July 31, 2000

July 31, 2000 | Commentary on Missile Defense

The Arms Race Myth

As the debate over missile defense slowly shifts from whether we need such protection to what kind of system to deploy, we're again hearing the tired old nonsense that missile defenses will trigger a new arms race.

The charge was resurrected most recently at the summit meeting between Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Russian President Vladimir Putin. A U.S. missile shield, they huffed, would lead to "the most grave adverse consequences not only for the security of Russia, China and other countries, but also for the security of the United States."

Their solution? Stick with that venerable old Cold War relic, the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, a 1972 U.S.-Soviet agreement that bans national missile defenses. After all, it's "the cornerstone of global strategic stability and international security," they said.

But is it? The ABM Treaty was built on the truly MAD doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction-the idea that if both sides leave themselves vulnerable to missile attack, neither would ever dare use the nuclear option, because it would probably unleash a nuclear holocaust. This, of course, produced a virtual stalemate, but not before the Soviet Union massively built up its nuclear arsenal.

When the Soviets signed the ABM Treaty, they had 2,000 warheads. By the time the empire went belly up almost 20 years later, they had more than 12,000. Meanwhile, the Soviets built their own missile-defense system around Moscow.

Instead of stopping an arms buildup, this "cornerstone of global strategic stability" simply encouraged the Soviets to build more. They viewed Washington's willingness to keep the United States open to attack as an invitation to exploit our vulnerability. Far from protecting America, the "cornerstone of global strategic stability" essentially guaranteed that thousands of additional Soviet nuclear warheads would be targeted at U.S. cities.

Unfortunately, the notion that we can thank the ABM Treaty for keeping the peace is only one of several myths you'll hear bandied about by professional arms-control advocates. Here are some others, courtesy of my colleague Baker Spring:

Myth: Deploying a national missile defense will cause Russia to build more nuclear weapons. Reality: Saddled with crime and corruption, Russia doesn't have the money to compete in an arms race. It can barely afford to maintain its current missiles, let alone add more.

Myth: China is beefing up its nuclear arsenal because the United States is intent on building a national missile defense. Reality: China's ballistic missile program is almost 50 years old, and its most potent missiles were first built in the 1980s, when the United States still considered the ABM Treaty near-sacred. They didn't care then, and they don't care now. China will upgrade its nuclear arsenal no matter what Washington does.

Myth: The United States can't field an effective missile defense. Reality: It can-provided we're willing to look beyond the ground-based system favored by the White House. What's needed is a sea- and space-based defense. The Pentagon has said that the Navy's 20-year-old Aegis defense system, which protects the U.S. fleet from aircraft and cruise missiles, could be upgraded quickly and relatively cheaply to protect us against long-range missiles, too. A highly mobile "Aegis-plus" system also could be used to defend our allies.

The arms-control crowd doesn't seem to realize that diplomacy works best when you bargain from a position of strength. And that's no myth.

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. is president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
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