Journal Article - China Security

Space, Stability and Nuclear Strategy: Rethinking Missile Defense

| Forthcoming Summer 2010

The idea of a national missile defense capable of destroying nuclear-armed, long-range ballistic missiles in flight was a natural extension of the Cold War arms race. Once the superpowers could reach across the globe, traverse space and destroy each other (and the rest of the world in the process) in a matter of minutes, the urge to find a way out of that ghastly reality was sure to follow. It has now been nearly three decades since then–President Ronald Reagan asked whether civilization was destined to "perish in a hail of fiery atoms" and wondered what the world might look like if "free people could live secure in the knowledge...that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies," a vision for which he was both applauded as a hero and dismissed as a dunce. The Reagan administration has long since passed into history, but in the intervening years, the notion of missile defense has lived on despite having been declared, at various times, either dead or revived, crucial or irrelevant, necessary or dangerous.

More nations will head into space, much as they first took to the seas in an earlier era. And just as the seas became a source of great wealth, knowledge and cultural cooperation, their obvious value and strategic importance led them to become battlespaces as well. Comparisons between the seas and space are valuable but limited by the significant physical differences, and consequently challenges, regarding operating in the domains. Nevertheless, the central question remains: how and where—if at all—will nations draw the lines that might preserve space as a global commons1 making it a safe haven for objects in orbit around the earth, rather than fall to the temptation to create the largest arena of military competition in history? Nuclear strategies, and particularly missile defense efforts, are key components to answering that question and will have a significant impact on the future of global stability and security.

The Allure of Defenses

The allure of missile defense is obvious. After all, who could object to the idea of a defensive shield to protect the American people from missiles carrying nuclear warheads raining down from the skies? The horrific nature of nuclear weapons is most keenly felt and understood by those who remember the Cold War, the children of the 1950s and 1960s who hid under their desks at school, built back-yard fallout shelters and watched movies like Planet of the Apes (the climax of which features a horrified Charlton Heston, finding the melted remains of the Statue of Liberty buried in the sand and thus realizing that his newfound planet is actually Earth long after a nuclear war, howling for God Himself to "damn to hell" all the "maniacs" who "finally blew it up"). Each day, from the supposed tranquility of Eisenhower's 1950s right into the high anxiety of Reagan's first term, was an onslaught of apocalyptic images in popular culture, with the "eve of destruction" inevitably leading to the "the day after". The fear of the generations who lived through this period is real, it is justifiable, and it cannot and should not be dismissed lightly. These memories are the raw material from which many politicians have largely formed the philosophical juggernaut of the missile defense movement beginning in the early 1980s—and help to explain a 1998 poll by a pro-missile defense group that found that most Americans not only believed the United States already had a national missile defense, but were positively upset when told it does not.2

For those who came of age after the Cold War, these terrifying images seem almost comical and have since often been played for laughs in the new popular culture. Home fallout shelters are less likely to evoke hair-raising memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis than they are to elicit comic images of Brendan Fraser's clueless 1960s nerd emerging into the hip, cynical 1990s after climbing out of a bomb shelter in the comedy Blast from the Past. And nearly 20 years after Charton Heston's anguished astronaut finds the world in ashes, Val Kilmer's snarky teen scientist and his friends use a space laser not to destroy the USSR, but to fill their hated professor's house with a giant popcorn explosion in Real Genius. Nuclear war, once the worst nightmare of a generation, by the 1990s had become a punch line to a joke no one remembered.

The rapid collapse of the Cold War, and with it the almost instant evaporation of the tangible sense of nuclear threat, created a binary and false set of choices about space and defenses. In one sense missile defense became even more attractive to both generations: for those who remembered the Cold War, still-jangled nerves clung to the hope of stopping nuclear war, while younger minds could afford to see such a program as cost-free without a dimly-remembered Soviet adversary trying to overcome it. When Americans in 2009 were asked (by another pro-missile defense group, this one with strong ties to the industry base that would benefit from increased funding) a simple, black-and-white question­—"Do you think the United States should or should not have a missile defense system with the ability to protect the United States from an attack by missiles that might contain weapons of mass destruction?"—88 percent answered affirmatively3 Given the wording of the question, the only surprise is that the number wasn't higher (and again, many of the respondents likely thought such a system existed already in any case).  But even leaving aside partisan politics, who wouldn't want such a system? Who would answer, "No, I prefer to be vulnerable to nuclear attack"? Arms control advocates have long failed to produce a bumper-sticker response to the pro-missile defense perspective. To pose a similar question: do people want to be vulnerable to the devastating effects of earthquakes, hurricanes and potentially apocalyptic asteroid strikes? Of course not, but they understand that there are limited defenses and resources to spend on those defenses, with money then spent in those areas most likely to mitigate both risk and damage. Regarding nuclear weapons, missile defense has become the de facto expectation of defense, minus consideration of risk, cost or even effectiveness.

Reagan's program, once called "SDI" (Strategic Defense Initiative) and later reincarnated under various acronyms, remains with us in the 21st century simply as BMD (Ballistic Missile Defense). It endures not just for bureaucratic reasons but because it promises either to vanquish the anxieties of the Cold War generation or to increase the already significant sense of security among their children.

For many advocates of a missile defense program, constructing a system to protect the United States and its allies (or at least some of them) from ballistic nuclear missile attack is more than a military necessity; it is an absolute moral imperative. Perhaps even more important than the damage that might be limited by destroying an incoming nuclear strike, missile defense proponents see the creation of such a system as a deterrent in itself. This nationalistic symbol of American power and resolve would warn any potential aggressor that the United States will not waiver, even in the face of a hostile nuclear arsenal, and thus avert a catastrophic attack by the mere fact of its existence. This is not, on its face, an unreasonable assumption. In the 1980s, especially given Soviet fears of American technological superiority, it may even have been a defensible argument. But since then the United States has spent several tens of billions of dollars on missile defense research—and yet China, Iran, North Korea and possibly others have continued to pursue increasingly effective long-range ballistic capabilities. If missile defenses are a deterrent, why do US competitors—to say nothing of outright enemies—seem undeterred?...

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1 The idea of space as a global commons is discussed in such studies as: National Research Council, "America's Future In Space: Aligning the Civil Space program with National Needs," 2009, pp. 7, 42–46, 62.

2 The poll was conducted by the Clairmont Institute—itself a proponent of missile defense—which found that 54 percent of registered voters not only believed the United States could destroy a ballistic missile in flight, but also reported themselves as "surprised" or "shocked" and even "angry" when told this was not correct. See Thomas Nichols, "Winning the World," (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003), p. 23.

3 Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, May 2009.

For more information on this publication: Please contact International Security
For Academic Citation: Johnson-Freese, Joan and Thomas Nichols. Space, Stability and Nuclear Strategy: Rethinking Missile Defense.” China Security, vol. 6. no. 2. (Forthcoming Summer 2010) .

The Authors