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Feb 6, 2019 | 10:00 GMT

7 mins read

A Missile Defense Review to Intensify an Arms Race

Russian Defense Ministry officials show off the Russia's 9M729 cruise missile at the military Patriot Park outside Moscow on Jan. 23, 2019.
(VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Highlights
  • The U.S. Missile Defense Review envisions the allocation of resources for military projects that would give an edge to the United States in its competition with Russia and China.
  • Developing and fielding missile defenses that could counter the other great powers will be no easy task, considering the financial and technological barriers.
  • Moreover, the potential for progress on missile defense systems will alarm Russia and China, further intensifying the great power competition and the global arms race. 

After more than a few delays, the United States has finally released its Missile Defense Review. The document, together with the Nuclear Posture Review and the National Defense Strategy released a year ago, outlines the geostrategic direction of the United States and its national security posture amid an intensifying great power competition with Russia and China. In keeping with the two other reports, the Missile Defense Review, released Jan. 17, envisions the allocation of more resources for projects that would boost Washington in its competition with Moscow and Beijing. Improved missile defense, for instance, could give the United States more options if it succeeds in overcoming technological and budgetary limits, but the shift to yet another dimension of the strategic competition is likely only to exacerbate the arms race and incite mistrust among the great powers. 

The Big Picture

The great power competition is further heating up as countries abandon arms control agreements and build up their arsenals. The U.S. effort to expand its missile defense capabilities, as noted in its latest Missile Defense Review, will offer the country more tools in its competition with Russia and China, but it will also require a massive financial outlay — and further intensify the standoff to boot. 

A Farewell to Arms Treaties

When the United States and the Soviet Union sat down in the early 1970s to address arms control, missile defense was high on the list of priorities. Fearing that improved missile defenses would prompt both countries to develop and field an ever-larger number of ballistic missiles to overcome them, the pair agreed to a stringent cap on such arms in the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. But 29 years later — long after the Soviet Union's collapse and not long after 9/11 — the George W. Bush administration decided to withdraw from the treaty so as to bolster the country's defenses against a potential missile attack from "rogue" states. While the United States continued to insist that it would limit such investments in missile defense, its pullout from the ABM Treaty delivered the first blow to legacy arms-control deals from the Cold War era. What's more, it drove the Soviet Union's successor to beef up its own strategic armaments.

In the almost two decades between the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty and the release of the latest Missile Defense Review, missile defense technology has improved considerably. China, meanwhile, has built up a formidable arsenal of ballistic missiles to accompany its rapidly expanding military capabilities. Its rise and Russia's resurgence have also led the United States to gradually shift its focus from its global war on terrorism to the great power competition with these two nations. Reflecting this shift, the latest Missile Defense Review places special emphasis on developing capabilities that could help counter the Russian and Chinese arsenals — even as it couches this change with language that continues to describe nuclear weapons as the primary strategic deterrent against Moscow and Beijing. 

Despite technological advancements since the United States abandoned the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, developing and fielding a missile defense network that could counter other great powers remains a tall order.

Still, despite the technological advancements since the United States abandoned the ABM Treaty, developing and fielding a missile defense network that could counter other great powers remains a tall order. Funding key projects identified in the Missile Defense Review — such as installing an advanced sensor network in space, developing mature laser technology, equipping the stealth F-35 fighter with a weapon that can destroy an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and, potentially, deploying interceptors in space — will prove to be a major challenge, especially as all these aims will be competing for financial support with other major defense items in the years ahead. 

In addition, some of these projects will require a significant technological leap forward. For one, the plan to develop laser-equipped drones, which would have the ability to hover near a potential enemy launch site and destroy an incoming ICBM during the boost phase, presents massive technological hurdles. Not only would the drone have to be capable of lengthy flying times and possess sufficient defenses to survive enemy air defenses, but its onboard laser technology would also have to be lightweight enough for the vehicle to transport the state-of-the-art technology for the duration of a mission. Besides issues regarding strength and reliability, contemporary lasers require a significant amount of power and cooling that necessitates a great degree of heavy support equipment. 

The View From Moscow and Beijing

The United States thus faces significant obstacles on the path to developing a more comprehensive global ballistic missile defense network, but its efforts will nevertheless engender serious Russian and Chinese concern. After all, the very survival of their nuclear deterrent is at risk for these two great powers. Given the high stakes, Moscow and Beijing will have no choice but to assume that the United States could make significant progress on its plans, as there is simply no guarantee that major technological breakthroughs will not occur in missile defense in the years ahead. 

Compounding the Russian and Chinese concerns is the fact that missile defense needs not even be particularly reliable or effective to undermine the two countries' respective nuclear deterrents. Moscow and Beijing fear that improved U.S. offensive strike capabilities would grant it the ability to largely destroy their nuclear arsenals in an initial strike. When combined with significant missile defenses, the United States could, in theory, not only knock out the vast bulk of the Chinese or Russian nuclear arsenals but then could then use its missile defenses to intercept any surviving missiles launched in retaliation.

This is not to suggest that the United States intends to conduct a nuclear first strike against Russia or China. Such a devastating attack — even if it achieves its objectives — would be an utter disaster for the United States, to say nothing for humanity as a whole. But, when it comes to considering their very survival, nations tend to consider and prepare for worst-case scenarios. And given the increasing hostility and mistrust accompanying the great power competition, there is little incentive for any of the three great powers to avoid building up their arsenals to the maximum degree. As legacy arms control regimes erode, Russia and China have, in fact, already begun investing heavily in strategic weaponry to remain ahead of U.S. advances in offensive strike capabilities. Given this, the prospect of a more comprehensive U.S. ballistic missile defense network will only spur Russia and China to redouble their efforts.

The prospect of a more comprehensive U.S. ballistic missile defense network will only spur Russia and China to redouble their efforts.

An Orbital Conflict

Washington's efforts will also have a profound effect on the competition in space, particularly as a more effective global ballistic missile defense network is contingent on positioning sensors and, potentially, interceptors in space. Naturally, this aspect of the program would likely drive China and Russia to respond by deploying their weapons in orbit to ensure that they can strike at a growing number of U.S. assets in space. And to add to both countries' concerns, neither would have any way of knowing whether the United States' materiel in space also includes missiles that can strike ground targets or their own satellites in orbit. In such a situation, the end result would appear to be the further militarization of space.

Taking into account the lack of effective arms controls for space (aside from the Outer Space Treaty, which bars the three great powers from placing weapons of mass destruction in space), the ratcheting up of the great power competition as a result of the deployment of orbiting missile defense assets would only increase the probability that the three countries would target space-borne assets in a conflict. Such a scenario would produce inevitable debris that would affect every country's critical satellite networks.

As the United States shifts its focus from its battle against militancy to the looming threat of competition with Russia and China, it is mulling a concerted push to improve its missile defense network, both on the planet and above it. Such a drive will face numerous obstacles, especially financial ones. Even so, Washington's efforts will inevitably trigger fears in Moscow and Beijing — as well as an intensified arms race. 

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