A Realistic Approach to Missile Defense Talks

During the G-8 meeting in Genoa, U.S. President George W. Bush and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin agreed to start discussions on how the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty might be modified or replaced. Once they separated, however, Bush reiterated his ironclad determination to move ahead with an ambitious missile defense program regardless of Russian views, and Putin again emphasized his commitment to preserve the existing treaty.

Regardless of their motives, negotiations will now ensue. It is important that we clearly assess the pros and cons of various possible approaches to these negotiations. Three basic options stand out.

(1) Modify the ABM Treaty. The main idea of this approach would be to allow a small-scale defense aimed at rogue states. The treaty’s original limit of 200 defensive interceptors could be retained. The treaty’s prohibition on national missile defense would of course be dropped.

The modified treaty should be designed to allow so-called boost-phase defenses based on land, at sea, or in the air. It should also permit new technologies such as the airborne laser, perhaps counting each plane as the equivalent of a modest number of interceptor missiles.

This approach would stand a good chance of being accepted by Moscow. It would preserve the ABM Treaty, and would only allow defenses too small to threaten Russia’s nuclear deterrent. If it built up its nuclear arsenal, China could also confidently counter such a U.S. defense. Great-power relations and international efforts to stem weapons proliferation would not have to be sacrificed for the United States and its allies to have a missile shield.

2) Establish common ceilings on offenses and defenses. Consistent with its basic desire to deploy less strategic offense and more defense, the Bush administration could propose that Russia and the U.S. each be allowed a certain number of combined strategic assets in a new type of arms control framework. The U.S. might choose to deploy a mix of offense and defense; Russia might deploy only offensive weapons, at least at first.

For example, the new treaty or framework might allow a total of 2,000 strategic assets. The U.S. might choose to keep 1,500 strategic nuclear warheads and 500 interceptor missiles for long-range ballistic missile defense. Russia might keep 2,000 warheads. Alternatively, it might retain the right to deploy such a number, but cut its forces down to 1,500 warheads given economic constraints.

A number of variants on this approach could be imagined. For example, one could allow two or three defensive interceptors to be counted as the equivalent of one offensive warhead, on the grounds that defenses are preferable to offenses and on the further grounds that several interceptors could be needed to shoot down a single warhead.

This approach also has promise. It is consistent with Bush’s strategic rhetoric to date. It would allow Russia to save face, and some strategic compensation, as it assented to defensive deployments.

If the Bush administration favored either of the above two approaches, upcoming U.S.-Russian talks might hold real promise. But judging by Pentagon plans, as well as the recent statements by U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice dismissing the value of formal negotiations and agreements, the Bush administration seems more interested in something else.

(3) End formal arms control and emphasize transparency. The administration may propose to Russia that the two sides agree to consult frequently, notify each other of offensive and defensive deployments, continue some confidence-building inspections as now required under the START treaties, and work together on some strategic technology development. Otherwise, existing formal agreements would be abandoned and no further accords would be pursued.

This approach sounds good at first, but there is less to it than meets the eye. It runs counter to Putin’s expressed interest in retaining a formal arms control framework. It permits unconstrained American defensive deployments, including space-based weapons someday—which could theoretically gain the capacity to deny Russia a secure second-strike deterrent. It suggests an American emphasis on regaining a strategic primacy it has not held for 40 years, at the same time that NATO expands to Russia’s doorstep and U.S.-Russian relations remain otherwise unsettled.

The proof is in the pudding, of course, and perhaps Putin would agree to such an approach, but Putin would more likely ultimately walk away from the talks—while being viewed by most countries, including many American allies, as the aggrieved party.

It is time the U.S. got beyond its theoretical debates about whether missile defenses are good or bad, and whether the ABM Treaty is sacrosanct or not.

Real choices lie ahead, and real options must be assessed—especially since the one thing Putin and Bush still do agree on is that there will not be much time for the upcoming negotiations to succeed.

Alas, if Bush stays on the course he has apparently chosen, the negotiations will probably fail.