite the contrary: NATO missile defense will be capable of intercepting only a small number of relatively unsophisticated ballistic missiles. It does not have the capability to neutralize Russian deterrence.”

Ivan Oelrich explained in the January/February issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (behind a pay wall)

Almost all independent US analysts—that is, those outside the government and the defense industry—are deeply skeptical of the feasibility of missile defenses, especially against a technically sophisticated country like Russia. To these skeptics, therefore, Russia’s position seems frustratingly irrational: Russia is letting the potential for mutually beneficial arrangements be undermined by the USA’s politically motivated pursuit of a system that will never work.

But Patrushev said:

“Our experts say other targets, which could require serious missile defense against it, do not really exist.”

The United States and NATO may act like Russia is being a drama queen about missile defense, but it knows very well that the system will never be used against Iran. Even if that were its intention, it would be years before it’s necessary to defend Europe against Iran — years of NATO missile-defense deployment acting as a burr in Russia’s saddle as well as an ongoing obstacle to disarmament. Not only is missile defense destabilizing, it’s an endless fund of misinformation between the United States and Russia.

Cross-posted at the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

One comment on “Missile defense: ever the fly in the ointment of U.S.-Russia relations

  1. Given the general ineffectiveness of missile defense systems and the instability they generate, who benefits from them? My first guess would be the manufacturers, the lobbyists, and the recipients of their destabilizing bags of money.

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