NATO Nuclear Policy, National Missile Defence, and Alternative Security Arrangements
Simon’s Foundation & Project Ploughshares
Ottawa, September 28-30, 2000

NMD - The Consequences for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation

Otfried Nassauer



I. Introduction

On September 1, President Clinton announced that the United States would not yet begin construction of a National Missile Defense (NMD) system. "I simply cannot conclude with the information I have today that we have enough confidence in the technology, and the operational effectiveness of the entire NMD system, to move forward to deployment", he said. His decision was widely welcomed for allowing more time to assess both the need as well as the consequences of such a decision.

However, the debate is neither over nor are the risks that might result from an NMD deployment under control. Furthermore, NMD is the tip of an iceberg called "missile defences". Regional theater missile defence concepts, land and sea based, are part of the necessary concerns as well. Most missile defence concepts will have a major impact on the future of arms control and non-proliferation. Thus, investigating and judging the arms control and non-proliferation consequences of missiles defences is not just a question for Washington. The major Asian nations, Europe, Russia and the US all, in some way or another, are discussing missile defence concepts.

The core questions to be answered in this debate are: "Can we make sure that non-proliferation continues to be the absolute priority? Can we avoid that military counter-proliferation is becoming more and more the reaction of choice, while dealing with weapons of mass destruction? What is our perspective of the future: A world from which we will finally eliminate nuclear weapons or one in which we will have to increase our preparedness to fight them – along with other weapons of mass destruction?

There was no alternative to Clinton’s recent decision on NMD. The system is technologically not ready to begin construction. Policy problems remain with US-allies as well as with Russia and China. The US administration is not yet prepared to finally take the decision on the future of nuclear arms control and non-proliferation.

According to official explanations NMD will defend North America against accidental or unauthorised missile attacks as well as attacks by states of concerns that own limited numbers of ICBMs. However the system’s capabilities might become sufficient to also defend against the ICBM-forces of a lesser nuclear power, such as China. China is believed to currently own around twenty ICBMs – some analysts give numbers as low as seven. For about two years, China and Russia voiced their strong opposition to NMD and have announced that their countries would resort to substantial countermeasures, if NMD would be deployed. Western, specifically US analysts tended to dismiss this criticism by pointing out that both countries opposition was likely to be of a purely tactical nature, the counter-actions were unlikely to be implemented and partially directed against the interests of the country threatening to take them and thus lacking credibility.

In this paper, there is no need to discuss the individual Chinese and Russian reactions in detail. There is also no need to repeat the well-known critique of the plans for NMD. I want to make a more general approach and argument. I would like to assess NMD for its consequences from inside the logic of deterrence.

NMD is a concept that has no principal limits to its future capabilities. The capabilities of NMD can theoretically grow without a natural limit to the number of missiles it could intercept. It could also be extended to later encompass those elements of Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars vision that today still seem to be futuristic. Thus, in this paper, I’m looking into the consequences of missile defence concepts for the future of arms control, non-proliferation and the logic of deterrence1.

The deployment of NMD, but also of TMD systems will probably have a severe impact on the future of arms control, non-proliferation and the basic logic of deterrence. The most important aspects are

  • the possibility that the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons will become even more unlikely or even unachievable

  • an increasing likelihood that existing non-proliferation regimes will be weakened or even collapse

  • a further destabilisation of the concept of deterrence combined with a loss of predictability in the action-reaction scheme of states owning weapons of mass destruction and

  • an increasing risk that multilateral security systems will be de-valued to the advantage of unilateralism.

NATO’s review of the Alliance’s arms-control, disarmament and non-proliferation policy, due to be delivered during the December 2000 Ministerial, is an excellent opportunity to present an initial assessment of these issues.



II. NMD and the Future of Nuclear Disarmament

It does not make a difference, whether the US intends to deploy a limited or an ever more capable missile defence system. Other countries’ perceptions of US intentions and possible future capabilities are more influential when considering their reactions and the actions they might take. In fact the perceptions of other countries and the options they want to retain will have a stronger influence on their arms-control and non-proliferation behaviour than the actual need to respond to an initial US deployment of NMD.

This said, it is worth looking at some of the consequences, NMD might have. Obviously the deployment of an NMD capability will influence China sooner than Russia. China’s limited strategic nuclear posture might – from Beijing’s perspective – no longer guarantee the country’s’ capability to properly and effectively respond to a US nuclear attack, based on a worst case scenario, i.e. a combination of a first strike and an existing NMD of some limited capability. China will therefore seek to increase its nuclear posture to restore the country’s capability to retaliate. Growing future (assumed) capabilities of a US NMD system will also influence China’s decision on how to modernise and upgrade her own strategic capabilities. As with the US NMD system there is no natural limit to that type of growth. In a worst case scenario China could feel the need to enter a full scale arms race2.

Russia’s capability to deter is unlikely to loose credibility in the near term future. However, it might become affected in the longer run. Moscow knows, that her strategic nuclear systems are ageing and deteriorating quickly. Natural degradation might reduce the country’s active stockpile to well below 1.000 strategic warheads by the end of the decade3. In addition, Russian military planners are likely to take into account the growing effectiveness of modernised US Trident systems in first strike scenarios. Thus, they might perceive a need to resist treaty based or unilateral deep cuts into the future Russian strategic posture long before it would de facto loose its credibility. Like China, they might want to reserve their options to effectively counter the future capabilities of a stronger US NMD.

Even short of the worst case scenarios the adverse effects of deploying an NMD system for the future of nuclear arms control are obvious and will become visible.

The most often quoted victims are the ABM-treaty, and as a consequence the START-Treaties and the INF-Treaty. Indeed, these treaties might not survive an NMD deployment. Strategic stability until now was based on both, the US and Russia, behaving somewhat like boxers. Both were up for a hard fight, but none violated the rules. None fought with full-body protection. Thus, both remained vulnerable. This is the core function of the ABM-Treaty. The discussion about these treaties is well known. I’ll not go further into it.

However, there is another important point. Participants in negotiations on future deep cuts into nuclear postures will perceive the situation to have become more complicated. The more capable US NMD capabilities are likely to become, the larger the number of nuclear weapons other countries might believe to be necessary to uphold nuclear deterrence. They also might simply seek to retain a legal option to increase their posture if necessary. Both steps would influence their approach when negotiating deep cuts. The current approach to negotiate the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons is likely to no longer work at some point. This approach assumes that consecutive steps of reduction will lead to ever smaller postures, first for the big two, Russia and the US, and then later for the lesser nuclear weapons powers. This approach assumes that it is possible to go from several thousands of warheads to hundreds, to low hundreds and finally to tens and/or zero.

The change likely to come into this equation via NMD and its growing capability to intercept an ever-increasing number of missiles is substantial. The number of warheads, NMD could or is believed to be able to intercept, would become a portion of the absolute minimum number of nuclear weapons that countries believe they will need. Military worst case thinking taking first use and first strike options into account, is likely to produce a much larger minimum. Thus first, the decision on whether to go right to zero in a single, final step or to stop the reduction process will have to be taken while an increasing number of nuclear weapons is still in service. Second, the decision will have to be taken, before countries have developed the confidence that they can live with very low numbers. Without NMD the approach to eliminate nuclear weapons step by step might finally work. With NMD it is highly unlikely to do so. Thus, a collapse of all attempts to eventually eliminate nuclear weapons becomes much more likely.


III. NMD and the Future of Non-Proliferation

The consequences of such a development for the NPT are obvious. Once it becomes clear that the nuclear weapon states are unlikely to eventually fulfil their commitment to complete nuclear disarmament, the commitment of the non-nuclear states to never acquire nuclear weapons is likely to erode. No matter, whether they will cite India, Pakistan, Israel, the renewed strategic nuclear build-up by China or NMD and its arms control effects as the reason for their decision, the number of countries likely to revisit their stand on the NPT will eventually grow as will the number of countries going nuclear.

Discussions about a future Fissile Material (Cut off) Treaty (FMT) are likely to fall victim to a future NMD deployment decision, too. Negotiating an FMT has long been on the international arms control agenda. During the 2000 NPT Review Conference for the first time a target date was set. Within the next five years a treaty should be negotiated.

Again, China provides us with a good example. China has been among those countries reluctant to negotiate an FMT. While most American experts believe, that China will eventually agree to such a treaty, some caution seems prudent. China’s stockpile of weapons grade nuclear materials is comparably small. DoE estimates that the country produced between 1.7 and 2.8 metric tons of weapons plutonium, much less than Britain or France. If Beijing concludes that it will have to increase its nuclear posture because the existing posture is losing the capability to credibly penetrate whatever future US missile defence will be built, fresh nuclear weapons materials will be necessary at some point. While China might build additional weapons initially from the existing stockpile, the longer-term sufficiency of this stockpile is likely to come under scrutiny from two perspectives. First, China might decide to retain the option to cope with any enlarged future US NMD system that is imaginable. This would require the country to keep at least the theoretical option to build hundreds if not thousands of nuclear warheads. Second, a limited nuclear build-up by China might trigger India and – in return - Pakistan to increase their posture. China, in anticipating such a development might in return want to keep the option to increase the number of her medium-range, non-strategic systems as well.

To keep both options open, China might refuse to negotiate an FMT, since the treaty would limit Beijing’s options during future decision-making. Since the FMT will be negotiated at the Geneva Conference on Disarmament, unanimous consensus is required to open the negotiations as well as for all other aspects of developing a treaty. China, Pakistan and India might share the political burden to prohibit or prolong the process. Some in Russia, alienated by an American decision to deploy NMD, might copy the Chinese argument for tactical reasons. However, additional countries might follow the three Asian nations and object to such negotiations as a matter of principle, believing that the treaty is no longer in their national interest. A chain reaction blocking progress on an FMT is entirely possible. This again will have a negative impact on the NPT-process4.


IV. Missile Defence and the Future of Deterrence

Finally, there is a wider risk that both, NMD and TMD systems will further destabilise deterrence. This problem is often overlooked and seldom subject to a more detailed analysis.

On the one hand the logic of deterrence becomes significantly more complicated with the appearance of additional nuclear actors such as India and Pakistan. Next to strategic deterrence system regional theatre one’s are emerging. Their dynamics and logic might run counter to the traditional strategic nuclear equation or they even might develop more or less completely independent. What suffers, is the predictability of the behaviour of nuclear weapon states during a crisis.

On the other hand, according to its proponents, nuclear deterrence is believed to have worked over the last 50 years, since both the US and Russia (the Soviet Union) were able to mutually destroy their societies plus the entire globe and thus had to develop patterns of behaviour rational enough to make their nuclear actions and reactions predictable and somewhat logical. Both (and also to some extent the lesser nuclear powers) developed a joint set of strong beliefs, similar to dogmatics in theology, that formed a basis for the system of deterrence. Fortunately these assumptions never had to be tested under real life conditions as to whether they were correct or would have proven irrational.

However, the deployment of an NMD system strongly affects that system of beliefs by increasing the predictability problems. It has the same consequence as the addition of new regional deterrence systems, encompassing new and more inexperienced nuclear actors. However, NMD is likely to have consequences that go well beyond. It will eventually add the requirement for a second system of joint beliefs, a second layer of thoughts similar to dogmatics in theology. If such a set were not to be developed, predictability and thus crisis stability would suffer. However, it is yet unclear, whether it is at all possible to develop such a joint set, if only one of the nuclear weapon states intends to build an NMD system. Furthermore, TMD systems are likely to result in similar problems when it comes to regional deterrence systems.

In effect, deterrence will be destabilised as both the addition of regional deterrence equations and missile defences increase the number of variables that need to be taken into account. The predictability of perceptions, actions and reactions of nuclear powers and among them will suffer and thus make deterrence less fail-safe.


V. Requirements for Developing Constructive Answers

Thus, is there any way out? Do we have a chance to avoid these developments? To judge, one needs to take a hard look at the core problem.

If someone strongly believes, that at some time in the future somebody else will point a gun at him and shoot him down, you cannot convince that person, that this will never happen. At least, as long as there are guns out there. You might decide to strengthen gun control, make stricter laws on gun-ownership and do whatever else you can, to assure him that everything is done to reduce the risk to him. You even might buy him a bullet-proof clothing. However, he will argue that you didn’t succeed to eliminate the risk. To make things worse, you might not be able to convince that person to give up his own guns, since he feels they offer part of his protection.

While this argument has a long history in legitimating deterrence, it also fits the discussion on missile defences. It indicates that the new set of beliefs is coming into play, the basic character of which currently is unilateral. Unless its character is changed to bilateral at minimum (or better multilateral) there is neither a simple nor a perfect solution. Maybe there is no real solution at all.

Thus the requirement is to think hard about the best possible options for the future. A number of different initiatives and steps might be useful.

  • Strengthening the non-proliferation regimes – Reducing the missile threat

Initiatives to strengthen non-proliferation and especially the MTCR regime obviously are one option. Proposal include the recent Russian suggestion for a Global Control System (GCS) for Non-Proliferation of Missiles and Missile Technologies and the US proposal for a code of conduct related to missile technology. Other options to strengthen the non-proliferation regimes exist (e.g. verification for BWC) and can be pursued more vigorously.

  • Speeding up nuclear reductions – for examples this author’s paper on "Options for Change" for this conference

  • Multilateral arms control for ballistic missiles

Options might include to revisit the idea of a freeze; the idea to multilateralize the INF-treaty on a regional or global basis; and to develop other confidence building measures that could reduce the incentives to develop ballistic missiles.

  • Restraining Ballistic Missile Defence

Options might include a multilateral treaty limiting missile defences to battlefield ranges (e.g. equivalent to MTCR ranges); an initiative to freeze ballistic missile developments;

  • Coalition of the willing – Is there an option for an Ottawa process on the issue of ballistic missiles and/or missile defences?

Selections from these and other options should be made while meeting some criteria, reflecting the core questions mentioned earlier. Steps taken should strengthen the priority of non-proliferation over fighting the results by military counter-proliferation. They should help to strengthen the commitment and ease the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. These criteria should be met independently of the outcome of the US elections to be held later this year.


VI. The ”Next Presidency” Aspect

The decision on whether to deploy a US NMD system has been left for the next US President. NATO’s arms control and non-proliferation review will also not be finalised until a new American administration comes in. Indeed, the next US President will already be elected when NATO discusses the interim report. A new presidency might mean changes to the US policy in NATO.

Many arms control minded analysts and scholars express their deep concerns over the possibility of an in-coming Republican administration and the consequences that might result for the future of nuclear arms control, non-proliferation politics and the future of multilateral arms control negotiations. The author of this paper shares these concerns, as far as the future of multilateral arms control is concerned. Multilateral arms-control is likely to suffer from a Republican administration. However, he does not fully share the concerns in respect to the general future of nuclear disarmament.

  • One should not take it for granted that a Bush administration would hurry into NMD deployment and immediately scrap the ABM-treaty. It might well choose instead to increase research and development funding for those elements of a national missile defence that received only limited funding during the Clinton years, namely technologies for space based elements, naval missile defence and for boost-phase intercept technologies. Indeed, the room to manoeuvre around an actual deployment decision for NMD is much greater for a Republican administration.

  • A Bush-administration might also be prepared to begin unilateral (reciprocal) steps of nuclear disarmament, cutting much deeper into current nuclear arsenals than might be expected by a Gore administration. Even more important, a Bush-administration might be able to mount the necessary congressional support to allow for the necessary change in US policy, while a democratic administration might be hampered by the same blockades, erected during the Clinton administration;

If so, those interested in the future of arms control and non-proliferation would need a strategy on how to deal with the new situation. Yet, three initial steps can be named that might prove helpful:

  1. Osgood’s GRID-concept of gradual unilateral reciprocal disarmament and its derivatives should be revisited when developing options for dealing constructively with unilateral initiatives possibly taken by a Republican administration;

  2. Research into developing intelligent options and increased pressure for binding a Republican administration’s unilateral steps of arms-control into strategies that support multilateralism should be conducted. A clear-cut NATO statement in support of the results of the recent NPT Review Conference might prove a useful initial tool having this effect; and

  3. Research needs also to be done on the thinking as well as policy record that future core members of a Bush-administration’s defence and foreign policy team had during their years in government under the previous Bush-administration.


Otfried Nassauer is Director of the Berlin Information-center for Transatlantic Security (BITS)



1 As a consequence of this specific approach some thoughts outlined in this paper might be perceived as uncritical of nuclear deterrence and some arguments made to support this concept. There was no option to avoid this unless writing a much longer analysis. The author is well aware of the fact that a much more critical analysis of the logic of deterrence is justified.

2 While China might decide for economic reasons to continue to maintain a minimal capability to overcome a US NMD system, Beijing also might decide to go after a much more capable deterrent or at least keep open the option to do so at a later point of time. In addition, China will consider the Indian and – as a consequence – the Pakistani reactions to her own decision. China thus will .structure her reaction to cope with all these elements and not just NMD.

3 Decisions about the future of the Russian nuclear forces taken during the National Security Council Meeting on August 11, 2000 indicate the awareness of the Russia elite to these problems.

4 However, to intentionally decrease the predictability of actions and reactions in the nuclear field may well have already become a major characteristic of post Cold War nuclear developments. In US national nuclear doctrine ambiguity over when US nuclear weapons might be used against which opponents and under which circumstances is playing an ever increasing role. Examples include that the US neither excludes the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states owning other weapons of mass destruction nor against non-state actors, such as terrorists or religious fanatics. These developments might well represent another "attack" on the traditional logic of deterrence and need to be analyzed more carefully.



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