Limited missile defense makes sense for everyone

Dr. Earl Tilford's picture

Recently Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened to target Europe with missiles if the United States deployed components of a limited missile defense system to the Czech Republic and Poland.

Maybe I’m being charitable, but perhaps Putin recalls how the Soviet military and the KGB colluded to remove Nikita Khrushchev from office in October 1964, two years after Khrushchev backed down in the face of overwhelming U.S. nuclear superiority during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In the post-Stalin era, no Soviet leader could have survived without the support of the military and secret police. Putin knows that.

Nevertheless, a limited missile defense makes sense for the United States, Western Europe and Russia. President George W. Bush’s offer to share it with Russia also makes sense. Even if the Cold War returned in force, limited missile defense still makes sense for the following reasons.

First, despite dramatic cuts since 1990, the nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia are twice as large as the American arsenal was at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Each power possesses more than 6,000 nuclear weapons.

A limited defense system would not affect the parameters of deterrence as long as we share the same system — which given Russia’s traditional xenophobia might be difficult for them. Both sides currently have the ability to overwhelm a limited system. Deterrence is unaffected.

Second, a limited missile defense is needed to protect against blackmail (or an actual attack) by rogue states like North Korea or Iran.

Pyongyang regularly tests its missiles and boasts of its nuclear capability. Teheran is determined to join the nuclear club and posses a hyper-active missile program. The Shahab-3A, the first model built by Iran, has a range of about 750 miles. The Shahab-3B can reach over 1,000 miles with a heavier warhead, putting Israel within range. Estimates are that future models of the Shahab series will cover targets from Moscow to London, Madrid to St. Petersburg.

Third, a limited missile defense system could mean avoiding a potential nuclear Armageddon resulting from accidental launch. While remote, the possibility always exists of going to war accidentally.

In the early 1970s, I served as a watch officer at Headquarters, Strategic Air Command. Almost every night our satellite-based warning systems indicated a massive Soviet missile attack. Since a number of indicators were needed for us to react and because we knew the satellite was reacting to the moon, that single warning of attack was not significant.

But machines are always subject to error. An accidental launch might cost millions of Americans or Russians their lives. It would be politically difficult for any American or Russian president not to respond to such a catastrophe with a retaliatory strike. Welcome to Armageddon.

Currently the nuclear club numbers nine but it will grow because nuclear weapons have three distinct attractions.

First, nuclear weapons provide international standing for third world nations. Five of the nine members of today’s nuclear club: China, Russia, North Korea, Pakistan and India are second or third tier economic powers.

Second, once developed, nukes provide an economical deterrent. Nuclear weapons are far less expensive to deploy and maintain than large conventional forces.

Third, for traditional nation states, nuclear deterrence works. Since 1945, no nation possessing weapons of mass destruction has attacked another nation with similar capabilities.

While developing a comprehensive missile defense shield might be technologically feasible it would also be economically prohibitive. Additionally, a “Star Wars” like system would foster a new strategic arms race.

A limited missile defense system, however, one shared by the United States, our West European allies, Japan and Russia makes good strategic sense.

In the final analysis, the big beneficiaries of a rogue state attack on the West would be the mad mullahs in Teheran, the nutcase running North Korea and their ilk elsewhere. If the rogues win, the rest of us, Russia included, lose.

[Dr. Earl Tilford is professor of history at Grove City (Penn.) College. He enjoyed an extensive military career and after retiring from the U.S. Air Force, served as an associate professor of history at Troy State University in Montgomery and professor of military history at the U.S. Air Force Air Command and Staff College. In 1993 he became director of research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute in Carlisle, Pa., where he worked on a project that looked at possible future terrorist threats. He has authored three books on the Vietnam War and co-edited a book on Operation Desert Storm. He has lectured throughout the U.S. and abroad on the Vietnam War and, more recently, the future of armed conflict.]

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