Michael KreponRitualized Anxieties over BMD

In November 1996, I had the good fortune to attend an ISODARCO conference in Chengdu, with the added bonus of a side trip to visit China’s nuclear laboratory complex at Mianyang. Back then, ISODARCO – an enterprising Italian NGO founded in 1966 by Edoardo Amaldi and Carlo Schaerf — had somehow managed to corner the market on Track II conversations on strategic issues with Chinese counterparts. Not sure how the Italians managed to do this.

To my knowledge, the Mianyang visit was the first of its kind. Needless to say, foreign visitors were on a very short leash, but our entry was a significant gesture by our Chinese hosts, demonstrating serious intent to engage on strategic issues. These doors were soon closed as a result of the Cox Commission inquiry and report.

Jeffrey, our ACW information-gathering omnivore, somehow got ahold of my trip report and passed it along. My seventeen year-old assessment demonstrates, in dismaying detail, how ritualistic the anxieties over missile defenses have become. Countries of concern may have changed – back then, coercive PLA missile tests prompted debates over selling TMD to Taiwan — but not much else. Have a look:

Chinese concerns about TMD appear to be strongly felt, if considerably over-dramatized. Since unimpeded and deep reductions of US and Russian strategic forces are in China’s national security interest, it makes complete sense that Beijing would support strongly the ABM Treaty and embrace fully the arguments developed in the United States to defend the treaty. Nonetheless, the crux of Chinese concerns over TMD clearly appears to be related to Taiwan and Japan, not to their public litany of arguments.

China would clearly rather not have to deal with new defense requirements posed by TMD deployments in East Asia. None of the Chinese participants second-guessed the PLA’ s missile tests directed against Taiwan, even in private, but surely they must now appreciate the boost that these firings have given to TMD programs in the United States. On the other hand, several Chinese colleagues said in private that the exercises “worked,” in that they reduced support in Taiwan for independence. It will be very interesting to see what lessons the PLA has internalized as a result of its missile-firing military exercises…

Great care is therefore required regarding the provision of TMD to East Asia. How does the United States convey the messages that we are prepared to support friends against threatening missile attacks, that we are serious about devaluing weapons of mass destruction and missile delivery systems, but also that we wish to further improve bilateral relations with China? US actions regarding TMD need to be calibrated in order to be interpreted correctly by Beijing. If US messages are misinterpreted, the TMD issue could foster troubling behavior by Beijing across a broad range of issues…

The worst case assessments of advanced TMD deployments circulated by some US arms control groups have subsequently been adopted in toto by the Chinese government. US opponents of advanced TMD, however, do not believe that the THAAD or Navy Upper Tier programs would actually provide the coverage they have depicted, since they assume that relatively simple counter-measures would vastly shrink the defended area or eliminate it entirely. Nonetheless, US analysts who present the worst case have done so in the belief that Russian and Chinese experts would likely succumb to worst case thinking and over-react in negative ways.

My sense from talking privately with Chinese technical experts is that they, too, clearly understand the utility of counter-measures. As one Chinese participant told me in confidence, China understands that its case against TMD is quite overdrawn, but that it is “practical” to adopt a worst case view. This is not to say that China views US missile defense programs with equanimity. To the contrary, Chinese experts are most definitely concerned about the possible negative impact of US missile defense programs on deep, deep cuts in US and Russian arsenals, and China strenuously opposes TMD deployments in Taiwan and Japan. The combined deployment of advanced TMD and multi-site national missile defenses would greatly trouble China. But these are very different concerns than China’s public stance, which echoes the case made in the United States by some NGOs.

A perverse feedback loop is at work here: The worst case that arms controllers warned about has been rhetorically embraced by China, even though experts from both countries know better. How might NGOs avoid this echo chamber effect whereby worst case assessments become mutually reinforcing, just as in the Cold War? In the future, it might make sense to think about the formulation of arguments with multiple audiences in mind. For example, in addition to showing vugraphs of the considerable theoretical potential of upper tier TMD systems, why not also show how coverage would shrink due to countermeasures? A refocusing of the TMD debate, especially on the Navy’s upper tier’s susceptibility to countermeasures, might be particularly useful at this time for both domestic and foreign audiences.

It makes sense that debates over BMD are as ritualistic as those over nuclear weapons and arms reduction treaties. All have much in common: deployments and agreements are highly symbolic, and in most cases, political utility exceeds military utility. The dramatis personae fear slippery slopes, so argue tenaciously to avoid ceding any ground. Habits of mind are passed along from one generation to the next, and the debaters rarely depart from well-rehearsed scripts.

Debates over missile defenses are prompted by three circumstances: (1) when arms controllers seek to constrain missile defense programs and deployments; (2) when true believers in BMD assume positions of responsibility in a new administration; and (3) when prompted by the actions of a competitively disadvantaged nuclear-armed state.

The first of these conditions no longer applies to treaties, but continues unabated since skeptics remain convinced that the military utility of missile defense programs do not justify their expense. The second is likely to reoccur with the next Republican administration. The third condition – states that seek to gain leverage by means of missile flight tests — is now the principal driver of BMD programs and deployments. Whenever these coercive warnings occur, skeptics of missile defenses highlight the military deficiencies of BMD, while downgrading their symbolic and political utility.

Advocates of missile defenses are on weak ground when they argue for deployments at any cost, regardless of technical limitations. Skeptics of missile defenses are on weak ground when they diminish the political and symbolic value of missile defenses. How much BMD is required to convey alliance solidarity against a weak but unpredictable state like North Korea and to help shore up the NPT? Not that much – and certainly not enough to negate the Russian and Chinese nuclear deterrents.

Nonetheless, anxieties about missile defenses are imprinted in the Kremlin’s DNA, and it would be most unwise for Washington to take steps that would unnecessarily lead Moscow to retain nuclear force structure or for Beijing to expand it. Great care has always been required in sizing national missile defense deployments. In my view, the strongest argument against a third NMD site is that deploying more deeply flawed interceptors constitutes an ill-conceived jobs program. Repeating dire warnings emanating from Moscow is not a strong argument. Russian as well as Chinese strategic analysts and defense scientists are quite competent. They know how to penetrate US missile defenses. So why get so spun up by echoes from the Cold War?


  1. j_kies (History)

    Echoes are referent to the conversation of the problem. As a policy guy, you perform laudable work toward avoiding circumstances involving practical examinations of the effects of nuclear detonations on military or civil targets.

    BMD is an engineering problem about the practicalities of warhead negation in flight in the event of failed deterrence or accident. Admittedly, a hard problem with no room for incompetence. Will, desire or wishful thinking on the part of policy people or the political class does nothing to aid BMD development and just ‘throwing money’ at various concepts hugely damages ‘real’ BMD as wanting something badly gives you that item ‘badly’. The great failure of the missile defense advocacy from Reagan onward was that ‘want’ was politicized and threats were selectively cited to promote various programs without serious engineering and architecture development. BMD is a tool in the nuclear risk management portfolio; develop a consensus as to the level of risk you wish to mitigate with BMD and task the development of BMD consonant with that job.

  2. Jonathan Granoff (History)

    if country was so hell bent on attacking the US with a nuclear weapon why would they use a weapon with a return address?

    • yousaf (History)

      Good point but you assume logic prevails in fielding strategic missile “defense” — I commented on this aspect earlier:


      Article Highlights

      * An improved strategic missile defense system would not stop our adversaries from possessing nuclear weapons — it would only encourage a change in how such weapons are delivered.

      * Unlike other delivery methods, an ICBM launch is easy to detect and ascribe to a given nation, making it unlikely our enemies would use these long-range missiles.

      * The real danger of a workable missile defense is that countries may abandon ICBMs in favor of other delivery methods that they would be less inhibited to use.

    • John Schilling (History)

      In increasing order of importance:

      1. They don’t want that; it would just make the United States very, very angry. They might, in extreme cases, want to attack the United States with enough nuclear weapons to actually destroy it, but at that scale there is no anonymity or plausible deniability.

      2. Since that sort of thing is very much a matter of last resort, you want to make absolutely sure nobody goes off-mission and pulls the trigger before you are good and ready. That means basing the weapons somewhere you have absolute control and security.

      3. What nuclear weapons are actually good for is not attacking people, but threatening to attack people. But, as Dr. Strangelove famously pointed out, trying to threaten people with a secret weapon doesn’t really work so well.

      4. If you were paying attention in the first place, you’d have noted that Michael Krepon’s most excellent article was not about people who might hypothetically want to attack (or even threaten) the United States with nuclear weapons, but people who want to threaten Taiwan with nuclear weapons. As with most domestic disputes, the obvious suspect is unlikely to succeed with any plan for clever misdirection.

      Since you asked. I suspect your question may have been purely rhetorical, but I have the bad habit of sometimes answering those questions anyway…

    • krepon (History)

      No President and no administration, regardless of political orientation, can bathe in the luxury of your rhetorical question or your certainty. Instead, administrations have to figure out how best to handle improbable threats that disturb the peace of allies and friends that have abstained from making nuclear weapons, despite their ready ability to do so.

  3. Magpie (History)

    I think the big difference going onwards – the biggest game changer that military tech has seen in a very long time – will be anti-ship ballistic missiles. If they can’t be satisfactorily countered then this will have massive implications for US force projection – and right now we’ve got the Chinese 21-D and the Iranian Khalij Fars. It’s not out of the realms of the possible that these systems, or next-gen developments of them, could basically deny China and Iran’s sea interests to practical US use-of-force.

    Aegis can theoretically engage three targets simultaneously – though I’m not aware of a successful test with more than two. Cost-for-cost, it should be very practical to overwhelm an Aegis-based defence. Quite apart from the relative platform costs, there’s the ongoing issue of keeping sufficient Aegis defence on-station – while your ASBMs can be parked in compounds for as long as you like. Then all you need is something capable of detecting the enemy.

    Look at Taiwan with non-Chinese navies removed from the equation. Look at the Gulf with Iran holding the ability to remove a carrier group almost at will, or ready to back up any wee patrol boat’s demands. All with conventional warheads – and therefore *usable*. I doubt they’re at that threat level yet, but I can’t see any reason to think they can’t be in the fairly near future. It changes the picture a very great deal, and if the US is not working very hard on improved ABM defences then I reckon they’re making a big mistake.

  4. Bradley Laing (History)

    —Would anti-ship ballistic missiles lead to an arms race of diesel-electric submarines armed with artillery pieces?


    This huge submarine carried twin 8 inch guns in a single turret, quite a formidible armament for a submarine, and in a hangar aft of her conning tower was an observation aircraft, a Marcel Berson-411, capable of a speed of 100 knots with a range of 400 kilometres. A cargo of torpedoes, 14 by 500mm, and another 8 by 400mm added to her fighting abilities. A 16 foot motor boat was also on board.


    • Magpie (History)

      As one of the few people on earth who fricking loves the ol’ Collins (in those twenty minutes a year when it works):


      …then yeah, I digs da diesel. Who the hell puts a reactor in a thing that’s supposed to get shot at? That’s just dopey.

      But no matter how much people point at how hard it might be to find a carrier to shoot at, I really can’t see it. I mean, if the Iranians can get anything at all to 20,000 feet they can get (hazy) line of sight to the other side of the Gulf. Even their dodgy ASBMs have optical guidance – one solid fix should do it. A 5 minute flight time isn’t going to let a carrier group get THAT far away.

      If the Chinese did go ahead and MIRV their 21-D and produce the new beasty in numbers (or if they might in the near future), then they own a hefty slab of the western pacific, even if people haven’t really noticed yet.

    • Magpie (History)

      (DF-21D, not D21. WTH, me?)

  5. Bradley Laing (History)


    —What about diesel-electric subs with suicide drones ionstead of artillery?

    • Magpie (History)

      A torpedo *is* a suicide drone!

  6. Mark Gubrud (History)

    Yes, China and Russia have competent scientists and military analysts who know that countermeasures can easily defeat current US BMD technologies. However, they also have their paranoid, gullible and clueless, just like we do.

    That is one thing. Another is that ensuring defeat of US BMD costs them something, and when we are done with current plans at the end of this decade, what comes next? Does the US BMD enterprise shut down at that point, or is it on to the next, grander, and perhaps more dangerous scheme? Will Russia and China then face a further round of costs to ensure defeat of BMD, or might there even be a danger of vulnerability to a US first strike?

    And what of the space weaponization implications, given that US BMD systems are already ASAT-capable, and the dream of space-based BMD weapons has never quite died?

    For all these reasons, Russian and Chinese concerns about and protests against US BMD are not just ritual.

    It may just be that they are concerned not just about their own security risks, but also the economic and political costs of endless rounds of measure and countermeasure, and about global security and stability as well. As should we all be.

  7. Jonathan Granoff (History)

    The rhetorical question in quick form should cause one to reflect that an adversary not capable of overcoming bnd would only approach such existential actions in stealth. a false security system cannot, be cured by better management. Only by understanding, nuclear weapons as the unacceptable problem that.they actually are will there be sufficiently serious efforts made to set the compass point of
    elimination in place and move from management to global elimination. Does that mean overnight. Of.course not. Does it mean that a standard can be put into place with which, to evaluate present policies? Yes. Based on a, standard as to whether a policy, moves, in the direction, of the compass, bmd is way of course.

  8. JO (History)

    As to China’s interceptor capabilities, I’m a little surprised Jeffery hasn’t posted about the recent undeclared Chinese suborbital launch from Kunpeng to GTO.


  9. jeannick (History)

    @ Magpie
    “I think the big difference going onwards – the biggest game changer that military tech has seen in a very long time – will be anti-ship ballistic missiles.”

    Been giving those a lot of thoughts , there is an institute in Harbin which make self controlled sea automation
    there is all kind of drones , including a full visual on half of the pacific with observation swarms.
    with fifth generation jet fighter ,
    the pilot is a weight liability

    • Magpie (History)

      Oh yeah, drones are the future, maaan. And you’re right: fighters would be way better without needing to worry about a human getting turned to mush by high-gees. Drones are also a lot more *usable*: you’re not risking dead citizens.

      For now it’s super-complicated on land, since there are masses of wrong-targets. That requires an operator, and that causes control delay and opens up all sorts of counter-measures. Eventually the AIs will be better, but for now it’s a pain.

      But it’s WAY easier at sea: go to this rough location, and attack anything that isn’t ocean. Same thing whether your ‘drone’ is above water (missile / reentry vehicle) or below (torpedo / mine).

      Bloody hard to hide an aircraft carrier.

  10. Bradley Laing (History)

    Weapon system to be fitted with Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles

    The configuration of Agni-V, India’s long-range nuclear weapons capable ballistic missile, is set to be changed to make the 5,000-km weapon system deadlier and capable of attacking multiple targets.

    The modification is to enable fitting Agni-V with Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles (MIRVs), V.K. Saraswat, Director-General of the Defence Research and Development Organisation and Scientific Advisor to the Defence Minister, told The Hindu. Another test in the present configuration of the three-stage missile would be conducted later this yea


  11. jonathan granoff (History)

    “Missile defense cooperation is another area we should pursue, and the United States continues to seek a path forward with Russia due to our belief that missile defense cooperation will advance the security interests of us all – the Russian Federation no less than the NATO countries.

    The Soviet Union responded confidently to the 1983 Star Wars proposal regarding global missile defense, embracing the notion of technical countermeasures on strategic offensive forces to address this issue. Russia should be no less confident today, when the missile defense system that the United States and its allies are developing is specifically and definitively limited in nature and very capable technical countermeasures are installed on all Russian ICBMs and SLBMs.”

    The above is a direct quote from:

    Revitalizing Security Cooperation in Europe

    Rose Gottemoeller
    Acting Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security
    Conference on Military and Political Aspects of European Security

    Moscow, Russia, May 23, 2013


    Clearly she is as reliable, sober, and professional a diplomat as we might find. In her speech, with eloguence, she made the case for greater cooperation. However, the speech did not point out the cost of “Star Wars” in preventing the realization of the shared vision of Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev of a nuclear weapons free world.

    What would follow from her remarks should be formalizing a limitation such that in the event of technical advances BMD would still not threaten Russia’s interests and hopefully embodying this and other assurances in legally binding instruments. There are still advocates for space based deployments you know. Moreover, I question for how long Iran or North Korea will remain incapable of similarly overcoming the BMD systems with “technical counter measures”. Of on going concern, there is hardly a reasoned open debate on the costs to arms control progress that BMD presents.

    Question to technical experts in this conversation. Please forgive my limited knowledge. I am a law professor and policy wonk rather and not a technical expert. Can a missile defense system be created that would be of value that would not hold back progress on arms control and disarmament? If so, what would it look like and why is the debate not focusing on achieving this result?

  12. panterazero (History)

    I bet this is a REAL rookie question, but what’s the effective diff between an ASBM which sounds like an inordinate pain to develop, and an anti-ship cruise missile (e. g. As-4) which is easy to build, tote, and throw, drinks cheap booze, and can be had in numbers?

  13. JO (History)

    Closing speed. 3M45 has a maximum speed of Mach 2.5, BrahMos has Mach 3, and I believe both of those speeds would be reached only on diving profile attacks similar to a ballistic profile. These are within the envelope for current missile interceptors and much easier to defend against.

    Ballistic missiles: 9K720 Iskander is a reasonable match in terms of flight profile: maximum speed Mach 6-7 at 50km altitude, plus it can make evasive/targeting maneuvers. All numbers here are from wiki.

    The ASBM has to solve Mach 7 targeting of a stationary carrier-sized object, while the interceptor must target a potentially stealthed ~4 foot circle with capacity for a lot of off-axis high G rocket evasive acceleration. So – if effective targeting for the ASBM can be sorted out and that is a real technical challenge in itself – there is no realistic counter.

    • JO (History)

      I should just have quoted wiki it says it better than I did:

      “The Russian Iskander-M cruises at hypersonic speed of 2100–2600 m/s (Mach 6–7) at a height of 50 km. The Iskander-M weighs 4615 kg, carries a warhead of 710–800 kg, has a range of 400–480 km, and achieves a CEP (Circular error probable) of 5–7 meters. During flight it can maneuver at different altitudes and trajectories and can pull up to 20 to 30 G to evade anti-ballistic missiles. For example, in one of the trajectory modes it can dive at the target at 90 degrees at the rate of 700–800 m/s performing anti-ABM maneuvers”

  14. panterazero (History)

    Did I say I was a rookie?

    I had NO NOTION of the sophistication of the Iskander-M, or the duration of its development, or even (here he blushes) its existence. Apprised of all that in one wikislug, I respond with a faint and high-pitched “oh.”

    Thank you very much for dragging me by the (rapidly graying) hair into the new century. (Mach 7 and vernier motors, godalive…)

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