September 2001

INESAP Newsletter


Bush, Missiles, and Defenses
by Otfried Nassauer

On May 1, George W. Bush held his first speech on security issues, making it very clear that the Bush administration is opting for a strategy-oriented approach. First things first. Let’s clarify our interests, define the strategy and the means to best serve our interests, and then let’s come to the details of implementation, the decisions on new weapon systems, the details of arms control, unilateral initiatives, and political tactics. "Top to bottom", as one administration official said.

The self-set goal of the new administration is Herculean. The intended shifts in defense policy, strategy and postures as well as in the overall security policy can be compared with those of the McNamara reforms in the early 1960īs, which resulted in giving up the strategy of ‘massive retaliation’ and adopting ‘flexible response’. They are likely to become as controversial as McNamara’s reforms. There are good reasons to explore whether there is a strategy better than deterrence to secure peace and maintain stability in the Post-Cold War world. However, whether Bush’s revolution in strategic affairs will be convincing and enhance stability is far from clear. On the contrary, there is good reason to doubt such an outcome.

With only six months in office, the new administration has made substantial headway in promoting its agenda for a new Post-Cold War strategic framework. Using the promotion of missiles defenses and critique of the ABM Treaty as door-openers, the Bush administration successfully raised the issues at the heart of its own agenda: transforming deterrence and arms control to serve US national interests in a formerly bipolar world. As of the time of writing, progress has been made in de-constructing what was believed to guarantee stability over the last fifty years – deterrence based on mutual assured vulnerability and destruction on the one hand and treaty based arms control to avoid irrational arms races on the other hand. Much less progress has been made in credibly outlining the details of the administration’s proposals for a new approach, the new strategic framework.

The hurdles in implementing an entirely new policy have also become more substantial. The Democratic Party has gained control of the US Senate. Allies and other states concerned have raised serious questions. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld indicated he will need significantly more time to make his mind up about America’s future strategy and priorities. He will probably need much more money, as well. Two summits between Presidents Bush and Putin have taken place with at least two more coming up in the course of this year. And – partially as a consequence of the changing environment – President Bush has not yet taken the opportunity to provide a further outline of his strategic thinking.

Missile defense

Missile Defense seems to be at the core of the new administration’s policy. While avoiding the announcement of any details about the system’s architecture and concrete deployment plans, on May 1 President Bush presented his general outline. "We need new concepts of deterrence that rely on both offensive and defensive forces. Deterrence can no longer be based solely on the threat of nuclear retaliation", he argued. "Cold war deterrence is no longer enough." In elaborating on the defenses to be introduced into the traditional deterrence equation, the Bush administration has announced a number of changes: first, there is no longer to be a "national" missile defense system. Strategic and theater elements of missile defense will be dealt with under the same rubric – missile defense. Thus there will no longer be room for allied arguments that the US might seek to de-couple. Second, the new administration is committed to a multi-layered system that will no longer be restrained to ground-based interceptors. This gives higher priority to regional missile defense systems, such as the NATO Integrated Extended Air Defense System (NATINEADS) to be explored over the next couple of years. Many allies have already declared their interest in joining such an exploration of defenses against medium-range ballistic missiles with ranges from 1,000 to 3,000 kilometers. Other missile defense options to be positively evaluated by the US include sea- and air-based systems, boost-phase intercept technologies, and last but not least space-based assets including weapons. Most of the elements of Ronald Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ concept will be revived. Research and development funding for space domination and missile defense technologies will be substantially increased.

Bush has announced that his administration has identified some options for near-term deployment. However, it has taken a protracted period for initial concrete steps to be taken. A national test bed for missile defenses will soon be built in Alaska – which will have an initial capability to host less than ten interceptor missiles. Trees are already being cut down at one of the sites to allow construction work to begin in 2002. The Bush administration will conduct more frequent and rapid testing but it has not identified which of its planned tests would require a decision on the fate of the ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) Treaty. However it has indicated that by October or November a decision would be required on whether to withdraw from the ABM Treaty. Thus, consultations on a new strategic framework with Russia are taking place under severe time constraints. Administration officials have made it clear, that they would prefer unilateral withdrawal from the ABM Treaty rather than deliberately violating it, if no consensus with Russia could be reached in time. However, near and mid-term operational deployments are likely to concentrate on increasingly capable theater and regional missile defense systems based at sea, land, or in the air and thus reflect more immediate risks from short and medium-range missiles.

Overriding policy considerations may have led the administration to follow a radical path. Without a majority in the influential US Senate, the President and his administration may have opted for a more right-wing stance to increase the pressure on both the US Senate as well as foreign opponents of missile defense. This path will serve overriding policy goals of changing US strategy and the future role of arms control.

To overcome Russia’s objections and win its cooperation in giving up the ABM Treaty, Moscow will be offered a substantial package of incentives: deep cuts into current nuclear arsenals, re-allowing MIRVed warheads on ICBMs (i.e. (Multiple Independently Re-Targetable Vehicles on Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles), extended cooperation on early warning, joint missile defense exercises, political and technological cooperation in developing regional missile defense systems, and the integration of some of the more promising Russian missile defense technologies into a European-Russian regional system. An offer for increased mutual transparency in nuclear affairs plus some economic incentives might well be part of such an initiative. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice made the point, when arguing: "We want to convince the Russians that it is in their best interest to move beyond the ABM Treaty and to develop a new relationship with us." Convincing Russia will require substantial offers of cooperation, to have any chance of succeeding. However, Russia will be given no say in the US decision to deploy a missile defense system, or on the schedule of events. Administration officials have been eager to make this point.

Centering the debate around missile defenses facilitates the achievement of a second goal, more important to the Bush administration: It helps to open the debate about the concept of deterrence, the future role of nuclear weapons, the logic of stability, and the function of arms control. Donald Rumsfeld recently argued "(…) a paradigm shift tends not to be instantaneously understood."

The future of deterrence

The Bush administration seems to favor a new concept of deterrence that gives the US more flexibility, more freedom of action, and allows it to exploit the advantages of superior US capabilities. While the new administration argues it wants to move away from a concept of deterrence which is based on ‘Mutual Assured Destruction’ (MAD), a closer look at President Bush’s speech and the remarks made by other members of his administration indicate that the new administration will strive for a different goal. It wishes to decrease (or even eliminate) the role of the second principle that deterrence has traditionally been based on – mutual assured vulnerability.

While discussing missile defense with a reluctant Russia, the new administration points out that – although both sides might sharply reduce their nuclear arsenals – Russia’s future nuclear posture will continue to be capable of penetrating US missile defenses with devastating results. Thus to Russia the US would remain vulnerable whilst the situation with ‘rogue nations’ or ‘states of concern’ would be entirely different. They would not find the US vulnerable to their more limited capabilities and would face US offensive conventional and nuclear capabilities, modernized and adapted to be credibly capable of threatening them.

China is dealt with as a special case. Since China’s current long-range nuclear posture is nearly as small as the postures to be possibly acquired by some ‘rogue states’, China will be left with the decision to either invest in enlarging its long-range nuclear forces or else face a situation in which it could no longer credibly deter the US. Bush administration officials have indicated that the US would not attack China politically, if Beijing opted to increase its arsenal. They indicated that the US and China could even find some common ground in their mutual interest, by possibly resuming underground nuclear testing at some time in the future. While predicting that China would inevitably modernize its strategic forces and dismissing concerns about a regional nuclear arms race in Asia, the administration expects China to add a few tens of additional missiles, which the US could deal with easily by re-targeting some of its own strategic weapons from Russia to China. These indications reflect a decisive departure from Washington’s decade-long policy of persuading other nuclear powers not to modernize or enlarge their arsenals.

Those in the Bush administration who whish to develop this new concept of deterrence hope to reduce or eliminate the effects of self-deterrence, at least in conflicts with opponents with less WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) capability. They claim this will happen in two ways. On the one hand, defenses against ballistic missile threats will make such threats against the US less credible and thus less likely to occur. No such opponent could any longer be sure to find the US vulnerable. At the same time the decision on whether or not to retaliate against (or attack) such an opponent with nuclear weapons could be eased for the US, if the US nuclear posture would offer more flexible and adaptable means than it does today. Here opponents of the CTBT (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty) and proponents of developing new nuclear weapons see their chance. Today’s nuclear posture often leaves the US with a decision on whether or not to use high yield, multiple warhead nuclear weapons against a single target often to be found in highly populated areas. The inevitable collateral damage and political consequences would in all likelihood result in a decision not to use nuclear weapons. However, if the US had the option to conduct limited and precisely targeted attacks with low-yield single warhead long-range weapons resulting in minimum collateral damage, it might be easier to take the decision to actually use nuclear weapons. It would also be easier to pursue targets such as the opponent’s core leadership bunkers. Both ideas – that of threatening leaders of ‘rogue states’ with ‘decapitation’ and a mixture of offensive and defensive capabilities to render foreign WMD useless - are reminiscent of those voiced during the early years of the Reagan administration. This is not accidental. Keith B. Payne, one of Donald Rumsfeld’s most influential advisors on nuclear issues, co-authored an article during Ronald Reaganīs presidency entitled Victory is Possible, which reflected very similar ideas. More recently, an article in Strategic Review discussed options for leadership targeting. It was written by Caspar Weinberger, Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Defense.

For decades US strategists have been hoping to reduce the impact of self-deterrence on US decision-makers. The Bush administration offers them another opportunity to make their case. Options to increase the flexibility and military effectiveness of the US nuclear posture and for deliberate decision-making on the political level would strengthen their case.

The future of arms control

Donald Rumsfeld believes the ABM Treaty to be a relic of "ancient history" rather than a "cornerstone of stability". From his perspective the treaty prohibits stability rather than ensuring it. Thus, as President Bush said on May 1, "we must move beyond the ABM Treaty. This treaty does not recognize the present, or point us to the future. It enshrines the past." The attack on the ABM Treaty has a second, more important function. It opens the door for a discussion on the future role of arms control and questions the overall logic of arms control. There are numerous other arms control treaties that might be said to enshrine the past and prohibit the development of "promising technology to defend ourselves". When only half a year in office, the Bush administration successfully made a case of questioning a wide range of arms control efforts. The ABM Treaty is its most visible example. Bush administration officials have engaged in weakening the CTBT. They signaled to China, that both countries might have an interest in resuming nuclear testing. The DoE (US Department of Energy) publicly considered reducing the time necessary to restart nuclear testing to 18 months or even less than a year. John Bolton, the Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, launched a legal inquiry into whether the administration was entitled to withdraw the CTBT from congressional consideration. The Administration is engaged in reducing the urgency by which international meetings – in the NATO or G8 context – demand an early enforcement of this treaty.

Bush administration officials effectively terminated efforts to add verification to the biological weapons convention, to limit the illicit trade in small arms, and indirectly signaled their willingness to give up on START-II becoming a legally binding treaty by telling Moscow that they might accept it if Russia introduces an SS-27 ICBM carrying multiple warheads which is currently prohibited under START-II. Other treaties to come under increased criticism and scrutiny can already be identified. The Outer Space Treaty, just like the ABM Treaty, is likely to be viewed as contradicting efforts to ensure US dominance in space. The INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty has been criticized as limiting options to exploit opportunities for future conventional weapons.

As with redefining deterrence, the Bush administration is in search of greater unilateral flexibility as well as fewer binding restrictions – a position favored by the more powerful player, with its ability to exploit such flexibility. Less emphasis on treaty-based arms control does not necessarily result in no further disarmament. Unilateral steps of disarmament, unless codified in treaties, remain reversible and provide for greater flexibility.

The Bush administration is likely to deliver a first proof soon. Unilateral cuts into the expensive and huge US nuclear posture are set to be announced in the context of convincing Russia as to the need for a ‘new strategic framework’.

The number of nuclear weapons to be kept operational could be reduced below the 2.000 to 2.500 warhead limit envisaged for a future START-III treaty. Depending on whether Russia is prepared to react by announcing similar cuts and whether sub-strategic weapons will be included in such an initiative, a reduction to as few as 1.000 to 1.500 or even fewer operational weapons seems possible. Moscow has suggested a limit of 1.500. However, Russia’s arsenal is rusting so quickly that it seems unlikely that it will be able to maintain more than 1.000 weapons in a decade. Thus there is a strong incentive for Moscow to agree. The deeper the cuts, the more likely that the new US administration will win Russia’s support for mutual unilateral movements. Russia would agree that it too might benefit from flexibility to rearm in case China or one of the lesser nuclear powers not bound by bilateral treaties would sharply increase its arsenal. Such a move could result from attempts by these countries to ensure their capability to penetrate an increasing future US missile defense capability.

As of writing it remains unclear how far US unilateral step-by-step reductions might go. The option using unilateral cuts to convince Russia as well as others that the new administration is serious about disarmament competes with the strictly unilateralist approach of conducting cuts limited to what is obviously in the US national interest, i.e. not to spend too much on the nuclear posture. However, the net result of the upcoming initiative would be in any case convenient for the United States. Reserve postures and hedges are likely to be contained in the small print of any such initiative. They would allow for timely and substantial rearmament. Offers to Russia to abolish the current ban on MIRVed ICBMs could well be linked to avoiding the entry-into-force of START-2 and thus add much flexibility in rebuilding the US nuclear arsenal, if need be. Washington will have a much stronger capability than Russia to do so. Unilateral cuts allow Washington to play its owns strengths against the weaknesses of other nuclear powers.

However, it is far from clear that unilateral nuclear reductions can compensate for the damage likely to result to the overall arms control and non-proliferation acquis. The US administration argues that it is pursuing a strategy of strengthening non-proliferation and building defenses against successful proliferation. At the same time it has been sending disturbing signals. Talks with North Korea on the North Korean missile programs have been temporarily put on hold, funding nuclear disarmament, nuclear security, and nuclear non-proliferation efforts in Russia has been reduced; and the draft for a biological weapons convention verification protocol under negotiation in Geneva has not received the new administration’s support. These decisions point to a wider problem: Striving for flexibility and fewer restrictions in a unilateral sense might make real those proliferation risks which are said to make the new administration’s shifts in strategy a necessity.

The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, has moved to present an alternative approach, breaking a taboo of Cold War arms control negotiations. He suggested to the visiting French President, Jacques Chirac, that the five established nuclear powers should negotiate a treaty setting an upper limit of 4.000 warheads on their combined nuclear arsenals.

Arguing with the Bush administration

The new administration’s planned changes have met with government opposition and serious concerns in the international arena.

Countries like Russia and China as well as allies have raised their opposition or serious concerns. The arguments presented reflect different tactics. One tactic attempts to raise questions, buy time, and present opinions only after details of the US proposals are presented. Many NATO allies argue that unless details are known, no final judgment can be made. A second tactic spells out political conditions to be met to make the Bush administration’s plans acceptable. Central to this strategy is the idea to safeguard the achievements of the arms control and non-proliferation regimes before changing or eliminating the ABM Treaty as well to take Russia’s interests into account and to avoid regional arms races. Third, some countries are trying to raise the price to be paid by the US for their agreement to US plans to build missile defenses. Russia might well follow this tactic while being well aware that it cannot prevent unilateral decisions by the new US administration. Finally, there are those who oppose the plans in principle. China is the most outstanding example.

While valid points and serious arguments are raised, the criticism falls short of meeting the most crucial need. With the possible exemption of concerns in respect to the arms control and non-proliferation acquis, there has been no challenge to the new administration’s attempt to form a new deterrence strategy, to create a new role and concept of arms control and to achieve flexibility in defining stability in a unilateralist approach. Thus the critics are likely to fail.

Achieving deep nuclear cuts, some de-alerting, a devaluation of nuclear weapons in the US-Russian relations and some confidence-building measures might silence those asking for the maintenance of the arms control acquis. Russia might agree as soon as the political prize offered is sufficient. Russia’s agreement will put an end to the argument that Moscow should not be alienated. China’s opposition and the risk of regional arms races in Asia might seem either not important enough or too far away to be made a matter of principle. Thus, the Bush administration might well get more of what it wants. Not in every detail, but in its central principle – a new deterrence for a second nuclear age, which allows the US to play its strengths against other WMD powers weaknesses.

Missile defense critics from all camps will have to refine if not rethink their arguments. The Bush administration is not the Clinton administration. While the latter worked bottom up, the former works top down. Thus there is no longer a sustainable way of prevaling this debate while concentrating opposition on single issues, such as details of a future missile defense system, the nuclear posture, or plans for the military use of space. What needs to be confronted is the concept itself, the new vision of deterrence, the logic of a ‘second nuclear age’.

An effective strategy might consider attacking the underlying premises and assumptions of the debate about a new deterrence concept, such as the threat assessment and the assumptions about the logic of actors. Or it might present a counter-strategy of action, realistically promising success, e.g. by eliminating ‘projected threats’, such as the North Korean and Iranian missile threats by other, non-military means, and thus strengthen international arms control and non-proliferation regimes. Ideally, it would do both at the same time.

However, coping with the Bush administration’s approach will remain difficult. The reason for this is quite simple. Any discussion of deterrence and stability under the auspices of deterrence will come to discuss theological and dogmatic beliefs. At the end of day, neither side can really prove the validity and credibility of its arguments. Was deterrence effective in safeguarding the world against the Cold War becoming a hot one? All participants, if honest, while answering such questions, have to admit that there is no way they could present a final proof for their belief. Thus the debating ground is rendered ideal for strong believers such as George W. Bush.

, Berlin Information-center for Transatlantic Security (BITS)