Missile Defense and Deterrence

Feb 18, 2011

By Chris Jones

Lisbeth Gronlund at the UCS “All Things Nuclear” blog had a piece this weekend about the relationship between missile defense and deterrence. The argument centers around a wikileaked cable (which is not directly quoted there and will not be here) discussing a conversation between Secretary Gates and French Minister of Defense Herve Morin. She argues:

Morin began by explaining how France sees missile defense, which he summed up by stating that it was wrong to believe that missile defense would provide additional security. He said he believes that the U.S. shift from a theater missile defense (designed to defend troops against a limited number of theater missiles) to a defense of Europe and its population will provide people with an unwarranted sense of security, since in the end offense is stronger than defense. Senior Ministry of Defense officials later disavowed Morin’s comments.
One might expect that Gates would argue that missile defense would offer a limited defense that was better than nothing. Apparently he did not even suggest this possibility. Instead, he responded to Morin’s points by stating that missile defense contributes to deterrence. In particular, he argued that missile defense would deter limited nuclear missile attacks by countries such as Iran that might acquire that capability in the future.
The first thing to note is that Gates’ focus on deterrence as a rationale for the U.S. defense system suggests that he agrees with Morin’s assessment that it would not provide a population defense.
Second, Gates’ argument is essentially that a potential attacker would not be deterred by the certainty of a devastating military response, but would nonetheless be deterred by the possibility that its missiles would be destroyed in flight. That makes no sense.
. . .
The question remains, does Secretary Gates really want to spend billions of dollars on a Potemkin defense to deter potential future missile states, or is he constrained by the political climate in Washington that requires all good Americans to support missile defense?

Neither of these implications should be drawn from what Secretary Gates said.  The argument that missile defense contributes to deterrence does not mean that Gates agrees that missile defense doesn’t provide a population defense.  That is part of why it contributes to deterrence. Missile defense is not for either (a) defense or (b) deterrence. It is both and there is a relationship between the two. Missile defense has to be perceived as credible, which opposing sides will be debating about for eternity, but Secretary Gates’ argument make quite a bit of sense. Gates has been a fan of missile defense “ever since President Reagan started the program back in 1983”  and has come out many times in support of current missile defense capabilities. Yet, true to his style, he has also proven very pragmatic on the issue by cancelling some of the more troubled programs.  The Administration rolled out the Phased Adaptive Approach in Fall 2009 precisely because, in the Secretary’s words, it “will enhance our ability to respond to the most immediate threats to the continent, as well as future threats.” That ability to respond to missile threats will never be perfect but it nonetheless contributes to deterrence by raising the chances in an adversary’s mind that their attack will not achieve the desired effect. 

It seems the real issue here is the role of nuclear weapons. The French worry about missile defense being touted as a substitute for nuclear weapons, a view clearly espoused by the Germans. The U.S., meanwhile, enthusiastically backs both missile defense and NATO’s nuclear capability. With European defense budgets declining, it will be interesting to see NATO sorts this out over the next few years.