Jeffrey LewisDon’t quote me on that …

“Among Democrats, there is a broad concern about missile defense, whether it is space-based, ground-based or sea-based,” says Jeffrey Lewis, graduate research fellow at the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland [University]. “There are enough people who support missile defense against rogue states. But space-based systems are especially worrisome because you don/’t need to invest in a global system in order to shoot down missiles from North Korea.”


I was a little surprised when a colleague showed me the glossy report. Multiple thoughts streak through my head in patterns and configurations that would baffle James Joyce: Yes, I remember talking to a journalist … Barry Rosenberg … Carnegie Corporation of New York … Last, I heard of him … Didn/’t I ask to see any quotes? Gotta be sure about that next time … I don/’t remember saying that … I don/’t think I had been drinking … Hell, I don/’t even understand what the last sentence means.

Mr. Rosenberg seemed like a nice fellow and we had a long talk that covered a lot of ground. It looks like one of us compressed a lot of my thoughts into a single paragraph. So, for my own piece of mind, here is either what I said or wish I had.

I started by arguing that the debate over the weaponization of space is closely related to, though not coextensive, with the debate over missile defense for many reasons.

1. Missile defenses are objectionable for a variety of reasons including their technological immaturity and cost; the objection that I raised was the potential to use defenses as insurance for an offensive or preventive attack. (I am on pretty solid ground here. In his 1983 SDI speech, Reagan warned that “If paired with offensive systems, they can be viewed as fostering an aggressive policy, and no one wants that.”) That capability alarms many in the Russians and Chinese governments, and may lead to various arms race effects, crisis instability incentives or accidents if, for instance, the Russians keep a larger portion of their forces on alert.

2. Some in the Russian and Chinese governments suspect our “modest” missile defense, which is ostensibly designed to counter what the Clinton folks called a “rogue state” ballistic missile launch, may undermine their deterrents for two reasons:

  • The technological challenges and economic costs associated with the program (now exceeding $9 billion a year) are out of proportion to the threat (Five years after the Rumsfeld Commission warned that states like Iran and North Korea could be five years from flight testing an ICBM, none has flight-tested a missile with even half that range).
  • Once the infrastructure (new X-band radars, upgraded early warning radars and a battlefield management command, control, and communications system) is in place, the United States could add interceptors– a concern documented by Strobe Talbott in The Russia Hand.

3. Space-based missile defenses are provocative, in part, because they aggravate both those concerns.

  • As the Congressional Budget Office recently argued, the costs of even a thin constellation of space-based would be $27.1-77.8 B depending on various factors. If the Russians and Chinese think the current architecture is out of scale to the threat, then they would likely conclude space-based interceptors are intended as part of a first-strike capability.
  • Similarly, the argument for going into space is focused on providing global coverage and improved ability to cope with countermeasures. Again, Russians and Chinese officials may think those requirements are sized for their forces.

Now, at this point, I think Mr. Rosenberg asked me if I believed the US government was as disingenuous as the Russians or the Chinese seem to suggest. Now keeping in mind that my argument doesn/’t require the government to be disingenuous at all (the Russians and Chinese, as we do, are planning around the capabilities of the system), I suggested something that I say quite a bit: sometimes language that describes persons (especially regarding intentions and mendacity) is unhelpful to describe organizations.

Rather than asking what the “US government” believes, I said we should look at the political coalition that supports missile defense. Many members of Congress would not support the current missile defense program if the rationale was based on acquiring the capability to disarm the Chinese or the Russians (what Herman Kahn called a “splendid first strike capability.”) So the “rogue state” rationale matters in a public policy context, even if some supporters want a larger system capable of targeting at least the Chinese.

Anthropomorphizing government can create lacunae in our thinking, lacunae that the Russians and Chinese may fill in with concern or worry.

[Belated addition: University of Maryland, not Maryland University. That mistake is all Rosenberg.]