As part of its required review of U.S. defense policies and plans, the Department of Defense undertook a series of studies — the most significant of which was the recently-published 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). Among the other studies were a new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and the first ever Ballistic Missile Defense Review (BMDR). The NPR has been repeatedly delayed, apparently due to major disagreements within the Obama Administration over key elements of nuclear policy and arms control. The BMDR was published at the same time as the QDR and promptly disappeared from sight.
One reason that the BMDR sank without a trace is that the QDR wrote a check that the BMDR couldn’t cash. Put simply, the QDR stated that the United States will pursue new, tailored, regional deterrence architectures, including missile defenses, which in combination with new (presumably conventional prompt global strike) capabilities would make possible a reduced role for nuclear weapons in our national security strategy. Since prompt global strike is many years away, assuming that technical, arms control and verification issues can be resolved, and U.S. regional conventional military capabilities will remain relatively unchanged or even decline over the next decade, the only basis for reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy and regional deterrence must be due to the capabilities of U.S. and allied missile defenses.
As the BMDR explicitly acknowledges, the U.S. doesn’t have the resources to provide high confidence missile defense either of the U.S. homeland or of our deployed forces, friends and allies. In the event of a greater-than-expected threat to the homeland, the BMDR proposes drawing from the supply of ground-based midcourse interceptors acquired for testing to fill empty silos being built in Alaska. With respect to theater missile defenses, the only answer from the BMDR, in the near-term, is to have mobile defenses so we can rush our defensive capabilities from one theater to another. What happens if there are threats in two regions simultaneously? We and some allies will be out of luck.
Over the longer term, the BMDR places a lot of faith in new capabilities which have yet to prove themselves or, in some cases, even be invented. The review makes much of advanced versions of the Standard Missile 3, the first of which may be available by the end of the coming decade. There is the Precision Targeting and Space System, the old Space Surveillance and Track System, which right now consists of only two test satellites launched to demonstrate the concept. There are vague concepts for UAV-based sensors or forward deployed radars that would allow launch of the SM-3 remotely, thereby extending the range at which a ballistic missile can be intercepted. Yes, down the road, with land and sea-based versions of the SM-3, more capable interceptors and space and airborne sensors, the U.S. may be able to deploy highly capable missile defenses. But that vision is decades from being realized.
Ultimately, the BMDR failed because it has nothing new or interesting to say. The programmatic changes it discussed had virtually all been implemented months earlier. The concept of tailored regional deterrence strategies was neither new nor interesting; the United States has been pursuing such a policy for decades. When it came to the question of how missile defenses could allow the United States to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in its national security strategy, the BMDR was silent.
The administration’s effort to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons rests on the fundamental fallacy that this country possesses such overwhelming conventional superiority that it can deter the use of weapons of mass destruction (chemical, biological or nuclear). U.S. conventional superiority was unable to deter Saddam Hussein twice. But even were conventional deterrence truly reliable, adversaries seek weapons of mass destruction precisely because of U.S. conventional superiority. That is also why they are burying their most valuable targets, making them relatively impervious to conventional attack. If anything, the threat to develop new conventional weapons able to achieve the effects of a nuclear weapon will prompt potential adversaries to accelerate their weapons of mass destruction programs. Russian military leaders have for decades made it clear that they see the use of such advanced conventional weapons as a trigger for nuclear retaliation. Ultimately, it is only the existence of an escalatory ladder and this country’s demonstrable ability to mount that ladder step-by-step in the face of aggression that truly deters.
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