Is Missile Defense Dangerous?

North Korea has launched a ballistic missile over Japan for the second time this month. “Japan is no longer needed to exist near us,” state-run media offered by way of explanation, “The four islands of the archipelago should be sunken into the sea by the nuclear bomb.”

The prospect of a U.S. ally being nuked by a rogue regime, and one that is also pursuing long-range missiles aimed at the U.S. homeland -- might serve as a reason to bolster missile defense systems. To some degree it has, as seen by the renewed calls this week on Capitol Hill to increase missile defense spending as part of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act.

For many in the think-tank and scholarly community, however, North Korean provocations have engendered a different concern. More dangerous than the threat from North Korean missiles, they maintain, may be Washington’s decision to react by enhancing its missile defense shield.

A case in point is a recent piece in Defense One by Tom Collina. While conceding that North Korea’s acquisition of a “nuclear missile that can reach the United States” is “only a matter of time,” Collina maintains that anti-missile interceptor systems “could leave us worse off.” Why? Because investments in missile defenses could lead to a dangerous overconfidence in their efficacy. Believing that the United States has the ability to deter a missile attack, Collina predicts that President Trump would be “more likely to escalate a conflict” and allow the country to “stumble into unintended wars.”

Collina outlined the argument in rather personal terms toward the president. But groups like the Ploughshares Fund, where Collina is policy director, have warned about the incentives that missile defense could create long before this presidency.

The basic idea is that a stable balance of power already prevails in the world, and it does so because countries tread carefully out of fear that provocative steps could invite retaliation by another state. Even countries without nuclear weapons have conventional arsenals that could impose unacceptable costs against their rivals.

Critics suggest that missile defense might disrupt this equilibrium. If a country developed advanced systems that could blunt the missile threat posed by rival powers, they might be tempted to project power with impunity -- with unfortunate consequences.

This prediction, while logical in theory, has not been borne out by reality. Indeed, the opposite has occurred.

When President Ronald Reagan announced his intention to pursue the Strategic Defense Initiative, critics howled that the United States was igniting an arms race and possibly even laying the groundwork for a first strike against the Soviet Union. In reality, SDI did not fundamentally alter U.S. strategy toward the Soviet Union way. SDI did, however, have an immense psychological impact on the Kremlin. Uncertain as to the potential of U.S. missile defense systems, Soviet policymakers agreed to unprecedented arms control agreements in an effort to weaken the United States through diplomacy. In the meantime, Soviet strategists doubled down behind defense plans that the Moscow could not afford, bankrupting the empire into oblivion.

Fast forward to 2001, when the George W. Bush administration announced its intention to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in order to pursue more robust missile defense systems. Far from rekindling an arms race, the United States signaled at the same time that it was prepared to reduce its nuclear stockpiles unilaterally. Seeing an opportunity to rein in its own outdated program, Russia, in 2002, signed with the United States the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT) -- a landmark agreement in which both countries agreed to limit their arsenals.

SORT laid the groundwork for a series of U.S.-Russia arms control agreements over the ensuing decade -- agreements that the two sides negotiated even when tensions between the two powers escalated, and even as improvements in U.S. missile defense capabilities far outpaced those of rival nations. With every missile test, the United States has been able to isolate and solve problems while completing tests with increasing complexity in objectives and targets.

History provides little evidence for the contention that American investments in missile defense either encourage a reckless U.S. foreign policy, or destabilize international order. If anything, U.S. investments in missile defense have tended to advance rather than stymie progress on arms control. Past experience, of course, does not discredit these theoretical warnings altogether -- missile defense may very well motivate imprudent statecraft in a different context with different actors. But weighed against the very real threat of a North Korean strike on the U.S. homeland, theoretical objections to missile defense appear rather unpersuasive.

Dan Perrin is the president of the HSA Coalition. He is a former U.S. Committee on Foreign Relations staff member, where he served for more than seven years, and a former staffer with the U.S. Senate Steering Committee. 

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