Jeffrey LewisMissile Defense and the Prague Treaty

Does the Prague Treaty (aka New START) limit missile defenses? Certainly the text mentions defenses, but does it limit them?

“Limit” is a very particular word — The definitions in OED suggest usage most often involves those things that we can measure: time, acreage, troops, eggs, and whatnot.

That usage holds true, too, in the context of arms control treaties, where we use “limit” to mean a numerical constraint such as so-many ICBMs or so-many warheads. So, for example, the practice in START documents of referring to treaty’s “central limit” of 1600 strategic nuclear delivery vehicles, as well as various “limits” and “sub-limits” of delivery vehicles and warheads. In all cases, a “limit” refers to something numerical. Try search strings like start nuclear limit site:.gov or start nuclear limit site:.mil and the pattern is clear.

In that narrow sense, START does not limit US missile defenses. Nevertheless, the treaty touches upon missile defenses in three ways, which I gather will be the subject of discussion during the ratification process:

1. The preambular language recognizes that there is an interrelationship between strategic offenses and strategic defenses.
2. Article 3 (7A) excludes missile-defense interceptors from the definition of a ballistic missile, irrespective of other characteristics like trajectory or range.
3. Article V (3) prohibits further conversion of ICBM and SLBM launchers to hold missile defense interceptors, and vice versa. (Previously converted launchers are grand-fathered.)

Preambular Language

The preamble to the Prague Treaty contains a passage that comments on the relationship between strategic offenses and defenses:

Recognizing the existence of the interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms, that this interrelationship will become more important as strategic nuclear arms are reduced, and that current strategic defensive arms do not undermine the viability and effectiveness of the strategic offensive arms of the Parties.

You could utter any or all these things at a Defense Policy Board meeting and no one would spit coffee through his nose. This is pretty bland stuff.

What will complicate the preambular language is Russia’s unilateral statement that “the extraordinary conditions” that might lead to Moscow’s withdrawal would include the development of US defenses that “would result in a threat to the potential of the strategic nuclear forces of the Russian Federation.”

Such statements are not new — as Kingston Reif and Travis Sharp have both noted, Moscow made a similar statement after signing the original START. (I hasten to add that the vote on START was 93-6 with yes votes including Chuck Grassley, Orrin Hatch, Richard Lugar, John McCain, and Mitch McConnell.) The Administration, too, seems aware of this history.

Yet, it seems some are set to make an issue of this language and the Russian statement. I really don’t understand the issue. It is a fact of life that Russia takes current and anticipated US missile defense capabilities into account when making decisions about its nuclear forces. It is also the fact that the treaty has a withdrawal clause. The New START Treaty would not last long if the United States developed extraordinarily capable defenses that would allow the United States to negate the Russian deterrent.

That is precisely why even the Bush Administration sought to make clear that missile defense did not threaten Russia. On that score, I think missile defense advocates should welcome the preamble, which commits Russia to the statement that “current strategic defensive arms do not undermine the viability and effectiveness of the strategic offensive arms of the Parties.” That’s going to be useful at some point.

Missile Defense Exclusion

The treaty defines intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles and, for good measure, enumerates them by type. Although missile defense interceptors are not listed as treaty-limited equipment, the treaty contains a further provision to make clear that interceptors — without regard to their range or other properties — are simply not ballistic missiles to be covered by the treaty:

A missile of a type developed and tested solely to intercept and counter objects not located on the surface of the Earth shall not be considered to be a ballistic missile to which the provisions of the treaty apply.

No Silo Conversion

Finally, Article IV of the Treaty contains a number of provisions that confine the location of treaty limited equipment. So, for example, there are restrictions on joint basing of nuclear-equipped and non-nuclear-equipped heavy bombers. The principle is a straightforward one: Requiring parties to declare the locations of equipment substantially eases the task of verification.

Article V, which deals with the development of new offensive arms, contains a provision that prohibits the parties from using ICBM and SLBM launchers to house missile defense interceptors and vice versa:

Each Party shall not convert and shall not use ICBM launchers and SLBM launchers for placement of missile defense interceptors therein. Each Party further shall not convert and shall not use launchers of missile defense interceptors for placement of ICBMs and SLBMs therein. This provision shall not apply to ICBM launchers that were converted prior to signature of this Treaty for placement of missile defense interceptors therein.

The advantages of this are obvious: otherwise, you would have Russian inspectors crawling all over US missile defense interceptors to ensure they weren’t stocked with contraband treaty-limited equipment.

Keith Payne and others have erroneously claimed the Prague Treaty counts the five Minuteman III silos at Vandenberg that were converted for missile defense missions and that “the launchers themselves probably will be eliminated.”

That is incorrect. The passage from the treaty clearly notes that the provision does not apply to launchers previously converted. (Nor, obviously, would it apply to new missile-defense launchers in Alaska or Poland.)

Moreover, the Seventh Agreed Statement of the Protocol contains procedures to conduct an exhibition to demonstrate that the silos at Vandenberg really were converted to hold missile defense interceptors. It is evident that nothing need be eliminated. All one had to do was read the treaty.

Ah, there is the rub! I confronted a colleague making this accusation the other day. He responded that we won’t know until the treaty text is released. The text had been released a couple of days before (and I had slogged through it before doing interviews). Not having read the treaty didn’t stop my colleague from being very confident about his assertion in a public setting, which is a life lesson, I suppose.

Does The Treaty Limit Missile Defenses?

I think it is very hard to conclude that the treaty “limits” missile defenses. The treaty may have some implications for missile defense programs, but on the whole it is written in such a way as to create space for current and planned missile defense programs, including language that exempts interceptors from the definition of an ICBM and the provision to “grandfather” the converted silos at Vandenberg.

Still, I suspect we will continue hear from some quarters that the treaty “limits” missile defense. This is a form of special pleading. The common-sense test is that no one would claim that the treaty “limits” conventional bombers, despite some provisions to separate conventional bombers from their nuclear-equipped brethren. By any consistent standard, the treaty limits neither.

Comments

  1. yousaf

    I was at the HASC meeting this morning. When asked just this question, Ellen Tauscher said “No” — ie. No limits on missile defense in New START.

    That said, the inherent effective real limit on missile defense is, of course, that incarnation of MD which pisses Russia off sufficiently to exit the treaty.

    Russia has not been irrational about this in the past.

  2. John McKittrick (History)

    Submarine-launched missile interceptors have long been considered for use in existing SLBM tubes aboard boomers. Article V, Section 3 explicitly prohibits this activity.

  3. anon (History)

    John Kittrick: No one except a few Navy outliers, have seriously considered putting missile defense interceptors in SSBN tubes. They have talked having sea-based interceptors for long-range missiles, but the boomers would not be the platform.

    Jeffrey, In a meeting with Senate staff, Ted Warner highlighted the point about the preamble, that it said that Russia agreed current defenses don’t affect their offenses. That’s a big point, but I don’t know if the staff understood it or, even if they did, whether it will stick.

    The talking point keeps shifting, as the truth becomes irrefutable. Keith will have to change his line if he ever reads the treaty. Or he can assume that no one else read the treaty either. But, given that the critics have been beaten over the head with the “Russia didn’t withdraw when we left the ABM Treaty” line, they are looking for a new line. They are now trying to claim that the Soviet unilateral statement with START caused the Democrats to reduce spending on missile defense in the 1990s. Except that’s not true, either. Missile defense spending, even for NMD, rose between 1994 and 2001. However, it did drop in 1992 and 1993. This wasn’t due to the START statement, but due to the results of Desert Storm and the Bottom Up Review. Aspin decided that we did not need NMD as much as we needed TMD since there were no long-range missile threats on the horizon. So he shifted funding. I doubt he even knew about the Soviet unilateral statement. Anyway, that’s the new talking point. When its proven wrong, they’ll find another one.

  4. MK (History)

    Recall what happened when the Soviets walked out of Geneva after the Pershings & cruise missiles began to be deployed in 1983. If the Russians walk, they will accelerate the very programs they dislike most, while undercutting their diplomatic leverage to stop them.

  5. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Of course, you could use submarine launched interceptors — just not converted tubes on the 18 the SSBN/SSGNs.

  6. yousaf

    MK —
    if we push Russia to exit the treaty because of an irrational infatuation with ineffective missile defense, the loss will be our, as well as global, security — as was the case in 1983.

    It behooves us to tamp down our own enthusiasm for the costly adventurism that is missile defense.

    There is no evidence that missile defense acts as a “deterrent” as claimed in the BMDR and the NPR. It has been poorly thought-through and assertions of what a swell idea it is have been made without any supporting evidence.

    Even if Russia does not object, MD is not sensible.

    The same objections raised before — see page 3 — now apply also.

    What should be done is for someone to task, say, the National Academies to conduct a peer-reviewed study about the conceptual — not technical — basis of missile defense against nuclear weapons to see whether it is even conceptually a sensible idea. My argument is that it isn’t.

    As Bill Perry said at a UMD talk in 2008 missile defense is an “ineffective defense against a non-existent threat”.

    Our most eminent scientists agree with him.

    As it states: MD “has not been proven and does not merit deployment. It would offer little or no defensive capability, even in principle. At the same time, its deployment would result in large security, political, and monetary costs.”

  7. yousaf

    And, on that note, from ABC News —

    Medvedev said former Cold War foes Russia and the United States negotiated specific language in the preamble of the new START treaty he signed last week with US President Barack Obama.

    This “formula” states that there is an “interconnection between the strategic offensive arms and missile defense,” Medvedev told ABC News.

    “So if those circumstances will change, then we would consider it as the reason to jeopardize the whole agreement.”

    If the United States “radically multiplies the number and power of its missile defense system, obviously that missile defense system is indeed becoming a part of the strategic offensive nuclear forces, because it’s capable of blocking the action of the other side,” he added.

    “So an imbalance occurs, and this would be certainly the reason to have a review of that agreement.”

  8. Scott Monje (History)

    Yousaf,

    To be fair, the July 2, 2009, letter that you cite is discussing a particular missile defense system, the one proposed by the Bush administration.

    anon,

    As you say, the Russians concede that the current BMD system does not affect their offensive capability, but that is not really new. Their focus has always been on the future because they have never believed that the system would really resemble the plan, especially the Bush plan with only 10 interceptors. Their view has always been that this was a foot in the door. Once the Americans got permission from various countries to set up a full global system of BMD bases on the basis of a modest plan, then they would suddenly “discover” an urgent need to expand that system with many new interceptors. When asked, Condoleezza Rice pointed refused to give assurances that the system would never be more than 10. Perhaps that was a prudent response, but the Russians tend to be suspicious about such things. Indeed, the Obama plan already allows for many more interceptors. The advantages of the Obama plan are that it doesn’t use the heavy interceptors, which at least some Russian generals claimed were IRBMs in disguise, and that in the initial stages it’s incapable of intercepting Russian ICBMs. As the system evolves, however, the issue is likely to return.

  9. Steeljaw Scribe (History)

    Jeffrey:
    One very good reason why you won’t see interceptors launched from SSBNs – hypergolics. Many good reasons why hypergolics and subs don’t mix very well…
    w/r, SJS

  10. yousaf

    Scott,
    indeed the letter applies to the older system, but note the “even in principle” part.

    As Pavel and I have argued — both articles linked to in my post above — it is a conceptually flawed idea to tamper with the perceived balance of deterrence, while not actually altering it.

    It is destabilizing, expensive and, as of now, completely untested in realistic scenarios. It is also dangerous if political leaders are made to believe it actually works.

    As long as there is a credible threat of even one nuclear missile getting through the defense, it does not — or ought not — alter our strategic calculations.

    Given that they say “even in principle” , I am fairly confident the letter writers would have the same verdict on the Obama MD, indeed on any MD directed at nuclear missiles, as Pavel and I have also argued.

  11. Peter J. Brown (History)

    The announcement today by the Russians that they will soon deploy a submarine-detecting satellite will factor into all of this.

    http://en.rian.ru/russia/20100415/158597419.html

    Disinformation — maybe, timed to be disruptive — perhaps, but a reminder nonetheless that undersea strategies are subject to change just like everything else.

    By the way, back in 2000, when I pitched my version of the SSBN BMD, I did not see a need to commit every launch tube on the SSBN to this role.

    http://www.spacedaily.com/news/bmdo-00zx.html

    Regardless, I found few supporters out there.

  12. MK (History)

    Yousaf:
    If you own a house not situated in a flood plain, the odds of that house suffering catastrophic damage are very low. Would you therefore not buy catastrophic insurance for your home?
    My arguments are well known on this subject: I believe we need a catastrophic insurance policy for our homeland. But the odds of such an attack by Russia and China are extremely low — so I don’t wish to spend more than we need. The odds of ballistic missile attacks against US expeditionary forces, friends and allies are much higher. So, in my view, our insurance policies need to be higher, as well.

  13. Scott Monje (History)

    Yousaf said, “I am fairly confident the letter writers would have the same verdict on the Obama MD, indeed on any MD directed at nuclear missiles, as Pavel and I have also argued.”

    Maybe we can get Jeffrey to invite them to the New America Foundation. He got Thomas Schelling.

  14. yousaf

    Michael,

    I completely agree that missile defense against conventional ballistic missiles is a smart idea, if that is what you mean by attacks on expeditionary forces.

    As I say in my piece.

    “Speaking broadly, missile defense comes in two different flavors. The first …. protects a theater of battle against short-range conventional rockets. The second category is strategic, or national, missile defense: systems meant to guard against adversaries’ nuclear-tipped missiles. While the first of these types is conceptually sensible, the second is not and may even make the world a more dangerous place.

    The reason for this is quite simple. A 70 percent effective tactical missile defense (to pick an optimistic number) makes a lot of sense. If 10 conventional missiles are headed your way, stopping seven is undeniably a good thing. Stopping seven of 10 nuclear warheads, however, is less decisive since even one will visit unacceptable devastation upon the United States.

    So even after the United States has set up and activated a national missile-defense system, it still will not have neutralized the perceived threat from Iran. Not only that, but Washington’s strategic calculations toward Tehran will remain unaffected: The United States will still need to be just as worried about Iran’s missiles, since the destruction of even one U.S. city or region is simply too high a cost to bear. For that security equation to change, national missile defense would need to intercept 100 percent of incoming nuclear warheads — an unattainable goal for any piece of machinery.”

    Let’s put it another way: would you feel comforted if we had a missile defense shield active? — and we are not talking about fictitious ones: we are talking about the ones that routinely fail in highly scripted tests. I have not seen one realistic test. ie. a red team-blue team random time attack, with unknown trajectory using a salvo of missiles with countermeasures. I would be very generous in guesstimating that the intercept probability for such an attack would be <20%, even by SM3s. And let’s not talk about the GMD.

    Either you feel comforted after you activate a missile defense “shield” or you don’t. If you feel comforted it is a mistake, since no missile shield will ensure no nuclear missiles get through. It would be a false sense of comfort. We should be as on-guard and cautious with a missile defense as without.

    If you don’t feel comforted — what is the point?

    The insurance analogy is weak since insurance usually works, and you do not actively worsen your security situation by buying insurance.

    I also point out Pavel’s arguments which are very similar to mine.

    “it will be tough for Obama to let go of missile defense because until now, the discussion has been framed in such a way that it’s implicitly assumed that missile defense is a fundamentally useful thing—as long as it can be made efficient and built at reasonable cost without damaging the prospect for nuclear disarmament, of course. In short, the argument often is that the current missile defense system is flawed, but if those flaws could be solved, missile defense would be a great boon to international security. Missile defense proponents, of course, go much further, stating that missile defense provides a reliable (and some insist the only) way to counter emerging missile threats.

    ….

    The fundamental problem with this argument is that missile defense will never live up to these expectations. Let me say that again: Missile defense will never make a shred of difference when it comes to its primary mission—protecting a country from the threat of a nuclear missile attack. That isn’t to say that advanced sensors and interceptors someday won’t be able to deal with sophisticated missiles and decoys. They probably will. But again, this won’t overcome the fundamental challenge of keeping a nation safe against a nuclear threat, because it would take only a small probability of success to make such a threat credible while missile defense would need to offer absolute certainty of protection to truly be effective.”

    Further, the risk of accidental launches etc. are increased under a missile defense scenario, since you force the enemy to increase their stockpiles.

    In a world of static enemies who are not locked in a feedback loop with your every move, missile defense against nuclear missiles may be a great idea.

    The many Nobel Prize winners and other eminent scientists have said missile defense does not protect, not “even in principle”

    “At the same time, its deployment would result in large security, political, and monetary costs.”

    It is a form of insurance that brings about the type of disaster it is meant to protect against, while also failing and not paying out when the disaster finally does come.

    And it’s rather pricey.

  15. MK

    Long-range missile defenses can not provide a “catastrophic insurance policy for our homeland.” What kind of insurance policy would read, “In the event of a catastrophe, we will flip a coin, and cover you if it comes up heads. Or maybe we won’t even bother flipping.” That’s what you get with BMD. Even odds you hit the target if it is a nice, cooperative target with no real countermeasures. About zero odds you hit it if it is a real missile launched by real people who are smart enough to build a missile and therefore smart enough to use simple, known countermeasures that your BMD can’t handle, and really mad enough at you to launch the thing despite all consequences.

    Short range BMD for “US expeditionary forces” is also hardly an insurance policy. It reportedly worked pretty well in the invasion of Iraq, and not at all in 1991, the latter case reputedly due to the random circumstance that the al-Hussein missiles were badly welded. So, in future scenarios, it’s a crap shoot whether short-range BMD will work pretty well, or about as well as it does in tests (50-50 or something in that neighborhood), or not at all. In no case is it a game-changer, in no case is it something that can be relied on in defense planning, and I don’t see how you can call it any kind of “insurance policy.”

  16. MG

    MK:

    Long-range missile defenses can not provide a “catastrophic insurance policy for our homeland.” What kind of insurance policy would read, “In the event of a catastrophe, we will flip a coin, and cover you if it comes up heads. Or maybe we won’t even bother flipping.” That’s what you get with BMD. Even odds you hit the target if it is a nice, cooperative target with no real countermeasures. About zero odds you hit it if it is a real missile launched by real people who are smart enough to build a missile and therefore smart enough to use simple, known countermeasures that your BMD can’t handle, and really mad enough at you to launch the thing despite all consequences.

    Short range BMD for “US expeditionary forces” is also hardly an insurance policy. It reportedly worked pretty well in the invasion of Iraq, and not at all in 1991, the latter case reputedly due to the random circumstance that the al-Hussein missiles were badly welded. So, in future scenarios, it’s a crap shoot whether short-range BMD will work pretty well, or about as well as it does in tests (50-50 or something in that neighborhood), or not at all. In no case is it a game-changer, in no case is it something that can be relied on in defense planning, and I don’t see how you can call it any kind of “insurance policy.”

  17. RS (History)

    There is no empirical evidence to suggest that missile defences will enhance deterrence. But what aspect of deterrence are we talking about – ‘mutual deterrence’, or America’s ability to achieve ‘unidirectional deterrence’?

    Isn’t the point of missile defences to facilitate, and enable, American power projection in regional settings characterized by possible nuclear proliferation – i.e. to ensure the US isn’t deterred but can deter the other?

    In this case missile defences aren’t meant to promote strategic stability between the US and others, but are meant to alter the balance in America’s favour and thus “… to make the stakes of power projection compatible with the risks of power projection.”

    We can sit around and say how seemingly irrational the decision to deploy missile defences is on a technical basis but we are dealing with perceptions; whether the system itself works 100% on a technical basis doesn’t matter if it changes the calculus of so-called ‘Rogues’, either deterring them from using, or dissuading them from attaining, nuclear arms.

    Don’t we get the same outcome by changing the ‘perceived’ balance of deterrence as we would by altering its physical basis?

  18. Distiller (History)

    Missile defence against a Russian attack wouldn’t work anyway, cause you can’t protect the sensors against blinding salvos.

    Btw, MKV’d BMD mobile SS-25 would be even more effective than MKV’d BMD Minutemen. The treaty works both ways and the U.S. should be happy that “Taran”-like configs are verboten!(And mixing SLBMs and BMD interceptors aboard a SSBN would be a VERY BAD idea!)

    Against “rogue states” an airborne loitering boost-phase BMD with a modded THAAD or PAC-3/MSE aboard an UAV (or a B-52) would be a more interesting solution.

  19. Mike (History)

    Steeljaw:

    Many of us would not consider HTP to be a hypergolic. That being said, your main point regarding the use of mono/bi/hypergolic propellants is still taken.

  20. yousaf

    Thomas Schelling, this past Friday, came out against missile defense — conceptually, not technically.

    I agree with him.

  21. Ian Anthony (History)

    Yousaf, do you have a link to the Schelling argument against missile defence please? That would be interesting to read.

  22. yousaf

    Ian,
    yes, listen from minute 59.5 onwards:

    http://www.newamerica.net/events/2010/tom_schelling

    Not so much an “argument” as an out of hand dismissal.

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