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Why deterrence is better than missile shield


For the past five decades, the United States has relied on a policy of nuclear deterrence as a way of averting nuclear war. U.S. and Soviet leaders knew that if either fired nuclear weapons at the other, mass mutual destruction would be the result.

It was a Faustian bargain, but it worked.

President George Bush and his secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, would now have us believe that the policy is outdated, arguing that it does not work to deter small “rogue” nations like Iraq. What we need now, Bush and Rumsfeld have consistently said, is a layered missile defense shield to protect the United States and its allies against the threat of rogue states.

The proposal is vague. It is based on weapons of unknown numbers and types, as well as unknown modes of deployment. Yet to get what he wants, Bush is willing to not only abandon deterrence -- a policy that, however controversial, has served both us and the Soviets well -- but also to unilaterally abrogate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Further, the administration wants to back NATO expansion to include even states in the former USSR such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Over such expansion, Russia would have no veto.

Bush’s plan is based on two false premises and threatens Russia’s security to the point of creating world instability.

Let’s look at those false premises.

1) Bush falsely asserts that deterrence is no assurance against missile attacks from small rogue nations like Iraq. Saddam Hussein, he argues, is too irrational to be deterred by the power of a U.S. arsenal.

Recent history, however, suggests the opposite

As evidence of Saddam’s irrationality, Bush’s supporters like to point out that Saddam has used chemical weapons against Iran and even against his own people and that, in an act of revenge when withdrawing from Kuwait in 1991, he created an ecological disaster by setting fire to hundreds of oil wells.

What Bush and his supporters fail to point out, though, is how deterrence has been effective even against Saddam. In the Gulf War and since, the Iraqi leader has avoided stepping over any line that was likely to tempt the United States to unleash its nuclear arsenal. Saddam probably heeded warnings by the first President George Bush that use of poison gas against U.S. troops in countries that bordered Iraq would mean the end of Iraq.

2) Our current President Bush also falsely asserts that Russia would not be threatened by the missile defense shield he proposes.

Unfortunately, people speaking for the administration consistently ignore what Russia cannot ignore: The defense shield Bush proposes could allow the United States to launch a first strike and then be prepared to intercept whatever missiles Russia had left to launch against us.

As a retired analyst of Soviet political and military affairs, I believe that Bush’s plan leaves Russian leaders with legitimate security concerns.

From Moscow’s viewpoint, Russia’s conventional military forces are incapable of quelling the rebellion in Chechnya, much less of stopping a potential invasion from Western Europe. Their combat aircraft rarely fly; their ships rarely sail and their submarines can’t leave port without the danger of blowing themselves up.

At the same time, the overwhelming superiority demonstrated by U.S. conventional forces in the last decade, combined with its robust nuclear forces, puts Russia’s weakening nuclear deterrent at great risk even before the proposed missile shield is put in place. Looking toward the future, Moscow must be concerned about its security in case of a first strike by the United States. If the United States were to launch a first strike with land- and sea-based ballistic missiles, backed up by air- and sea- based cruise missiles and stealth bombers, we could destroy a substantial portion of the Russian missiles capable of hitting the United States. The Russian strategic missiles remaining could be intercepted by U.S. missile defenses based on land, at sea, in the air and from space. In effect, then, Russia would have no realistic deterrent.

Behind the reasons the Bush administration is giving to the public for its proposed missile shield, I see two unspoken objectives.

First, there is a concern, left over from the Gulf War, that if we had tried to invade Iraq, our deterrent would no longer have inhibited Saddam from launching his weapons of mass destruction at our troops and at neighboring countries. After all, an invasion and conquest of the country would have meant Saddam had no place to hide. If he was to be doomed by an invasion, his reasoning might go, why not take his enemies down with him. But with a missile defense in place, the United States would be able to invade with impunity a “rogue” nation like Iraq in a future conflict, even if that rogue nation possessed missiles with nuclear warheads. This seems to be the main U.S. reason for deploying missile defenses against rogue states. Although deterrence may prevent rogue states from launching missiles of mass destruction against neighboring states and against the United States, it would not deter a suicidal launch of missiles by rogue states should the United States invade their country.

Second, a broadening of the U.S. missile shield would facilitate NATO’S expansion in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states under the umbrella of a U.S. capability to mount a pre-emptive nuclear strike. The prospect of Russia’s escalation to nuclear weapons against such an expansion would no longer pose a threat to the continental United States.

Among important points the Bush administration seems to be ignoring: what may be a stable leadership in Moscow today could turn highly unstable tomorrow. Bush’s plan would introduce such instability into the world that the prospects of nuclear war would increase to a level not seen since the potentially disastrous Cuban missile crisis in 1962. I believe that crisis was triggered by a U.S.superiority of 5-1 in strategic missiles and a superiority of 15-1 in bombers capable of striking the USSR. Today, the Russians can realistically fear that, over time, the Bush administration hopes to achieve total strategic nuclear dominance for the United States.

Why should Russia’s potential security concern us? Because the threat of escalation to full-scale nuclear war with Russia is of far greater danger than a small nuclear attack from a rogue nation. Fear of triggering an attack by Russia’s nuclear weapons should guide our strategy of defense far more than fear of attack by weapons of rogue states.

Press reports after the meeting of Presidents Bush and Vladamir Putin at the G-8 conference in Genoa, Italy, last month indicated that both countries would “consult, not negotiate” on future levels of offensive and defensive strategic weapons. But the administration also made clear that the United States will withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, will not reduce its offensive missile forces to the levels desired by Moscow, and will not be limited in the types of missile defenses the U.S. will deploy in the future.

Even though Washington may be able to persuade the current regime in Moscow to cooperate on missile defense, in the future an unstable Russian government could face a variety of crises. These include paranoia in Russia over expansion of NATO, future internal revolt in states like Chechnya, and the possibility of economic collapse if oil prices should fall dramatically. Any of these events could provoke panic in Moscow, particularly if the United States were able to assert its advantage over Russia’s disarray by having the potential to launch a first strike. Like Saddam, the Russian leaders would be facing a massive deterioration and/or destruction of their country. Why, then, would these Russian leaders be inhibited from taking their enemies down with them by launching a massive pre-emptive nuclear attack?

Thus, unlimited U.S. missile defense capabilities increase the possibility of U.S.-Russian conflict. After all, with the attitude of the Bush administration -- a refusal to negotiate limits on defensive forces and unilateral withdrawal from a core treaty Moscow sees as so necessary for its security -- what can Moscow count on?

French President Jacques Chirac had it right. He has reportedly expressed sharp dismay with Bush’s proposal to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Chirac pointed out that the treaty had served as an indispensable element in the global security structure for three decades and should not be lightly discarded.

Charles N. Davis served as an anti-submarine warfare pilot with the Navy in the late1950s. Until the early 1990s, he was an analyst of Soviet affairs with the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Intelligence Council. His e-mail address is cndppm@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, August 10, 2001