US Battleship, firing a SeaRAM guided missile, the newest of many anti-missile, anti-aircraft guided missile systems.
USS Porter (DDG-78) conducts a structural test firing of SeaRAM in Spain on Feb. 28, 2016, as the first Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer with a SeaRAM installation. US Navy photo.

What We Get Wrong About Missile Defense And Nuclear Deterrence

When national security professionals discuss “missile defense” they are are typically referring to technologies that can intercept an in-coming nuclear missile and blow it out of the sky.

In 2002, the George W. Bush administration unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty the US signed with the Soviet Union in 1972. Since then, there has been a sharp increase in the development of missile defense technologies around the world. This has seriously complicated nuclear deterrence.

Sanne Verschuren is a Stanton Nuclear Security post doctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. She is working on a book about why missile defense developed and takes the forms that it does today. The book is built from her dissertation on the topic, which was awarded the prestigious Kenneth Waltz Award for Outstanding Dissertation in the field of International Security Studies.

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Transcript lightly edited for clarity 

What Are Hypersonic Missiles? 

Sanne Verschuren [00:00:00] Russia and China have used it as an explanation, as a motivator for building all these exotic system for expanding their nuclear arsenals, and I think we’re down in a place where we don’t want to be.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:00:50] When national security professionals discuss missile defense, they are typically referring to technologies that can intercept an incoming nuclear missile and blow it out of the sky. In a very basic sense, missile defense can complicate nuclear deterrence because as one side builds up its missile defense system, the other side is incentivized to build more nuclear weapons to evade those systems and vice versa. The United States and Soviet Union recognized this dilemma and in 1972 entered into the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to place limits on their missile defense systems. In 2002, the George H.W. Bush administration unilaterally withdrew from that treaty. And since then, there has been a sharp increase in the development of missile defense technologies around the world. Sanne and I kick off with a conversation about how extremely fast-moving missiles known as Hypersonics, which notably were tested by China last year, are influencing discussions around missile defense and nuclear deterrence. We then have a discussion about the history and current impact of missile defense on nuclear security more broadly.

Sanne Verschuren [00:03:08] So hypersonics are missiles that fly on a non-ballistic trajectory, so they have more maneuverable trajectories, and they are often said to fly quite fast. We call it MC5, which means that they fly faster than five times the speed of sound, and there are different types of hypersonics. So, we’ve got hypersonic glide vehicles which are launched from a certain point and then glide towards their target. And there are hypersonic cruise missiles which have like basically a little motor that guides them and navigates them to their target. And sometimes it can even get more complicated. So, the Chinese test that we saw in the summer of 2021 involved a FOBs, which is a fractional orbital bombardment system, and which amazingly means that you put a weapon in orbit and then drop it whenever you want from orbit on its target. And so, there’s a lot of panic in the defense community about these developments. But I think some of that is overblown because these things are not new. Like China, US and Russia are all developing these kinds of systems and even North Korea claims to be developing hypersonic missiles. And many of these countries have done so in the past. So, in the Cold War, many of these countries pursued hypersonic, missile research and hypersonics, and even FOBs were pursued in the Cold War and subsequently canceled. We often say they’re incredibly fast, but ballistic missiles, which is like the more standard type of missile, can actually fly faster. Ballistic missile, which is about 20 times the speed of sound during its trajectory. And in addition, like the hypersonics, because they’re maneuvering within the flight and within the atmosphere, that kind of slows them down a little bit more. They’re also said to fly at lower altitudes and therefore are more maneuverable and thus harder to observe. But the U.S. has a really extensive network of sensors, both in space and on earth that can track missiles, for example, the space based infrared systems. They can track missile launches by the burnout from the missiles. And that would be the same for a hypersonic missile or a ballistic missile. And then finally, it’s said that because they’re maneuverable, they could evade missile defenses. But ballistic missile defenses were never designed to do that in the first place. They are only designed to intercept what we call simple, so it means that there’s no sophisticated countermeasures, ICBMs from predominantly North Korea and maybe Iran, right? That’s the real purpose of missile defense. And China and Russia have always been said to be deterred through the nuclear arsenal of the United States rather than U.S. missile defenses. So, it’s never been the purpose anyway.

Why were United States defense staff so worried by China’s 2021 hypersonic missile tests?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:05:44] So what is the reason then, that so many policy makers in the United States expressed so much concern and alarm over these Chinese hypersonic tests back in 2021. I remember I was at a presentation at the Halifax International Security Firm by a very senior U.S. military official who argued that the development of this specific technology could potentially upend U.S. nuclear strategy writ large. What’s the source of their concern?

Sanne Verschuren [00:06:21] I mean, for the missile defense systems that currently exist, it would be tricky to intercept hypersonic missiles. That is definitely true, and I think that there are people within the U.S. defense community who want to move towards a world that is not built around deterrence through massive, assured destruction, meaning like, if you strike me, I will strike you with everything I got, and we’re all destroyed. Like, it’s not based on that, but it’s instead based on the idea that if the adversary strikes, you can take out their strike. And there’s consideration of that through a number of means, all these kinds of concepts and missile defense is a core idea within that. And I think if you’re in the headspace where that’s what you’re thinking about, then those Russian and Chinese hypersonics can seem really, really scary because you don’t have a means to intercept. But in reality, that’s a little false because it was never the stated purpose of missile defense in the first place. And the missile defense systems have a pretty poor track record and wouldn’t be capable to intercept any more sophisticated ICBM that would come from China or Russia in the first place.

Why are ballistic missile defenses important to the United States’ foreign relations?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:07:27] Yet it is your determination and the determination of other scholars that the reason China is pursuing hypersonics is because the United States is sort of wedded to this idea of a robust missile defense system. Is that right?

Sanne Verschuren [00:07:45] Yeah. And so, I think this is why we should be worried about the hypersonics. It doesn’t necessarily change the strategic calculus as it exists within the U.S. defense community. But what it does do is that it is a sign that things are really wrong. It’s a sign that all these countries are engaging in a novel arms race, and I think ballistic missile defense is an important driver of that.

What is the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:08:07] So I want to probe that point specifically but before we get there, I’d love to have you kind of take us back and, you know, articulate the reasons why in the first place the United States developed an anti-ballistic missile program and then why I think it was in 1972 that the United States and Russia agreed to an Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. So, kind of briefly explain that that history for us.

Sanne Verschuren [00:08:36] The pursuit for ballistic missile defense has a very long history. So, at first, the idea of intercepting missiles emerged when the Nazi Germany used the V-2 rockets, which were the first long range guided ballistic missiles against European countries and, for example, the bombings in London, etc. And I think that really spurred quite a bit of research into seeking ways to prevent ballistic missiles from reaching its targets, particularly in the U.S. There was a lot of research in the fifties, in the sixties and the program had various names; it started out as the Nexus program, then it became the Sentinel program, which later became the safeguard problem. And what the overarching goal or the overarching program was the idea of creating interceptors that were missiles with nuclear warheads that would fly in the vicinity of an incoming missile and then explode. And because a nuclear blast can take out that incoming missile, the designating a nuclear weapon space is quite problematic. It creates massive fallout. It creates an electric magnetic pulse which could take out satellites. There are all these downsides with it and all these technical difficulties, too, because at that point the USSR had massive amounts of intercontinental ballistic missiles, as did the United States. And so having to match potentially massive strike with missile defense, the U.S. didn’t have capabilities for that.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:10:00] You would need to build thousands of antiballistic missiles in order to knock down an oncoming volley sent by the other side, right?

Sanne Verschuren [00:10:09] Exactly, exactly, and that would be really hard to do and then would also compound the problem of nuclear explosions in space. And so I think in the end of the 1960s, both on the U.S. and on the Soviet side, I think they came to a similar conclusion, which was, first of all, these technical difficulties — and in addition, there was a lot of concern and there’s great speeches by McNamara, for example, about arms freezing and about the idea that if you build missile defenses, that will just spur the other side to get more offensive weapons and more sophisticated offensive weapons, that could evade the missile defense. And then you’ve got to build more sophisticated missile defenses and off we go on to a massive arms race. And then I think there was a third driver, which was the idea that MAD, so mutually assured destruction, was the ordering concept of the relationship between the US and USSR. The relationship was based on massive retaliation and not on other potential strategies that were floating around in which missile defense would play a much more central role. And so, in 1972, leaders of both countries signed the ABM Treaty, which outlawed national missile defenses, except it allowed the countries to have 100 interceptors each at two fixed ground-based defense sites. And later on, they signed a protocol in 1974 where the Soviets want to keep their existing defense around Moscow, which still exists until today, and the US wanted to go for an interceptor site and Grand Forks in particular to protect a missile base, and so that’s kind of where the ABM Treaty ended up.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:11:35] So basically each side was able to keep a small number of ABMs at fixed locations and then from 1972 until 2001, it’s fair to say that’s more or less where things stood.

What is the Strategic Defense Initiative?

Sanne Verschuren [00:11:48] No, I think that there is an important past we have to think before we turn to 2001, which is in 1983. So, the Reagan administration comes along and in March 1983, President Reagan announces the Strategic Defense Initiative, which was….

Mark L. Goldberg [00:12:01] Star Wars!

Sanne Verschuren [00:12:02] Star Wars, exactly. And in my opinion, and this is what my book talks about, this was driven by a heightened threat perception from the Soviet Union, coupled with disbelief among important people in the Reagan administration that MAD worked. Instead, what they wanted to do was to prevent and deny the adversary of victory at any level of attack, including like taking down a massive incoming barrage of missiles.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:12:30] So you’re saying that it was key figures in the Reagan administration just didn’t believe in the theory of mutually assured destruction?

Sanne Verschuren [00:12:39] Yes, indeed. So, they didn’t believe that the Soviet Union would be restrained by the rules of mutually assured destruction and instead, what they wanted to do is to deny the Soviets military victory at any level of warfare, including in the case of a massive strike. They wanted means to intercept that massive strike, and hence you arrive with missile defense. And because you’re thinking about a massive strike, this pushes the ideas into space, right? Space is the only place where you could theoretically intercept such a large number of missiles and hence, they became incredibly focused on these exotic technologies like the x ray lasers, which was like having kind of a nuclear device into space that would beam these x rays and they could take out missile’s multiple times. And then later on, this was changed to brilliant pebbles, which were small missiles that you would place into orbit and like kind of Hoover over the Soviet Union and could destroy a missile and there was hundreds of these, and they could destroy a missile that was trying to reach the United States. And ever since that moment, missile defense has never really gone away.

Why didn’t Congress support the Star Wars missile defense program?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:13:54] But the Star Wars program never really took off, right? It was always a little farfetched and fantastical and Congress never sufficiently funded it, right?

Sanne Verschuren [00:14:04] The technology really was exotic, and it wasn’t feasible, and I think there was a lot of research done, but I think it laid the foundation for the next generation of missile defense, which is what we’re seeing today. And like especially if you look at the Bush senior administration — his plan was called Global Protection Against Limited Strike — like this is the basis for some of the technologies that are around today and are still being pursued today. For example, directed energy weapons, which is the fancier name for lasers, is back, fully back at the moment.

Why did the Bush administration withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty after 9/11?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:14:38] So it was in 2001 that Bush junior, George W Bush, ripped up the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, unilaterally withdrew from it in the wake of September 11th. What were the arguments for doing so at the time? Like why would the administration want to leave this treaty?

Sanne Verschuren [00:15:02] Yeah, so in December 2001, it was a really extraordinary moment in many ways, right? The US was battling the aftermath of 9/11; there was a lot going on and a lot that had nothing to do with missile defense. But still, the Bush administration decided that tackling the threats from rogue states like North Korea, Iraq, Iran was a top priority and needed to be pushed through. And so, they decided to massively invest in a ground-based system, which we now know as the ground based midcourse defense system to defend the U.S. homeland against attacks from these rogue states, even attempted rhetorically to link it to terrorism, which was quite interesting. But in the process, they decided not to renegotiate the ABM Treaty, which was what the Clinton administration tried to do, but instead to withdraw from it. And the arguments were technical arguments about the fact that it wouldn’t leave the US enough space to do research and deployment of ballistic missile defense systems. But in reality, I think it was much more of a symbolic move. By the end of 2008, only 26 of the 44 projected interceptors were actually in the ground. And all of these intercepted were prototypes. The US wasn’t even in violation of the ABM Treaty by the end of the Bush administration. But I think what it did instead is that it signaled that there was a new thinking as administration, like there’s all these strategic documents that talk about the new triad in which missile defense becomes another leg of the triad, for example. And I think this, again, signals this move away from mutually assured destruction, which they still accepted for the Russia relationship, but they weren’t accepting for the North Korean and Iranian relationship. The logic being, we’ve got crazy dictators over there. They’re completely irrational. They won’t understand the rules of the game and they might launch anyway. And if they do, we want to be able to intercept.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:16:50] Which sounds a lot like what you’re saying the Reagan administration officials thought about the Soviet Union back in the day.

Sanne Verschuren [00:16:57] Exactly. I think that there’s quite a bit of recurrence within these debates and dynamics that come back all the time that are really interesting to study.

What impact did the US withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty have on nuclear strategy around the world?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:17:05] The U.S. decides to, you know, develop ABM’s principally to take down missiles shot by North Korea and potentially Iran withdrawing from the ABM Treaty. What impact can we now assess that that has had on the nuclear strategy and decision making, say, in China or in Russia? We have now, what, like two decades of evidence upon which to draw on the impact of this decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. What followed?

Sanne Verschuren [00:17:39] So I think what followed is that we find ourselves in a world that we specifically decided in the late 1960s that we didn’t want. We find ourselves in a world with both an offensive and defensive arms race. And I think this is established in multiple ways. So first, let’s look at the U.S. side. So, the U.S. side, ever since the decision in the Bush administration, has kept expanding its missile defense system. So, there are satellites in space. There’s a massive network of radars based at different locations, different types of radars. There are multiple interception systems. So, there’s a GMD system, there’s the Aegis system, there’s a PAD system and there’s a massive command and control infrastructure. And missile defense has become enshrined in the U.S. military. And it has also invaded multiple domains so it’s not just about missile defense, preventing troops from being attacked by short range missiles. It’s also about regional missile defense, its integrated infrastructure, for example, and it’s about homeland missile defense. And then now, in the most recent, the Trump missile defense review in 2019, we saw this idea of returning to space of investigating space-based interceptors. We saw a reemergence of directed energy weapons research. We saw the idea that we need to take on these hypersonic challenges. And ever since, this just has kept growing. And I think what it has done is that in Russia and China, even though the U.S. has always maintained that it isn’t targeted at them — and the U.S. also says that a lot of the stuff wouldn’t work against their capabilities — I think it has created this idea that the U.S. just will keep expanding and keep investing until it finds the thing that will enable it to take down the large incoming missiles that would come from Russia and China. And I think they feel, especially in the case of China, which has a fairly limited arsenal, I think they feel threatened. There’s a large amounts of Aegis ships — the U.S. has been investing, upgrading the Aegis interceptor, and to try and get it to be able to take down ICBMs, (intercontinental range ballistic missiles). A lot of those are deployed in the South China Sea and that has created the idea that maybe there’s some idea in Russia it could take out their second-strike capabilities, right? And so, it would make them less safe. And then Russia has sometimes claimed that the sites that are close to Russia, which there’s Aegis sites in Poland and Romania, that those sites could be used for offensive use. So that’s something they’ve said. And then I think that they also have a sense of spatial encroachments, like all these systems are placed along like the borders of these countries roughly. And so, whether these concerns are genuine or not on the part of Russia and China, Russia and China have used it as an explanation, as a motivator for building all these exotic systems, for expanding their nuclear arsenal, and I think we’re down in a place where we don’t want to be. And then at the US side, what we’ve seen is that missile defense is expensive. It’s cost taxpayers $350 billion since 1957. The ground-based defense system as the key system in the U.S. infrastructure has cost $90 billion. These are really expensive systems, and they don’t work very well. The testing record for the GNP is about 50% success in scripted tests. So, I think that that is something that policymakers think about. And in addition, like the problem for the U.S. side with missile defense and I guess this is also an interactive problem, is that even though there are limitations to what the system can do, if a U.S. president thinks that these capabilities offer him more than they actually give, he could be incentivized to engage in more risky behavior, which could then backfire because these capabilities might not at all be capable of doing those things. And so, there’s a serious risk of miscalculation and a risk for escalation with missile defense entering the strategic realm.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:21:44] So, you know, if missile defense is very expensive, it doesn’t always work, which were the critiques that I remember back in 2001, kind of liberal, lefty, progressive foreign policy people were making, ‘these are very expensive and they don’t really work,’ but there’s like an added layer of argument against their value in American national security, because you’re saying that, these missile defense systems inspire other countries to want to create better weapons, to evade the systems. And on top of that, the possession of these systems by the United States might inspire an American president to engage in risky behavior. So, it seems that these are weapons that, counterintuitively, might make Americans less secure.

Sanne Verschuren [00:22:36] Yes, exactly.

Why are American politicians more supportive of missile defense systems now as compared to 20 years ago?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:22:38] Yet there seems to be this political consensus right now around their development and deployment, a consensus that didn’t exist 20 years ago that exists now. You’re not seeing a lot of opposition among American political leaders to the continued development of missile defense systems. Why do you think that is?

Sanne Verschuren [00:23:00] Let me start by saying that, I think that’s right. So, we don’t know much about the Biden administration’s position yet because the missile defense review hasn’t come out. But what we’ve seen so far is that the budget requests for missile defense are quite high. And the fact sheet that they released on the MPR and the MDR said that missile defense is a key component of integrated deterrence, which might mean that they really consider missile defense important, and especially if you say integrated deterrence, that is about the relationship with Russia and China, which again gets us into this murkiness of where does missile defense belong within the strategic relationship with other great powers. And so, I think that a lot of U.S. policymakers have accepted missile defense as part of the equation. And maybe I’m really critical now but have been somewhat blind to the costs that have come with the system, the strategic costs, the strategic risks that we have seen, the unintended consequences in terms of strategy, the financial costs, the technical difficulties that endure, like policymakers have somehow sidestepped those issues and have accepted ballistic missile defense and haven’t also engaged in a much needed debate about what the downsides are. And so, I think what U.S. policymakers should do is they should really bring this into the broader strategic debate. And sometimes there are a little bit of silos, for example, between the arms control community and the missile defense community. And it’s important to take those down and have conversations across all these capabilities and how they interact with each other, both on a strategic level, on a tactical level. I mean, these are really difficult conversations and difficult choices to be made.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:24:40] Is there a right amount of missile defense or is the safest amount of missile defense paradoxically, no defense at all. And just accepting a kind of mutual vulnerability between you and your adversary.

Sanne Verschuren [00:24:56] I think in the 1960s, in the late 1960s, the United States decided that accepting mutual vulnerability was the way to protect the United States. And we’ve, since Reagan and especially since Bush, we’ve moved away from that. I mean, I think that is really dangerous for the aforementioned reasons. Both sides of the coin are kind of tricky, right? On one hand, you have missile defense, which has clearly led to all these negative dynamics. And on the one hand, accepting a world based on mutual vulnerability with weapons who could destroy the earth in seconds is also really hard to accept. So, I don’t think these are easy conversations, and these are also not easy conversations to have with where we currently are, which is with the great power competition with China, with the relationship with Russia having gone completely bad since the invasion in Ukraine and even before. It’s going to be really tricky to find space, especially in a multilateral, bilateral context to talk about these things. But I think that is really much needed and I think the U.S. policy community should really think about for them where the lines are. What is it really that you want to achieve with your capabilities? And are there ways to limit them and maybe to roll back some of the things that have been planned for missile defense.

What would the benefits be of a multilateral Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:26:13] Potentially even through some sort of multilateral Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, though that seems far-fetched right now. Presumably you think something like that between the U.S. and Russia and China is needed and necessary?

Sanne Verschuren [00:26:27] Yeah, I think that even though most steps are unlikely at this point, I think if going forward there any arms control conversations between these countries on a bilateral level or in a trilateral conversation, missile defense is going to have to be a part of that and U.S. will have to be willing to talk declaratory and capability limits in order to get Russia and China on board with any other concessions in the nuclear domain.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:26:54] Well, Sanne, thank you so much for your time.

Sanne Verschuren [00:26:57] You’re welcome.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:27:06] Thank you for listening to Global Dispatches. Our show is produced by me, Mark Leon Goldberg, and edited and mixed by Levi Sharp. Today’s conversation was produced in part through the support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York to bring policy-relevant academic research to the kind of policy audience that congregates around this podcast. The views and opinions expressed in this episode belong solely to those of us who expressed these views and opinions.