Spinning the nuclear missile wheel

By Stephen Blank, Asia Times, 5 May 2004

When the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002, all sorts of charges and counter charges flew. Supporters of the treaty argued that if the system worked, an outcome of which they had no doubt, it would lead to a situation where defenses dominate against offenses. This would especially be true because Russia and America had just signed the Strategic Offensive Arms Reduction Treaty (SORT). This treaty formally terminated the state of hostility between the two states in nuclear affairs and let them build whatever mix of offenses or defenses they wanted to have within the numerical ceilings of the treaty. Absent mutual suspicion, the American defense system and any Russian system would not constitute a threat to each other.

Opponents of the withdrawal predicted that a new nuclear arms race would start because China would feel threatened by the new missile defense system which, whatever its proponents stated, was designed against it, as well as terrorists or North Korea and Iran. Consequently, China would build many hundreds of missiles, as the Central Intelligence Agency had predicted in 2000-01, to beat the system. That in turn would lead other Asian states, including Russia and India, to build more missiles and defenses against China, touching off what they called an Asian chain reaction.

However, as the US has begun to build its system of defenses, the consequences of the withdrawal from the ABM Treaty are manifesting themselves, and typically they are contradicting both camps. At the same time, the US has also just unveiled its own experimental hypersonic missile that could defy any other power's defenses, and it is seriously considering low-yield so-called “bunker-buster” nuclear weapons that could precisely target heavily reinforced and underground bunkers or hideouts, thus giving US targets like Osama bin Laden even fewer alternatives to hide from an attack. Thus, even as it builds defenses, the US is still seeking to ensure that its offensive nuclear capabilities could perform if need be in war time.

As proclaimed, the US missile defense system cannot really threaten Russia, which has some 7,000 warheads, although it can obviously threaten North Korea. Indeed, if one does a simple cost analysis of what it would take for China to overcome it, those costs are not at all onerous, so there is little reason to believe this system could prevent a Chinese nuclear attack on the continental United States, especially as China is turning out ever larger numbers of ballistic and cruise missiles. More importantly, the intended missile defense system is a monument to the idea that genuinely effective defenses, with a reasonable possibility of successfully countering missile threats, can be built.

Such an occurrence would mark the first time any reliably successful missile defense has been built and that achievement would represent a turn of the endlessly revolving strategic wheel between offensive and defensive innovation toward the defense's advantage, at least in regard to ballistic nuclear missiles.

However, the Russian side's continued belief that it cannot let the US possess a missile defense system that gives it the freedom to launch offensive missiles secure in the knowledge that its defenses could successfully deal with any intended retaliation from Russia drove Moscow to try to imitate American policy. In this respect, the Russian military is not just acting out its suspicions of the US that go back decades. It also is doing what any prudent strategist would recommend, despite the fact that there are no conceivable grounds for war with Russia. Possession of nuclear weapons mandates that a government and its armed forces act to safeguard the ability to use them, find military utility in using nuclear weapons and extract the maximum strategic benefits that can be garnered from merely having nuclear weapons.

Just as Washington has sought to build both defenses and hypersonic missiles that could overcome missile defenses, Russia has done so too. Russia apparently seeks to counter the missile defense system, as critics warned, by building more missiles or missiles that could overcome the system. Indeed, it is doing both. At the same time, a second, less advertised reason for Moscow's policies, in spite of the fact that nobody believes a war with America is anywhere on the horizon or desirable, or even likely at some future date, is Moscow's growing concern about rising Chinese power.

Given present indices of economic and military power and the depopulation of Asiatic Russia, Russian fears of rising Chinese economic and military power have become ever more palpable. This rising concern takes place even though Russia proclaims China as its strategic partner. Indeed, it is precisely because Russia cannot afford to antagonize China that it makes this statement of partnership and refrains from proclaiming that its exercises are not only intended for anti-American, but also possibly for anti-Chinese missions and operations. The same holds true for nuclear weapons, with the added point that Moscow's glaring conventional weaknesses which could well increase relative to China's conventional military power enhances the role of its nuclear deterrent vis-a-vis Beijing and makes the development of survivable (ie mobile as well as hypersonic) missiles and reliable defenses even more important. Therefore, Moscow must develop both its offenses and defenses to guard against potential, even if unlikely, US and/or Chinese threats.

Accordingly, in February and April, Moscow successfully tested hypersonic missiles that could carry a nuclear warhead along with its ground-based mobile TOPOL-M ICBM. If further tests of the TOPOL-M are successful, it will be deployed later this year and the same principle applies to the hypersonic missile. Moscow has proclaimed that the hypersonic missile could overcome any missile defense and that the recent experiments it undertook during the war games in February that featured the test of the missile “affect the whole philosophy of military-strategic interaction”. Such far-reaching claims cannot be made here, however if these claims about the hypersonic missile's ability to evade missile defense are, in fact, true, then that test and the successful American test of its own hypersonic missile will soon give the wheel of strategic innovation another turn and create a weapon against which there is no existing defense. In effect, that development could and probably will stimulate someone to find a new way for the offense to trump the defense, and so on. Here again the critics have a point in that it appears that the cycle of offense and defense each seeking to trump each other is taking place rather than a transition to a defense dominated world.

Certainly Russia's claims would seem to confirm that point. Moscow coyly refrains from stating that this “hypersonic flying vehicle” is actually a ballistic or cruise missile but does state that it can maneuver between space and the earth's atmosphere, making it harder to even conceive of ways to defend against it. Certainly, this claim, if it is true, can also further stimulate the ongoing weaponization of space. Meanwhile, Russia is also adding three warheads per TOPOL rather than the one warhead per missile it had originally deployed. By putting multiple warheads on this mobile and hence more survivable missile, it hopes to ensure the preservation of a robust offensive capability to counter any other government's potential missile defenses and it thus recreates the Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicles (MIRVs) that were so prominent a feature of the strategic landscape after 1970.

Since the SORT treaty allows Russia to build whatever it likes within the numerical parameters of the treaty, this procedure saves it a lot of money which it can ill afford to spend. Similarly, it is also outfitting these missiles with a so-called unique “gliding” warhead that allows a missile to change its trajectory at the last moment to elude detection and interception. Thus Moscow, in spite of the fact that it professes a desire to cooperate with Washington on missile defense, will stage a missile defense exercise with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 2005, and as it does not allege a nuclear threat from Washington, it has perhaps already trumped the American missile defense plan and put the restoration of offensive primacy in the nuclear sphere back on the agenda as the new and emerging status quo.

The China factor Furthermore, China, too, is not resting on its laurels, despite its public silence about the end of the ABM treaty and the US missile defense program. After all, it, too, has a vital interest in Russian strategic developments and its cooperation with the Russian military across a host of systems and technologies probably gives it a good idea of Russian strategic thinking and programs. As both Moscow and Washington well know, China is also working on ways to counter the US program which will obviously have an impact on its strategic posture vis-a-vis Russia. As many analysts have stated, China is building many more missiles of all kinds of provenance, short, medium and long-range and both ballistic and cruise missiles. It will not be difficult for Beijing to place nuclear warheads on those missiles to target all of its potential adversaries, including Russia.

But China also has accelerated its own space program and plans for the military use of space, perhaps even in a first-strike or preemptive mode to knock out US satellites and leave the missile defense system blind. Thus while it follows Russia's suit by building more missiles, it also is apparently aiming to undermine the US system's command, control, and communications capabilities that link it to terrestrial sensors. China has also recently launched two nano-satellites into space. As a result analysts like Richard Fisher of the Center for Security Policy in Washington argue that “China will use micro and nano-satellites for a range of missions, surveillance, reconnaissance, communication, and for destroying enemy satellites. Their size makes them difficult, if not impossible, to detect and either avoid or shoot down.”

Thus none of the main players in the nuclear arena are resting content with the idea of a defense-dominated world, even as Washington and Moscow, if not Beijing, are building missile defenses. While Washington explores low-yield and supposedly more precise nuclear weapons that could also serve as “bunker busters” and hypersonic missiles, Moscow also is building its defenses and hypersonic, missiles along with more mobile and multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles (MIRVs) on its TOPOL-M missiles. China is building more missiles and also appears to be focusing on depriving either side's defenses from finding its missiles and thus concentrates on attacking their command, control, communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities (C4ISR in military parlance) while also moving to join the other two governments in weaponizing space. Meanwhile, the full extent of its own offensive nuclear programs and of any missile defenses that it is building remains unclear. China has also shut down public discussions of its military collaboration with the Russian armed forces, which almost certainly includes issues pertaining to missile defenses and missiles.

Whatever one wants to make of these facts, it cannot be said that they reliably and certainly are ushering in an era of incontestable defense dominance. Innovations in strategy and technology have not stopped and probably never will. Arms controllers and many others may not like these prospects even though they warned about them. But in fact the new missiles will replace, not add to, existing capabilities and if it is assumed that policy is in some measure a rational response to existing conditions, the supporters of missile defense have a strong argument.

Deterrence today is clearly not feasible as a merely two-sided game, as was the case during the Cold War. Observers on all sides recognize this. The distinguished Indian defense expert Brahma Chellaney wrote: “In the evolving situation, the existing premises of arms control, like the traditional principles of deterrence, are unlikely to hold. It is no accident that the process of arms control has ground to a halt in this state of fluidity. The proposed elimination of multiple-warhead ICBM's under START II was designed to encourage a shift from launch-on-warning to a launch-under-attack posture. But Moscow has made it clear that it intends to stick to a launch-on-warning posture (which is indistinguishable from the capability to preempt) and may not even eliminate its multiple-warhead ICBMs if Washington begins to deploy NMD. In a complex world marked by conflicting trends, it is apparent that each deterrent relationship will be different from the other, premised on principles at variance with classical deterrence theory. The concept of mutually assured destruction is losing relevance. Deterrence will be constructed on principles radically different from notions of qualitative or quantitative parity.”

Although he was wrong about Russia's reaction, because Moscow cannot afford more than what is contained in the SORT, he certainly is right that deterrence will have to be built on new principles as multiple actors are deterring each other, not to mention terrorists who might yet gain control of nuclear weapons and use them. Thus a defense-dominated world has yet to arrive, but that does not undermine the arguments of those who who supported missile defense. Russia and China's pubic reactions to the US withdrawal form the ABM treaty were much less strident than what those governments had earlier promised. Although the first reactions to that withdrawal are now appearing, they were in act policy decisions long before the withdrawal was announced. In other words, they would have been taken for good reasons regardless of Washington's decision. Moscow has to cut missiles and China clearly felt impelled to build many and diverse types of new ones. Though defense domination is nonexistent, mutual hostility and suspicion among the great nuclear powers is at its lowest ebb in years, making nuclear Armageddon scenarios more remote than they ever have been, except for those threatened by rogue states and terrorists. While the critics might be right about states' reactions, they failed to grasp the changing context of deterrence and strategy that supporters of missile defense had glimpsed even in the 1990s.

Thus the quest for defending state interests, for finding good uses for nuclear weapons to safeguard state interests, and for crafting the appropriate force structures and strategy continues, as does the search for offensive and then defensive invention that will restore primacy to one or the other process. As long as governments and militaries are charged with protecting their peoples and these technologies cannot be disinvented, the quest for strategic superiority, self-defense and usable weapons will continue unless checked by policy and non-threatening relationships among the nuclear powers. Similarly, the quest for strategic innovations to ensure the reliable protection of state interests will also continue unabated, absent major changes in international affairs. Arguably those are the lessons of the Cold War, and despite the saliency of terrorism and other forms of unconventional conflict in our time, they may turn out to be a lesson for our time as well.