Discussion on Missile Defense


On June 26, the Center for the National Interest hosted Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR), who spoke on the benefits of a more ambitious American Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) program. Senator Cotton was followed by a panel discussion on the risks and viability of long and intermediate-range BMD, featuring Joseph Cirincione, President of Ploughshares Fund, former Vice President for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress, former director for non-proliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and former staff director of the bipartisan Military Reform Caucus, and Rebeccah Heinrichs, a Fellow at the Hudson Institute and former congressional adviser on national security affairs who helped launch the bipartisan Missile Defense Caucus. Harry J. Kazianis, Director of Defense Studies at the Center for the National Interest and Executive Editor of The National Interest, moderated both sessions. The event can be viewed in its entirety on C-SPAN here. A summary of the event can be found below.

Senator Tom Cotton

Senator Cotton labeled North Korea’s advanced ballistic missile technology development the clearest and most pressing short-term threat to the American homeland. He identified the homeland’s defense as “the most basic premise of American grand strategy” and a persistent fixation in the American public’s consciousness from the establishment of the Monroe Doctrine to the post-9/11 War on Terror. Citing recent testimony from Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who described North Korea as the “most urgent and dangerous threat to peace and security that we face,” Senator Cotton emphasized the gravity of the danger posed by a North Korea with a missile capable of reaching the continental United States with nuclear, chemical, and biological payloads.

Senator Cotton also saw nuclear challenges from Iran, Russia, China, and Pakistan as long-term threats to U.S. national security. Cotton argued that, given instability and the influence of extremists, there is a risk that one of Pakistan’s roughly 130 nuclear weapons may fall into the hands of third parties intent on striking the United States or its allies. Were Iran to develop nuclear weapons, it too could sell or provide missiles to proxies, e.g. Yemeni extremists through Houthi allies, who presumably could not be deterred in the same way as states, Cotton said. China, the United States’ potential long-term peer competitor, has recently fielded 4 SSBNs (nuclear-powered, ballistic missile-carrying submarines), a credible sea-based nuclear deterrent, and incorporates intermediate-range missiles into its Anti-Access Area Denial doctrine. Finally, Russia, the nation which possesses the world’s largest nuclear arsenal and the only one capable of posing an existential threat to the United States, is modernizing its nuclear arsenal and has tested a ground-launched missile in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty—an arms limitation agreement signed between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1987. Senator Cotton also noted that there is reason to believe that both China and Russia would consider a nuclear first-use policy in a potential conflict. Chinese military journals have recently suggested discarding the nation’s established no-first-use policy; Russian doctrine relies upon nuclear escalation to compensate for conventional asymmetry, he said.

In light of these developments, Senator Cotton outlined a four-step plan for American national security, beginning first with increasing defense spending. This would involve repealing the Budget Control Act of 2011, which Cotton believes undercuts the stability and predictability needed for long-term military investments. Second, Cotton advocated developing integrated BMD systems, including ground, air, and space-based layers capable of stopping attacks from North Korea and Iran and, in the long-term, neutralizing or mitigating the threat posed by the larger arsenals of Russia and China. Third, Cotton recommended supporting BMD deployment in American-allied states, such as THAAD in South Korea, Japan, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, as well as Aegis Destroyers at sea and Aegis Ashore platforms in Bulgaria, Poland, and elsewhere in Europe. Finally, Cotton argued that the United States should reevaluate its commitment to the INF Treaty in order to pressure Russia into compliance with the treaty’s restrictions on intermediate-range missile testing.

Senator Cotton insisted that the United States must invest in a significant build-up of interceptors in order to compensate for their imperfect success rate, so as to ensure that adversaries’ quantitatively superior missiles cannot simply overwhelm American BMD. Given the range of threats, Senator Cotton concluded that the U.S. military must “be agile, and flexible, and dominant in every domain and region, and part of that dominance is missile defense, not just to protect our deployed troops, but also to protect the U.S. homeland, which is the most basic premise of American strategy.” Cotton was confident that, with higher levels of budgetary support and technological progress, a BMD system capable of substantially mitigating the danger posed by short-term threats such as North Korea and Iran is a realistic possibility. The fiscal strain of maintaining these strategic forces, he claimed, is negligible both in the context of the deficit overall and the dangers of falling behind in an ongoing arms race.

Panel Debate

Following Senator Cotton’s remarks, Joseph Cirincione and Rebeccah Heinrichs engaged in a spirited debate over the utility, cost, and risks of a robust BMD program. In his opening remarks, Mr. Cirincione conceded the appeal of a national missile defense system, but added that he “would also want a cure for cancer and a really good light beer, but some things are beyond our technological capability, and an effective missile defense is one of them.” Cirincione noted that the material cost of missile defense research and development over the last decades has been extraordinarily high, and yet results from recent tests have shown failure rates as high as 60%. In particular, Cirincione identified three problems with ground-based missile defense (GMD) – that GMD is easily overwhelmed by cheaper and more numerous warheads, that it is difficult for GMD to discriminate between real warheads and decoys, and that GMD systems are vulnerable at “soft nodes” (e.g. radar) that can be suppressed by adversaries. Despite this, Cirincione defended the feasibility of short-range missile defense systems, such as the Patriot surface-to-air missile system.

According to Cirincione, current strategic thinking on BMD has been misled by a naive optimism resulting from “strap-down chicken tests” which fail to accurately represent the real-life conditions to which a BMD system would be subjected. Given more realistic situations and the presence of countermeasures, Cirincione claimed, these systems would perform even worse than they do in current testing. In spite of this pessimistic outlook, he enumerated three reasons for the persistence of BMD in American strategic thinking: ignorance of the facts, the interests of defense contractors biasing scientists and policy thinkers, and ideological commitments on the part of BMD-advocates, who he argued see BMD as an alternative to arms control agreements. Cirincione admonished Senator Cotton for being “in full Cold War-mode,” a mentality that he believes would forgo the benefits of effective arms control cooperation and alienate America’s European partners.

Against this skepticism, Rebeccah Heinrichs cited bipartisan consensus on the value and viability of missile defense, noting that major contemporary disagreements tend to focus on issues of prioritization and speed of deployment of BMD. Recent tests, she claimed, pointed to the gradual improvement of missile defense systems, as a GMD simulation managed to intercept an ICBM target with countermeasures. In her view, this demonstrates the near-term viability of BMD – current testing which stresses the missile defense system has led NORTHCOM commanders to upgrade their assessment from “limited capability” to an unqualified “capability” to defend the American homeland against intermediate and long range missiles from Iran and North Korea.

Heinrichs disputed Cirincione’s allegations of ideological bias, arguing instead that the support for BMD spanning multiple administrations (Republican and Democratic), the defense establishment, and United States’ allies shows that the prevailing assessment has been sober and impartial, motivated by a fact-driven responsiveness to genuine dangers rather than self-interest and performance-inflation. Given what Heinrichs believes to be an increasingly unstable threat environment characterized by difficult-to-control horizontal proliferation (spread of nuclear and missile technology to new countries), she recommended a more robust commitment to GMD development underscored by predictable, long-term investment.

Prompted by audience questions, Heinrichs and Cirincione also differed over the risks of retaliatory arms races. While the prospect of vertical proliferation (increased in U.S. and Russian arsenals) prompted by BMD development was a real fear during the Cold War, Heinrichs contends that terms like ‘parity’ and ‘strategic balance’ are antiquated in today’s diffuse nuclear environment, and also that China and Russia have freely improved their offensive capabilities precisely because the United States lacks defenses in place, allowing them to step into and exploit “deterrence gaps.” Against this, Cirincione pointed out the logic of retaliatory proliferation, given that it is cheaper and easier to develop redundant offensive capabilities and overwhelm a defense system than it would be to establish BMD superiority. This is evidenced, he claimed, by the ongoing tensions in the nuclear balance in South Asia, as both Pakistan and India are discussing a nuclear build-up in response to prospective BMD systems. Furthermore, Cirincione later noted, defensive capabilities run the risk of being mistaken by adversaries as offensive, a complaint Russia frequently lodges against American Aegis Ashore BMD stations in Bulgaria and Poland.

In assessing the value of BMD development and deployment, Heinrichs argued that the choice is clear: a sufficient quantity of interceptors would be expensive, but that price is incomparably less than that of the likely damage a nuclear strike on the American homeland would inflict, especially if the United States were to commit to long-term stable funding and to buying systems in bulk. European allies, she claimed, could also step up their own contribution to alleviate the fiscal burden of sustaining this investment, a welcome payment given widespread international support for BMD. Cirincione concluded on a skeptical note, claiming that European allies were more interested in American conventional defense commitments than missile defense. Suggesting instead that budgetary decision-making be devolved to the armed forces themselves, Cirincione was confident that the American military would prefer investment in conventional equipment over strategic assets.