Myths About Missile Defense and the Arms Race

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Myths About Missile Defense and the Arms Race

July 13, 2000 24 min read
Baker Spring
Baker Spring
Former Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy
Baker is a former Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy

Advocates of arms control often contend that America should not deploy a national missile defense (NMD) system because it will inevitably end in a strategic nuclear arms race, a competitive cycle of offensive and defensive missile deployments that will drive the overall level of nuclear armaments ever higher. In 1972, this fear led the United States to sign the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty with the Soviet Union to prohibit either superpower from deploying territorial defenses.

Instead of deterring an arms buildup, the ABM Treaty encouraged the Soviet Union to increase its offensive nuclear force. The Soviets viewed Washington's decision to forego missile defense as an invitation to seek a first-strike capability.1 The Soviet arsenal of deliverable strategic warheads grew from roughly 2,000 in 1972 to 12,000 in 1990.2 The United States was forced to follow suit to ensure the survivability of its retaliatory forces. Thus, the lack of ballistic missile defenses during the Cold War resulted in a strategic nuclear arms race.

Nevertheless, arms control advocacy groups today are trying to recycle the old argument that building a national missile defense system will set off an "offensive-defensive arms race." They assert that Russia, China, and even Third World countries will expand and modernize their strategic offensive forces to overcome a U.S. missile defense system.

These arguments are as seriously flawed as the ones put forth during the Cold War. They fail to account properly for the nature of the threat and for the future capabilities of America's defenses. Russia's economic circumstances are likely to result in a reduction in its strategic nuclear arsenal regardless of whether the United States has deployed an NMD; Beijing has been modernizing and expanding its forces for years; and boost-phase interceptors that destroy missiles before their warheads and decoys can be released will deter Third World states from upgrading their missiles to fool America's defenses.

Deploying a missile defense system to protect Americans is more likely to make countries like North Korea weaken their commitment to their missile programs, because they will become less likely to inflict damage on the United States yet too costly to maintain. Since vulnerability all but guarantees the effectiveness of their missiles, deploying missile defenses to close the vulnerability gap would remove the incentive to develop a missile strike capability against the United States. As the following discussion shows, recycling old Cold War myths about arms control and missile defense will only undermine America's ability to develop and deploy a capable system to defend itself from attack.


Americans were persuaded during the Cold War that vulnerability to attack would be a virtue. This theory of mutual assured destruction may have been plausible when the United States and the Soviet Union were the only countries that had nuclear weapons; today, however, weapons of mass destruction are proliferating widely, even to Third World "states of concern" that can ill afford them and that have reason to threaten to use them. And the U.S. military cannot now defend America from even one of these missiles.

National security policy based on fear and myth is dangerous; and in policy decisions that involve nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, flawed assumptions invite peril that could prove mortal. The merit of the following seven myths about national missile defense, and the flawed assumptions they rest upon, will quickly dissolve once the facts are known.

Myth #1: Banning missile defense systems in Russia and the United States effectively limited their offensive nuclear forces.

The fundamental premise behind the ABM Treaty was that a state's defenselessness would limit the likelihood that it would launch a nuclear attack on another country for fear of retaliation. This threat of mutual assured destruction thus would effectively limit the offensive forces of both Cold War adversaries. The preamble of the ABM Treaty states, for example, that "effective measures to limit anti-ballistic missile systems would be a substantial factor in curbing the race in strategic offensive arms...."3

The United States was aware that this premise was potentially flawed. Its delegation to the ABM Treaty negotiations issued a statement just before the signing of the treaty stating that the "objective of the follow-on negotiations [on strategic offensive arms] should be to constrain and reduce on a long-term basis threats to the survivability of [U.S. and Soviet] strategic retaliatory forces."4 Thus, even in 1972, U.S. policymakers were concerned that the treaty's ban on territorial defenses and its severe restrictions on regional defenses could encourage the Soviets to build up rather than cap their offensive weapons arsenal.

Reality: Soviet and U.S. offensive forces grew dramatically after the treaty partners agreed to ban the testing and deployment of national missile defenses.

The Soviets saw U.S. vulnerability as an opportunity to achieve a first strike capability. This is clearly demonstrated by the fact that the number of Soviet deliverable strategic warheads stood roughly at 2,000 when the treaty was signed in 1972; by 1990, they numbered around 12,000. (See Chart 1.) America's offensive strategic nuclear forces grew during this time as well, as the United States attempted to maintain the survivability of its retaliatory forces in the face of the Soviet buildup. The ABM Treaty not only failed to deter an offensive nuclear arms race, but as the evidence suggests, actually accelerated it.

Yet opponents of missile defense today argue in favor of maintaining U.S. vulnerability to ballistic missiles based on the same flawed premise. They assert that Russia, China, and even Third World countries will expand and modernize their strategic offensive forces to overcome a U.S. missile defense system. Russia would decide to maintain a larger strategic nuclear arsenal than it otherwise would; China would decide to modernize its strategic nuclear forces to offset America's capabilities; and a domino effect would lead Third World states such as North Korea to equip their ballistic missiles with capabilities that could fool America's NMD system.

Changing the focus of the concern to China or North Korea does not fix the flawed premise. Any country that would threaten the United States will see its vulnerability to missile attack as an invitation to build up its strategic missile forces to limit U.S. foreign policy options.

Myth #2: Deploying a U.S. national missile defense system will cause Russia to maintain a larger strategic nuclear arsenal than it otherwise would.

Arms control advocates contend that Russia will respond to America's deployment of an NMD by maintaining more strategic nuclear forces than it would otherwise. Stephen W. Young of the Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers, for example, has stated that "U.S. abrogation of the ABM Treaty [in the pursuit of an NMD deployment] could end these [START process] reductions, as well as the potential for even deeper cuts."5 Inherent in such assertions is the belief that Russia will respond precisely as arms control advocates thought the Soviet Union would if the United States had not signed the ABM Treaty. Moreover, they believe Russia will refuse to ratify the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) II or enter into a START III, and may even withdraw from the START agreement if America builds an NMD system.6

Reality: Current economic circumstances will force Russia to reduce its strategic nuclear arsenal even without arms control considerations.

The argument in favor of an offensive buildup of Russian strategic forces ignores the fact that the Cold War is over and that Russia is not likely to seek a Soviet-style confrontation with the United States. It also ignores the possibility that Russia could mimic the Soviet Union's response after the ABM Treaty was signed and seek a first-strike capability. The reality, however, is that Russia does not have the financial resources to pursue an arms race against the United States; in 1997, its gross domestic product (GDP) was only an estimated $644 billion, compared with America's GDP of $7 trillion.7

Moreover, a Russian proposal put forth before last month's Moscow summit indicated that the Duma anticipates Russia's economic problems will cause its strategic nuclear arsenal to fall below 1,500 deployed warheads. The proposal sought to reduce the ceilings in a START III agreement to no more than 1,500 warheads each, which would pull down the number of prospective U.S. strategic warheads to the approximate levels that Russia expects it will be able to maintain.

Myth #3: To overwhelm America's national missile defense system, Russia and China will invest in multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) capabilities.

Members of the Union of Concerned Scientists argue that Russia will develop MIRV capabilities for its land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) as a likely response to America's NMD deployment.8 A MIRVed missile contains more than one warhead, and MIRVed ICBMs would be prohibited under START II. Scientists in this arms control advocacy group assert that Russia could "extend the life of its existing large, multiple warhead ICBMs or fit its newer land-based missiles with multiple warheads."9 The MIRV capability, they believe, would give Russia the ability to saturate and overwhelm U.S. defenses. The scientists' report makes a similar assertion about China's response to an American NMD system.10

Reality: Boost-phase defenses can effectively counter MIRVed missiles, which would deter hostile states from investing in them.

The assertion that deploying a national missile defense system for America will cause Russia and China to seek MIRV capabilities would be appropriate only in the context of the ground-based missile defense system planned by the Clinton Administration. That system would be capable of destroying individual warheads only in the mid-course phase of flight. It would have to intercept all the warheads that had been released during this phase. Russia and China could achieve relative advantages over such a limited system by acquiring MIRV capabilities for their land-based missiles.

The concern expressed by the scientists, however, will not pertain to a layered missile defense system that has a boost-phase intercept capability, enhanced by space-based assets such as sensors, interceptors, and lasers. This system was proposed in 1999 by The Heritage Foundation's Commission on Missile Defense.11 Boost-phase defenses would destroy the missiles early in flight, when they are most visible and before they can release their warheads. Land-based missiles that have additional warheads have no advantage against such defenses. With a layered defense system in place, Russia and China would not have a strategic incentive to MIRV their land-based missiles because these missiles would not offer greater chances to penetrate America's defenses.12 Obtaining the offensive advantage under these circumstances would require increasing their number of missiles. Russia is barely able to maintain the number of missiles it now has.

Myth #4: China's strategic missile modernization program is motivated by a U.S. national missile defense decision.

In a June 29, 2000, letter to President Clinton, 45 specialists on U.S.-China relations stated that "[c]urrent plans for NMD deployment are likely to serve as a catalyst for China to accelerate nuclear weapons modernization, since it believes that even a simple defense configuration will leave its nuclear arsenal vulnerable."13

Reality: China embarked on its strategic weapons modernization program in the 1980s, when the United States was strictly adhering to the ABM Treaty prohibiting an NMD.

China's ballistic missile program dates back to the 1950s. Its mobile, solid-fueled ICBM program, which was initiated in the 1980s, is expected to reach operational capability within the next five years. Beijing deployed most of its 20 or so CSS-4 ICBMs during the 1990s when the Clinton Administration had halted the Bush Administration's NMD program and had begun to dismantle it. The House Select Committee on U.S. National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns with the People's Republic of China released a report in May 1999 that described China's modernization efforts.14

Clearly, China was motivated to acquire and improve its strategic missile force for reasons other than a possible deployment of an American missile defense system. It is likely to continue its efforts to modernize its forces regardless of Washington's decision to deploy a national missile defense system.

Myth #5: The expansion and modernization of China's strategic nuclear forces will have a domino effect in the Asia-Pacific region.

Stephen Young of the Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers has argued that a nuclear missile domino effect will occur in South Asia if America's deployment of an NMD system leads China to build up its offensive nuclear weapons. Specifically, Young predicts, "India and then Pakistan could respond [to a Chinese buildup] by increasing their budding arsenals."15 This argument assumes that first India and then Pakistan would adopt the policy of trying to match China's nuclear arsenal missile-for-missile or warhead-for-warhead.

Young also believes India's nuclear missile procurement will lead Pakistan to procure a nuclear missile arsenal. The implication is that the deployment of an American missile defense system would result in the procurement of nuclear missiles by Third World states. This assertion is wildly opportunistic, stretching the logic of the domino effect well beyond its feasible boundaries and making it appear that the United States is totally responsible for nuclear and weapons proliferation.

Reality: An arms race in Asia has everything to do with regional rivalries and nothing to do with the deployment of an NMD by the United States.

An unofficial description of India's nuclear weapons doctrine states that it is based on a policy of "credible minimum nuclear deterrence" for retaliating against a nuclear attack on India.16 Although the survivability of this retaliatory force is considered very important and based on the need to maintain redundant, mobile, dispersed, and hidden nuclear forces, the policy decision is not based on matching the nuclear forces of another country in numerical terms. Ironically, India may have adopted China's policy during the Cold War, when its minimal strategic nuclear deterrent force--far smaller than the U.S. and Soviet forces--was adequate for its own security and for maintaining a global balance of power.17 The Indians are more likely to focus on the larger number of intermediate-range missiles that China is procuring, which could threaten most of India's territory, rather than the new generations of China's ICBMs that could threaten U.S. territory.

Young may be right that India and Pakistan are preparing to engage in a nuclear missile race. China may be contributing to the problem by pursuing a policy of selective missile and nuclear proliferation that favors Pakistan.18 However, such a competition has nothing to do with the deployment of a U.S. national missile defense. India and Pakistan conducted nuclear tests in the spring of 1998. They were motivated to conduct these tests by regional rivalries and the perceived prestige that possessing nuclear weapons would give them, not by U.S. policies,19 since the United States had ceased conducting nuclear tests in 1992.

Myth #6: Deploying a national missile defense will encourage a Third World qualitative arms race to gain effective countermeasures.

The report of some members of the Union of Concern Scientists also discussed the possibility that Third World states, such as North Korea, would be motivated to deploy more capable missiles than they now have if the United States deploys an NMD system.20 These new, more effective missiles, they assert, would include countermeasures like balloon decoys to fool America's missile defenses. The scientists assert that an NMD system would never be able to distinguish between real warheads and the decoys.

Reality: Boost-phase defenses can defeat countermeasures, such as balloon decoys.

The assessment by the scientists may be optimistic about North Korea's ability to deploy effective countermeasures and pessimistic about America's ability to develop a weapons discrimination capability.21 Such countermeasures would be problematic for the Administration's planned land-based missile defense system, which would intercept the warheads only during the mid-course of flight. The criticism, however, is not applicable to a robust missile defense system that includes a boost-phase intercept capability. As with MIRVed missiles, a boost-phase intercept system could destroy the launched missiles before they are able to release their warheads and any decoys. With this capability, North Korea and other states would have little incentive to spend valuable resources to modernize their limited missile force by equipping the missiles with decoys. For these reasons, The Heritage Foundation Commission on Missile Defense proposed a layered defense system in 1999 that addresses the problem of decoys.

Myth #7: Missile defense is incompatible with efforts to reduce offensive strategic nuclear weapons.

Arms control advocates assert that an NMD would block further reductions in America's offensive strategic nuclear forces. They fear the initiation of an defensive arms buildup, which would force the United States to retain a relatively large number of offensive strategic nuclear weapons to overcome reactions to its deployment of a national missile defense system, at least in the longer term. In other words, an NMD would be an addition to America's existing forces, and no reduction of strategic weapons would be possible.

Reality: Missile defense reduces both the reliance on and the need for greater numbers of offensive strategic nuclear forces to meet national security requirements.

Once a national missile defense system is deployed, America will not need to build up its offensive forces. With defenses in place, it would rely less on its offensive strategic nuclear weapons and more on non-nuclear defensive weapons to meet its national security requirements.

Trading offensive forces for defensive ones is a strategy that is best understood in terms of damage limitation.22 In other words, the purpose of having strategic forces would be (1) to deter aggression and then (2) to reduce its impact, should deterrence fail, by limiting the damage that aggression would inflict on American territory. Arms control can play an important role in furthering such a damage limitation strategy by limiting the numbers of weapons that threaten the United States.

Because U.S. national security requirements for strategic forces depend on the specific targeting requirements of the military, deploying an NMD system would allow the United States to reduce its offensive weapons. For example, it is believed that Russia has 360 silo-based ICBMs.23 It is safe to assume that these missiles are on the U.S. military's target list for its offensive forces. If all of them are on the list, then the military is likely to have assigned at least 700 strategic warheads to cover them.24 If a robust, layered NMD system--which includes space-based components with a boost-phase intercept capability--could defend against 100 of these Russian ICBMs, the military would be free to reduce its offensive strategic nuclear force by up to 200 warheads. Moreover, the layered defenses would improve the survivability of U.S. retaliatory forces in an attack.

This is not to say that the United States would be able to rely exclusively on defensive weapons to meet the targeting requirements. Some sites--such as enemy command-and-control centers--cannot be targeted with defensive weapons. But it does recognize that arms control can be useful, limiting the potential hostile targets and simplifying damage limitation.

The fact that mounting a missile defense would help to limit offensive forces should lead arms control advocates to reconsider their opposition to missile defense. Prior to last month's summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russia proposed lowering the START III ceiling from between 2,000 and 2,500 deployed warheads to 1,500 warheads each. The media indicated that the U.S. military objected to the Russian proposal because no internal review indicated that U.S. war plans could be executed with fewer than 2,000 warheads.25 However, if robust missile defenses were in place, it is likely that an internal review would confirm that the U.S. military could indeed execute its strategic war plans with fewer than 1,500 warheads.

A number of specific conditions must be met and a robust missile defense system put in place if the United States is to be able to reduce the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to between 1,000 and 1,500. The following conditions, which may not materialize, nevertheless are consistent with existing forecasts of strategic weapons developments worldwide:

  1. Russia must reduce its strategic nuclear arsenal to no more than 1,500 deployed warheads. The reduction in Russia's deployed warheads must be accompanied by a similar reduction in its delivery systems and strategic infrastructure, which includes such things as command-and-control centers, bases, and storage facilities.

  2. China must not allow its deployed strategic nuclear force to exceed 100 warheads. China's strategic infrastructure must also be limited.

  3. The strategic missile forces of potentially hostile Third World states such as India, Iran, Iraq, and North Korea must remain very limited. These states should not possess more than 50 or so deliverable warheads combined.

  4. The United States must maintain a fully modernized, reliable, and effective strategic offensive nuclear force. Such a force should be capable of rapidly destroying threatening strategic targets, thereby executing the damage-limitation strategy.

Although America's strategic target list is classified, reports in the press indicate that the U.S. military has designated in its strategic war plans roughly 2,300 targets in Russia.26 Given that this target list is also likely to include a number of targets in China, the total strategic list probably includes around 2,500 targets.

Assuming that the reported numbers on the existing list are accurate and the first three conditions have been met, the total could be reduced to fewer than 1,000 targets, since a robust missile defense could cover 200 or more of the remaining targets. A missile defense architecture would also improve the survivability of America's retaliatory forces. The military could cover the remaining 800 or fewer targets with roughly 1,200 deployed strategic offensive warheads in a modernized force. As of January 2000, the United States had 7,763 strategic warheads deployed on ICBMs, submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and heavy bombers.27 Thus, under conditions stipulated above, deploying a robust missile defense system would allow the United States to reduce its strategic nuclear force by roughly 85 percent from current levels.


The deployment of a national missile defense system by the United States will not lead to a strategic nuclear arms race. In fact, the opposite is more likely to be true. A robust, layered missile defense system will allow the United States to rely less heavily on its nuclear forces than it now does. This is the case whether or not efforts at arms control with Russia and other states prove successful.

This is not to say that diplomacy and arms control have no role to play. The United States should seek to engage Russia on the missile defense issue by reviving the 1993 Defense and Space Talks. The Clinton Administration terminated these negotiations, which sought a treaty to facilitate a cooperative transition to the deployment of missile defense system. The United States should continue to encourage Russia to ratify START II and participate in the START III negotiations.

If these efforts at arms control prove successful and a robust U.S. missile defense system has been deployed, the result will be an 85 percent reduction in the number of strategic nuclear warheads deployed by the United States. Such a development would be welcomed by both sides of the political spectrum.

Baker Spring is a Research Fellow in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

1. For a detailed examination of the Soviet Union's first-strike potential during the Cold War, see W. Bruce Weinrod, ed., Arms Control Handbook: A Guide to the History, Arsenals and Issues of U.S.-Soviet Negotiations (Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation, 1987), pp. 133-141.

2. John Collins and Dianne E. Rennack, "Soviet Armed Forces: Statistical Trends, 1985-1990 (As of January 1, 1991)," Congressional Research Service, August 28, 1991, p. 15.

3. See the Treaty on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems , May 26, 1972, 23 U.S.T. 3435.

4. Ibid.

5. Stephen W. Young, "Pushing the Limits: The Decision on National Missile Defense," Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers, April 2000, p. 23.

6. START, which has entered into force, is reducing U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear offensive forces to roughly 6,000 warheads each. START II would reduce the arsenals to between 3,000 and 3,500 warheads on each side. START III, as currently envisioned, would reduce strategic offensive forces to between 2,000 and 2,500 warheads on each side.

7. From World Bank, World Development Indicators on CD-ROM 1999 , Washington, D.C., 1999.

8. Andrew M. Sessler et al. , "Countermeasures: A Technical Evaluation of the Operational Effectiveness of the Planned US National Missile Defense System," Union of Concerned Scientists, April 2000.

9. Ibid. , p. 110.

10. Ibid ., p. 112.

11. The Heritage Foundation's Commission on Missile Defense, Defending America: A Plan to Meet the Urgent Missile Threat (Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation, 1999).

12. This is not to say that China and particularly Russia may not wish to retain MIRVed ICBMs for economic reasons.

13. David Arase et al ., letter to President William J. Clinton, June 29, 2000.

14. This House committee was more commonly known as the Cox Committee after Chairman Christopher Cox (R-CA). Its report was released May 25, 1999. See Report of the Select Committee on U.S. National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns with the People's Republic of China , Vol. 1, May 29, 1999, pp. 172-186.

15. Young, "Pushing the Limits: The Decision on National Missile Defense," p. 21.

16. "Draft Report of National Security Advisory Board on Indian Nuclear Doctrine," unpublished draft dated August 17, 1999.

17. For an explanation of China's nuclear weapons doctrine both during and after the Cold War, see Colonel Larry M. Wortzel, USA, "Ballistic Missiles and Weapons of Mass Destruction: The View from Beijing," in C ountering the Missile Threat: International Military Strategies (Washington, D.C.: Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, 1999), pp. 190-197.

18. Ibid ., p. 193.

19. India, in particular, has been seeking to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. It likely sees possession of nuclear weapons as a means to achieve this goal and worldwide recognition as a major world power.

20. Sessler et al ., "Countermeasures: A Technical Evaluation."

21. Under Secretary of Defense Jacques Gansler and the Director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish, described the Administration's approach to addressing the discrimination problem in a June 20, 2000, press conference at the Pentagon.

22. For detailed description of a damage limitation strategy and its implications for U.S. strategic forces, both offensive and defensive, and for arms control, see Baker Spring, "What the Pentagon's Nuclear Doctrine Review Should Say," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 987, May 26, 1994.

23. U.S. Department of State, "START I Aggregate Numbers of Strategic Offensive Arms (As of January 1, 2000, as compiled from individual data submissions of the Parties)," Fact Sheet, April 1, 2000.

24. This assumes some redundancy in the assignment of targets and the fact that not all U.S. strategic nuclear forces are available for use at any one time.

25. Jonathan S. Landay and Steven Thomma, "U.S. Military Rejects Moscow Call to Cut to 1,500 Warheads," The Philadelphia Inquirer , May 24, 2000.

26. Ibid .

27. U.S. Department of State, "START I Aggregate Numbers of Strategic Offensive Arms."


Baker Spring
Baker Spring

Former Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy