Missile Defense Guarantees: What Are They Good For?

May 18, 2012

By Eli Jacobs

John Kyl’s recent op ed argues that the United States should not give Russia political guarantees that NATO missile defense does not threaten Russia’s nuclear deterrent. The crux of his argument is that such guarantees limit the United States’ right to self-defense, an unprecedented move that creates an undesirable power asymmetry.
My colleague has written a substantive critique of Kyl’s argument. Unlike my colleague, I am a missile defense supporter. As a result, what stands out to me are some of the background assumptions of Kyl’s argument and the situation generally. Namely, why does Kyl assume that a political guarantee actually limits U.S. defense options? More interestingly, why does Russia (seem to) believe that legal guarantees would secure it from the dangers of missile defense?
Whether or not a missile defense system threatens a country’s strategic deterrent is entirely about the capabilities and deployments of that system. Statements – legally-binding and political – matter for very little. If, for example, the United States possessed an extremely sophisticated missile defense system potentially capable of nullifying Russian ICBMs, legal guarantees would mean next to nothing to Russia. If Russian threat perceptions are unchanged, and assuming deterrence works, a sophisticated missile defense system would have the same value for the United States with or without legal guarantees.
The issue of legal guarantees, thus, is relatively incidental to the actual security situation of either side. The standard response to this position is that Russia is not afraid of current U.S. capabilities, but potential future ones. The unstated implication is that U.S. statements about missile defense will shape the development of our technology.
It’s unclear that this is the case. The official DoD line on future missile defense capabilities is that it won’t rule out the potential for significant improvements in U.S. capabilities. From all appearances, however, such improvements are at best a very marginal goal of U.S. policy. The administration’s recent budget request includes cuts for missile defense. Further, General Secretary Rasmussen of NATO has stated that Russia is not the target of NATO missile defense.
In short, the United States is hardly sprinting towards more sophisticated missile defenses. This reality suggests that guarantees would not meaningfully change the trajectory of U.S. technological development. Any breakthrough that would happen under current conditions would likely still occur even in the presence of guarantees to Russia. Contrary to Kyl’s argument, missile defense guarantees would neither limit the U.S. right to self-defense nor meaningfully alter our defense capability.
Not only would legal guarantees have relatively little real impact, but it’s unclear why Russia perceives that they would. Kyl alludes to the 1986 disagreement between Reagan and Gorbachev at Reykjavík as the origin of Russian concerns about missile defense. Indeed, while their political system is radically different, the Russian military (like many in the U.S.) still seems to understand nuclear forces – and missile defense, by extension – through the lens of Cold War rivalry. This is the same military establishment that violated the Biological Weapons Convention because it assumed the U.S. was also violating it. It is the same establishment that saw the United States withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002. Why are these people – hardheaded realists who view treaties more as PR tools than implements of national security – suddenly putting so much stock in legal guarantees?
I admittedly am not an expert on the topic, but my best guess is that the answer comes down to domestic politics. Opposition to U.S. missile defenses must go a long way to appease the military elite – many of whom are carryovers from the Soviet Union. It’s easy to forget that Gorbachev faced a coup d’etat in 1991, shortly before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. We should not assume that Russia’s political leaders – even ones with Putin’s military credentials – take strong civil-military ties for granted.
Similar barriers exist in the U.S. As a carryover from the Reagan era, potential restrictions on missile defense are politically controversial – as indicated by the recent flare-up over Obama’s recent promise of post-election flexibility.
Whether or not U.S. missile defenses will someday threaten Russia’s strategic deterrent, the stakes of guaranteeing that they won’t are very low – for both sides. It’s a shame that such a low-leverage issue stands as such a barrier to amicable ties between the two countries.
Eli Jacobs is a research assistant for the Defense and National Security Group. The views expressed above are his own and do not reflect those of the Center for Strategic and International Studies or the Project on Nuclear Issues.