The ICAS Lectures

No. 2000-1013-FSJ

Missile Defense and East Asia: Downside and Risks

Frank Jannuzi

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

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Biographic Sketch: Frank S. Jannuzi

[Editor's note: We gratefully acknowledge Frank Jannuzi for his special contribution to ICAS of the paper and his written permission to publish it on the ICAS website. ICAS. sjk]

Missile Defense and East Asia: Downside and Risks
An Address by Frank Jannuzi
October 13, 2000

Frankly, I remain a skeptic on national missile defense. I think that, Third-World dictators can, in fact, be deterred from firing long-range missiles at us. Our overwhelming military might, combined with the will to use it and an enemy's certain knowledge that we would know what country had fired missiles at us, makes ICBM's one of the least effective means of attacking us or of limiting our freedom of action. Such weapons can at best deter us from trying to overthrow a regime, for only under that circumstance is a foreign threat to fire its ICBM's at us even remotely credible.

Having said that, however, I understand the moral argument for seeking an alternative to mutually assured destruction. We all understand, also, the desire for a hedge against the unthinkable, be it a crazed dictator or an accidental or unauthorized launch. Finally, we can accept in theory, at least the principle that a measure of defense need not be incompatible with mutual deterrence. Aside from the daunting technological challenges, however, there is the basic question of how to get there without incurring risks and costs beyond the bounds of prudence.

I'm worried about a headlong rush to deploy NMD because I am concerned about its impact on the strategic doctrine that the United States will pursue in the coming decades. The decisions that the next President will make on strategic forces, on nuclear testing, on non-proliferation, and especially on national missile defense will affect not only our own lives, but also the world that we will leave to our children. As a new father, that's been on my mind a lot lately.

President Clinton's September 1 decision to defer deployment of a national missile defense was the right decision. It was a sober reminder that the complexities of a post-Cold War world demand carefully crafted foreign and defense policies, rather than sound bites about our armed forces. The key question was not simply whether a national missile defense was "technologically possible," as many Republicans argued, but rather and rightly whether moving now to deploy the system proposed by the Pentagon would make our country more secure, or less so.

President Clinton did not give up on missile defense and neither have I but he steered clear of the pitfalls we would have faced if we had moved to deploy a system that does not work and has yet to gain allied support or Russian agreement to amend the ABM Treaty. The President's decision was a logical response to the technical and international challenges that a national missile defense faces.

Technical challenge still unmet

I won't detail all the technical challenges today. But consider:

  • the proposed national missile defense had hit its target only once in three tries, failing to achieve the Defense Department's original deployment readiness criteria;

  • the July 7 test failure and a one-year slip in developing the missile defense booster rocket guaranteed that the national missile defense could not be deployed by 2005;

  • both opponents and supporters of a national missile defense warned that the initial system could be defeated by countermeasures, which U.S. intelligence analysts said were within the capabilities of North Korea, Iran and Iraq; and

  • the Pentagon's Director of Operational Testing and Evaluation advised the Secretary of Defense that: "Test results so far do not support a recommendation at this time to deploy in 2005."

Political hurdles numerous

The international challenges to deploying the Pentagon's proposed national missile defense are equally daunting. I want to focus on those challenges, particularly in Asia. They underscore the point that national missile defense is more than just a weapons system. Rather, it is the lynchpin in a debate over our strategic doctrine regarding force structure, strategic arms relationships with other countries, and the possible use of nuclear weapons.

In August, news media reported on a new National Intelligence Estimate of the international impact of deploying our proposed national missile defense.

  • The Washington Post reported that "the study cites Russian opposition to the anti- missile shield as a complicating factor in future nonproliferation and arms control efforts, and it says European concerns could strain the Atlantic alliance."

  • The New York Times said that the Estimate had warned "that deploying an American national missile defense could prompt China to expand its nuclear arsenal tenfold and lead Russia to place multiple warheads on ballistic missiles that now carry only one."

  • The Times added that "the effects of an American decision to build a nuclear defense would ripple around the globe from Europe to South Asia" and that "China could deploy up to 200 warheads by 2015, prompting India and Pakistan to respond with their own buildups."

These official warnings only confirmed the concerns that many of us had raised regarding the impact of deployment on our overall national security, particularly in the Asia Pacific region.

China reaction key

Let's look at China. For years, China has pursued a strategic doctrine of "minimal deterrence," relying on about 20 ICBM's that can reach the United States and destroy major cities. We may convince Russia that 100 or 200 interceptors would not threaten its deterrent capability, but even our initial deployment would undermine China's deterrent. How would China react, and how would their reaction affect the actions of other countries, if we were to deploy a national missile defense?

China is modernizing its nuclear forces, and some say that our deployment of a missile defense would not affect its decisions. Judging from the press reports, however, our own intelligence analysts concluded that a national missile defense would lead China to deploy still more warheads, so as to maintain its nuclear deterrent.

I believe deployment of a limited national missile defense at the current time would affect both China's nuclear force structure and, perhaps, its nuclear doctrine. Let's look at doctrine first.

In their study of Chinese nuclear forces, Drs. Bates Gill (of the Brookings Institution) and James Mulvenon (of RAND Corporation) make a useful distinction between operational doctrine and aspirational1 In China, they argue, doctrinal discussion of "limited deterrence" focuses military planners on counter-force concepts that go beyond the "minimal deterrence" doctrine that has guided Chinese deployments to date. While some U.S. analysts see the "limited deterrence" concept as guiding China's ongoing nuclear force modernization, Drs. Gill and Mulvenon see Chinese planners as separating their aspirations from their sense of what is realistic for their country.

China's discussion of "limited deterrence" underlies the claim by some U.S. supporters of national missile defense that China is already working to field much larger strategic nuclear forces, and will not react militarily, therefore, to our deployment of a limited national missile defense. By the same token, however, the acceptance of an impenetrable missile defense as an aspirational objective by many U.S. supporters of the limited national missile defense can be expected to influence foreign analyses of our intentions and of our likely future forces.

The fact is, "Star Wars" has influenced and continues to influence Chinese perceptions and planning. It may already have affected Chinese plans and programs, and to the extent that we pursue a "layered" national missile defense, we will influence defense planning and investment in both Russia and China. In my view, the risks of Russian and Chinese overreaction, or an arms race in Asia, and of undermining our vital non-proliferation efforts are far too great to warrant pursuit of a "layered" national missile defense at this time.

Now let's look at force structure and the "collateral damage" to U.S. security which could flow from a hasty decision to deploy NMD.

Again, turning to Gill and Mulvenon. They write:

"Clearly, China cannot be allowed to dictate U.S. national security decisions. But ignoring its concerns and likely reactions could jeopardize the security benefits that a national missile defense would be designed to provide." I couldn't agree more.

How might China respond? First, it would almost certainly accelerate the development of systems that could penetrate a missile shield decoys, shrouded warheads, perhaps multiple warheads. Gill and Mulvenon speculate that China might even sell these cheap countermeasures to North Korea, Iran, Pakistan or others rendering America's costly system either irrelevant or in constant need of upgrades.

As Gill and Mulvenon detail, China might also speed up military programs that have nothing to do with intercontinental weapons. By building up its force of short- and medium- range nuclear missiles, China could drive a wedge between the United States and its friends in East Asia. Some are already worried that the United States will fold up the "nuclear umbrella" under which it is committed to protect its allies. Under such conditions, our allies might seek to build up their own missile and nuclear deterrents, leading to greater instability in the region.

If China were to increase its strategic nuclear forces so as to counter our missile defense, it might well decide to MIRV its missiles. After all, that's how you field lots of warheads without having to build so many missiles.

China's nuclear doctrine has been based upon an ability to absorb a first strike and then respond. Will they maintain that doctrine if they MIRV their ICBM's? Will they be confident that we can't target their new mobile ICBM's? Or will they put them on "hair-trigger" alert? China has little or no missile warning capability, so a China with MIRV's on hair-trigger alert is not a comforting thought.

Consider, also, just how China would MIRV its missiles. Some experts believe that in order to field small enough warheads, China would have to resume nuclear testing. That would put a stake through the heart of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, and perhaps the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as well. Does that give us greater security?

Most outside experts accept that China's response could have a dangerous ripple effect on India and Pakistan. If China increases its ICBM force, India is very likely to do the same and Pakistan would surely respond to any Indian increases.

Neither India nor Pakistan is likely to target us, of course, but they are all too likely to use their weapons against each other. Neither country has an effective missile warning system. Neither country has mature command and control systems. Neither country has a comprehensive doctrine controlling the possible use of nuclear weapons. A nuclear arms race between them would increase the risk of a terrible nuclear war.

Political context, Star Wars

What made President Clinton's decision to defer a deployment decision to the next administration courageous was its political context. Behind all the substantive arguments for NMD now, you've got a bunch of conservative Republicans fighting to realize Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" ambition. When George W. Bush calls for "effective missile defenses, based on the best available options," one door that he is leaving open is the door to "Star Wars," a space-based system that theoretically could protect all countries against every missile. It remains an appealing notion, however romantic, and it is no wonder that many people endorse the idea, especially if they have not thought through all of the consequences.

Where should we go from here, on missile defense? President Clinton's speech at Georgetown University summarized the missile defense challenge for the next administration: "We should use this time to ensure that NMD, if deployed, would actually enhance our overall national security."

How can America best do that? A good start would be to heed the advice of Senator Hagel:

"Decisions on missile defense cannot develop in a vacuum. The effort to build a national missile defense must move forward on four parallel tracks technology, Congress, our allies, and the Russians.... All of these must converge at roughly the same time. There will be dangerous consequences for America and the world if we rush to meet arbitrary deadlines and leave one or more of the tracks incomplete."

Is there a future for national missile defense? I remain a skeptic. I wonder whether a national missile defense worthy of the name will ever be workable. I wonder whether we will ever be able to deploy it without prompting reactions that will make us less secure, rather than more so. I wonder whether spending in excess of $60 billion for a limited NMD systems makes sense when the Intelligence Community has concluded that in the unlikely event that a "rogue" state or terrorist attempts to strike the U.S. with a nuclear bomb, they will most likely use a delivery system other than a ballistic missile.

Boost-phase option

Still, I do not reject the idea of a national missile for all time. Rather, I believe that a lot of political legwork needs to be done before we will be in a position to make the transition from a world of "mutual assured destruction" to one in which deterrence and defense complement each other.

In my view, transforming our relations with China is a vital prerequisite to any final decision on NMD. NMD and China are inexorably linked, as Ambassador Jim Lilley so candidly admitted on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer when he named China as the real threat which demands the development of national missile defenses. Perhaps China and the United States might be able to agree to limit both China's strategic weapons and our defenses, especially if we were to adopt Dr. Richard Garwin's boost-phase intercept approach to national missile defense. Garwin's idea at least merits some serious exploration.

Even a boost-phase intercept system, however, will not clear away all the political and technical hurdles to winning China's support for NMD. For one thing, China's reaction to any U.S. arms control initiative will be colored by its resentment over our insistence that Taiwan's future be determined peacefully. China also regrets our decision not to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, a decision which has caused many in Beijing to question Washington's commitment to nuclear arms control and to the existing structure of non-proliferation regimes.

Even if we get China to think about a boost-phase, rather than terminal phase, intercept system, we will have to deal with the fact that a boost-phase system targeted at the North Korean threat could also intercept some of China's current strategic weapons. That means China would have to deploy its modernized weapons at new (or enlarged) bases outside the interceptor's range.

But the picture is not entirely bleak. A strategic arms agreement would offer China significant reassurance and would confer symbolic acceptance of China's role as a great power. It would leave China's minimal deterrence force intact. There are also technological advantages to Dr. Garwin's proposal, notably the ability of a boost-phase interceptor to destroy a missile before it can deploy countermeasures. It might well make sense, therefore, to develop a boost-phase intercept system and to at least explore the possibility of an agreement with China that would reconcile it to our deployment of such a system.

An ounce of prevention...

Most importantly, however, we should pursue diplomatic options to lessen or remove the long-range ballistic missile threat. Russia and China can do more to encourage North Korea to back away from its long-range missile development and export programs; we should encourage both of them to do so. We should also drive the point home that assistance to Iran's ballistic missile programs could lead us to deploy a missile defense system that neither Russia nor China would like.

Changing North Korea's behavior is never easy. Given the high stakes here, however, I believe it's well worth the try. Were the North Korean ballistic missile threat to be removed, we could gain several more years in which to develop and test the best technological approach to national missile defense, and also to work diplomatically to bring other countries along.

Were North Korea also to cease its support for other countries' ballistic missile programs, and were Russia and China to do the same, I frankly think we could do without a national missile defense. We could also use that substantial easing of the threat to take the time that would be needed to develop a great-power consensus on missile defense.

Never have we been in as favorable a position as we are today, to press our case for an end to North Korea's long-range missile activities. North Korea has demanded a billion dollars a year, plus Western help in its space launch program, in return for ending its long-range missile development and sales programs. We need not accept usurious demands, or provide assistance that would give North Korea a ballistic missile break-out capability. At the same time, all of us could imagine compromises on those issues that would make a deal workable for us.

National missile defense sparks a debate between our fears and our hopes. We rightly fear a world in which desperate dictators might threaten us with long-range missiles and weapons of mass destruction. Those who see no hope of transforming that world seek salvation in technology, even though this could bring further instability as the world reacts to our actions.

In fact, however, our development of missile defense technology and our consideration of whether to deploy an initial national defense have captured the world's attention and made it aware of the ballistic missile threat. Our next President should capitalize on that success by securing cooperation among the nuclear powers and regional leaders to alleviate the missile threat. Then, if necessary, he should build an international consensus to protect us against those threats that cannot be removed through diplomatic means.

Future generations will judge us not by whether we deployed the first possible missile defense, but rather by what sort of world we left them. We must focus on our real objective, a world of strategic stability and great-power cooperation. Thus may we master ballistic missile defense, rather than being slaves to it.

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