Banning Ballistic Missiles: From Build-Down To Stand-Down

 Alton Frye. Foreign Affairs. Volume 75, Issue 6. November/December 1996.

Malcolm Muggeridge once wrote of reaching a moment when he discovered that success was the hallmark of failure. That insight may yet prove to be true for the remarkable achievements in arms control in recent years.

After decades of diplomatic wrangling, breakthroughs have come on many fronts, both bilateral and multilateral. Not only have Soviets and now Russians joined Americans in agreements to make massive reductions in strategic arms, but the overwhelming majority of nations have signed on to indefinite extension of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Leaders in Ukraine, Kazakstan, and Belarus have greatly contributed to the nonproliferation regime by returning thousands of Soviet nuclear weapons to Russia for safekeeping and elimination, a process to be completed this fall with the departure of the last few warheads from Belarus.

The Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty has ratified and reinforced the transformation of the military balance on the continent, although the altered political landscape after the collapse of the Soviet empire will require nettlesome changes in its provisions. The longsought Chemical Weapons Convention should enter into force shortly, and, despite India’s recalcitrance, a comprehensive nuclear test ban enjoys nearly universal support.

Woven through these and other arrangements are unprecedented procedures for strict and effective verification. Particularly in the first and second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START I and START II), the United States and Russia are perfecting inspection techniques of far-reaching significance. Similar methods are being applied in the most difficult case of a hostile, uncooperative country, Iraq, where they have yielded crucial lessons for enforcement as well as disturbing revelations of Baghdad’s habitual deceit. This progress in on-site and remote surveillance is indispensable to sustaining arms control over the long haul.

Yet these heady days in arms control have bred dangerous complacency. Many citizens and their leaders take for granted that arms control deals now require little care and feeding. Some strategists argue, not so sotto voce, that a weakened Russia has no alternative but to continue reducing its forces and that the United States can therefore follow its own strategic preferences with little regard for Moscow’s desires. This blend of inattention, indifference, and calculation is a recipe for misplaced confidence in a process that remains highly vulnerable to political disruption.

The structure of restraint that recent arms accords have erected is fragile. Reaping its promised benefits will require meticulous implementation over many years. It will also demand an exceptional degree of political sophistication, particularly on the part of American leaders. There are worrisome signs that both Congress and the executive branch may fail the test.

In their understandable determination to cut the budget deficit, members of Congress chopped $65 million—17 percent—from the 1996 budget for the prudent and farsighted program Senators Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) crafted to help Russia manage its complex cutback in nuclear forces. Congress has also been reluctant to fund the Korean Energy Development Organization, the body created to carry out the agreement to head off North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. Many remain skeptical of the latter deal’s merits, but, as House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has said, “It is possible that it may work.” Lacking a better alternative, it behooves the United States to follow through on its part of the bargain, so long as Pyongyang is meeting its commitments to shut down its other nuclear operations. At the same time, the renewed disputes on Capitol Hill over strategic defense and the utility of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 veer off in ideological directions, hindering cautious assessment of possible tradeoffs appropriate to the post-Cold War strategic situation.

The Clinton administration’s shortcomings are of a different kind. The president’s team is well staffed with experienced talent in the field of arms control, and its experts have followed through commendably on the work of their predecessors. That is especially true of their effort to salvage the START agreements and protect the nonproliferation regime by persuading several former Soviet republics to give up their nuclear arsenals.

So consuming has the old agenda been, however, that the administration has done too little to craft a program for the next stage of negotiated restraint. Indeed, the timidity of its early review of the nation’s nuclear posture opened few avenues for the kind of initiatives likely to be necessary. Many observers see the administration’s relatively stand-pat approach to retaining large nuclear deployments as out of kilter with its statements on arms control. It invites the suspicion among foreign governments that for the United States, control arrangements are merely a convenient way of maintaining a perpetual nuclear advantage. That suspicion in turn will probably stall force reductions in Russia and spur proliferation elsewhere.

The next administration, whether headed by President Clinton or former Senator Bob Dole, will face serious tests on these fronts, both in domestic politics and in foreign policy. To preserve the vital gains of recent years, it will need fresh initiatives to renew the momentum of the arms control enterprise. And those initiatives will have to rally bipartisan support. In short, the United States needs a program of action to curb the nuclear menace. Here is one. It would accelerate progress toward a stable strategic environment by adding a more general stand-down of nuclear forces to the gradual builddown now beginning.

Lengthening the Fuse

A number of present or foreseeable agreements, while by no means guaranteeing an end to violence between their parties, can enhance deterrence by impeding surprise attack and increasing the likelihood that potential victims will have time to bolster their defenses. As a first step to lengthen the fuse on possible nuclear strikes, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty removed intermediate-range ballistic and ground-launched cruise missiles from the superpower inventories in Europe. While submarine-launched ballistic missiles remain central to mutual deterrence, the United States and Russia have undertaken to remove nuclear weapons from their surface fleets (much to the satisfaction of naval officers, who considered such weapons unlikely to be usable and a waste of precious storage space for conventional weapons). Tactical nuclear weapons have been withdrawn from forward deployment in Central Europe, with NATO retaining only a modest number of air-deliverable theater nuclear weapons to balance residual capabilities in Russia. NATO has modified its doctrine to underscore the concept that nuclear weapons are strictly weapons of “last resort”—not a “no-first-use” pledge, but definitely a different emphasis from the previous approach.

The first stages of reductions under START I have seen the removal of thousands of warheads from Russian and American strategic forces, and if the START II pact finally comes into force, both sides will be moving toward levels of total deployed warheads in the 3,000 to 3,500 range. But that process, scheduled to run into the next century, is so protracted that it weakens the political impact on other states weighing their own nuclear prospects.

In the meantime Moscow and Washington have assured each other that they have “detargeted” their missiles—that is, stopped aiming them at each other—and have lowered the alert status of their strategic forces, signaling that neither plans an attack. Those changes are sensible and welcome, but they are too easily reversed to have more than symbolic value. Far more is required in bilateral accords to realize the potential for strengthening stability in the military balance and the behavior of states. To offer maximum reassurance that they are turning away from reliance on nuclear options and to demonstrate dramatically their commitment to nonproliferation, the United States and Russia should take nuclear warheads off delivery vehicles and store them under mutual surveillance to prevent their covert return to active service.

Moving nuclear weapons into this kind of “strategic escrow” would have profound advantages, not least that it can be accomplished more promptly than the slow-motion tasks of elimination planned under the START agreements. It would in fact represent a phased approach to the START reductions, but one that gains in the short term most of the benefits sought from full implementation of the treaties. As an example of leadership in the nonproliferation campaign both countries regard as vital to their security, it would be a step of unprecedented boldness.

Coupled with that boldness, however, would be an essential degree of reversibility. Storing the warheads and locking the door would not mean their immediate elimination. If strategic relations deteriorated and a return to active nuclear deployments seemed necessary, the United States and Russia could still bring the weapons out of storage. They could do so, however, only with the foreknowledge of the other party, which could compensate with its own redeployment. Needless to say, applying the escrow principle to all U.S. and Russian strategic forces would require early participation in similar arrangements by Britain, China, and France, the other nuclear powers. Indeed, the current START agreements, if implemented, carry the two major powers to force levels at which further progress would depend on engaging those governments. With strategic deployments ranging from fewer than 300 warheads (China) to slightly more than 500 (France), those countries should find an intermediate escrow stage more acceptable than a requirement that they destroy portions of their more meager forces. Though slower than the timetable India demands for the nuclear haves to give up their arsenals, escrow would maximize incentives for New Delhi to modify its hostility to a test ban and accept restraints on the covert nuclear programs in India, Pakistan, and Israel.

Escrow is a hedging scheme, designed to eliminate the hair-trigger postures of strategic forces while affording states confidence that they have not irrevocably sacrificed their ability in extremis to go nuclear within a reasonably short time. It does not meet the demands of those insisting on abolition of nuclear weapons, but it is compatible with whatever reduction and destruction of nuclear weapons future circumstances warrant and diplomacy can produce.

Another feature of the escrow concept deserves highlighting. At present the most worrisome aspect of warhead reductions is the difficulty of handling and protecting the nuclear materials that warheads contain. Once fissile components are removed from weapons, safeguarding them becomes even more of a challenge. The large quantities of such materials in non-weapon form in Russia and the United States are more likely to leak into the wrong hands, more difficult to track, and potentially easier to divert than fissile elements left in warheads. It makes no sense to increase the risks by adding fissile material removed from weapons to material already more susceptible to diversion.

This simple technical fact gains significance in view of the bureaucratic relations within and between the Russian and American governments. Bluntly stated, there is more reason to be confident in the ability of the Russian military to safeguard these materials than in that of the nuclear enthusiasts at Russia’s Ministry of Atomic Energy.

Minatom’s top officials have demonstrated a disturbing proclivity to promote the use of nuclear technology even at the risk of increased proliferation, as in their insistent campaign to complete nuclear reactor deals with Iran and their rather resentful response to suggestions for improved safeguards at their own facilities. Cooperation between American and Russian military professionals has come along way. For some years hence it could well be wise to encourage the Russian military to retain custody of the nuclear materials now in warheads. The straightforward way to do that is to leave the materials in the weapons and subject those weapons to the strictest possible scrutiny. Strategic escrow is a practical means of preventing dispersal of the raw materials of nuclear weapons into less trustworthy hands.

Playing Reagan’s Other Card

Ronald Reagan’s passionate plea for technological breakthroughs to provide an effective strategic defense against ballistic missiles is well known and still controversial. Usually overlooked, however, is the other element in his approach: a ban on ballistic missiles. Reagan proposed such a prohibition to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavik in 1985, picking up ideas from Undersecretary of Defense Fred Ikle and START negotiator Max Kampelman. (In a 1973 Foreign Affairs article, Ikle had depicted the distinctive threat ballistic missiles pose to stability, terming them “doomsday catapults.”)

At the time, few strategists thought Reagan’s notion of a missile ban feasible. But with the fundamental shifts in world politics since then, it has become both more practical and more desirable. Indeed, as worries flare regarding proliferation to rogue states, a global ban on long-range ballistic missiles seems increasingly attractive, even urgent. From a national security standpoint, it is more important that other states not acquire such weapons than that their present owners retain them. Rendering these lethal weapons even more dangerous is that they strike so swiftly that they deny leaders any opportunity for the deliberate decisions and diplomatic maneuvers on which stable peace depends.

In terms of technical feasibility and reliability, a prohibition on the testing, production, and deployment of ballistic missiles is incomparably simpler than an active defense against them. Moreover, as the world made progress toward such a ban, the burdens on a strategic defense would diminish markedly, since any defensive deployments would only have to serve as a hedge against violation of the ban. The extraordinary advances Russians and Americans have made in on-site inspection and monitoring of missile capabilities open the door for a comprehensive approach to banning these uniquely destabilizing instruments of warfare. What was implausible in an era of strategic confrontation could work in the era of systematic, verifiable cooperation that is now unfolding.

Together with observation satellites and other national surveillance technologies, implementation of START I and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty has already tried and proved most of the operating procedures required for enforcement of a global ban on ballistic missiles. No state could hide for long the testing and production facilities needed to field a substantial force of long-range missiles. Left untested, and with meaningful training for launch crews impossible, present inventories of shorter-range missiles scattered across several troublesome regions should gradually become inoperable or unreliable.

If the advantages of a missile ban are evident, so are the obstacles in its way. The least serious of these is the need to isolate missile capabilities from the space-launch activities that states will certainly wish to continue. With careful, transparent management of the design, testing, production, and operations of space-launch vehicles, containing the danger of clandestine missile deployments would pose no insuperable difficulties. The graver challenges to establishment of an effective missile prohibition are not technical, but strategic and political.

Foremost among them is the question of whether the Russians would be amenable to the plan. Although many Russian analysts favor cutting strategic forces to quite low levels—a few hundred warheads is a range commonly suggested—some influential advocates contend that Moscow must retain a sizable number of missiles since it cannot afford to shift its deterrent posture to more costly, slowflying systems (aircraft and cruise missiles) available to the United States. That makes sense in the current protracted transition away from the massive deployments the superpowers fielded.

In the context of an agreement on strategic escrow, however, phasing in a ban on ballistic missiles would have very different implications for Russian as well as American security. It would offer immediate payoffs in crisis stability, and liberate resources for additional aircraft (and air defenses, if deemed worthwhile). The idea has added appeal when Russia looks ahead to the shift from multiple-warhead to singlewarhead land-based missiles scheduled to occur under the START II accord. That commitment points toward a drastic, albeit mutually advantageous, shift away from the giant strategic rockets in which Russia has invested far more heavily than the United States.

While American missile strategists, like their Russian counterparts, will probably have mixed feelings about that shift, there are reasons to expect important changes in their attitude as the presently planned reductions proceed. The U.S. Air Force is headed toward a small number of single-warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles based in silos, and is bound to give priority to its traditional missions based on airplanes and other airborne systems. As for the Army, nothing would do more to strengthen its capacity to defend its forces on the ground than a constraint on missiles capable of long-range strikes, since such a constraint would shrink potential attacks to shorter-range and slower missiles against which defenses could be concentrated.

In the Navy’s case, giving up sea-launched ballistic missiles, the pillars of stable deterrence, would be wrenching, but doing so would not require abandoning its favorite strategic platforms. In the Persian Gulf War, submarines performed outstandingly as cruise-missile launchers, and they could remain in service for the purpose. In that capacity they would be valuable complements to the so-called “arsenal ships” the navy is now exploring as advanced technology systems for launching hundreds of cruise missiles or other weapons. All these considerations suggest that trends the build-down has already set in motion could lead the armed services to support a ballistic missile ban.

No one can know in advance how successful a campaign by Americans and Russians to establish a global prohibition on long-range ballistic missiles would be, since regional factors drive a number of states to acquire such weapons. Yet the impetus toward restraint imparted by the two powers’ commitment to move in this direction would surely be powerful. It would exemplify both their recognition that these systems are more dangerous than useful and their readiness to forgo presumed strategic advantages over states not in a position to compete in the most advanced of these technologies.

Preventive Action

Concern over acquisition of long-range missile capabilities by the rogue regimes of North Korea, Iraq, Iran, and Libya fuels much of the congressional interest in rapid erection of strategic defenses. Intelligence estimates rate the possibility of intercontinental missile threats from those quarters as slender and long-term. Yet threats of such uncertain nature and timing oblige policymakers to consider all options, including the provocative possibility of preemptive strikes against incipient missile development programs. Such preventive action would become both more workable and more legitimate once Americans and Russians agreed to a cooperative approach on banning ballistic missiles.

There are precedents for preemptive action against would-be proliferators. The United States demonstrated its readiness to strike directly at Libya when President Reagan ordered a military response for the 1986 terrorist attack on Americans at a Berlin discotheque. More recently, Secretary of Defense William Perry publicly declared that the United States would not allow Libya to complete work on a suspected chemical weapons facility. The United States has mounted cruise missile attacks on Iraq for terrorist activities and for actions against its Kurdish minority. Both Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) and President Bush’s national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, have intimated that a North Korean refusal to abandon its nuclear program would warrant preemptive attacks. Israel actually mounted such an attack with its 1981 strike on Iraq’s Osirak reactor. These episodes call to mind Soviet overtures in the 1960s sounding out U.S. attitudes toward a possible preemptive attack on China’s embryonic nuclear capabilities.

In February 1995 the U.N. Security Council underscored the “paramount importance” of halting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, describing it as “a threat to international peace and security”— language that connotes a situation warranting a military response.

The New York Times has urged a ban on acquisition of ballistic missiles (as well as weapons of mass destruction) and, if necessary, coercive action “to eliminate the production capability and destroy any stocks produced or bought.” A latent, surprisingly broad consensus may now exist that supports preemption against the most reckless renegades.

This is not to suggest that a policy of preemption against emerging ballistic missile capabilities would win ready acceptance, although technically it would be far easier to execute with conventional weapons than strikes against more concealable nuclear activities. The precedents indicate that in dire circumstances there will be intense political pressure to destroy complexes for testing and production of long-range missiles well before they can function. It would make a great deal ol

difference whether such an attack was an attempt to preserve a privileged position for states possessing such weapons or a means of enforcing a program aimed at eliminating the weapons worldwide. Unlike the situation during the era of all-out strategic competition, a cooperative program to segregate nuclear weapons from delivery systems and to ban ballistic missiles could create a more tolerant environment for preemption against violators.

One must compare the preemptive option with strategic defenses pursued unilaterally. Active defenses may eventually be necessary, but they could have consequences, not so much for outlaw states over the long term as for the partners on whom nuclear and missile restraints depend in the short term. Installing anti-missile defenses could spur an increasingly prosperous China, for example, to increase its long-range missile deployments from a few score to several hundred. Is it worth building thin defenses against an indeterminate threat of a few missiles in North Korea in the distant future at the price of provoking a much more substantial deployment by China in the short term? Preemption to enforce a missile ban against would-be proliferators has its attractions, particularly if it can be endorsed multilaterally. It is not an option to be recommended or adopted lightly, especially when one assesses possible countermeasures by a government with the huge conventional forces at Pyongyang’s disposal. But lesser dangers have provoked such actions in the past. In the setting of an international campaign to abolish ballistic missiles, preemption would become more justifiable.

Another Start

The proposals outlined here may at first glance appear too ambitious, too hard to execute for American and Russian governments already struggling to digest a full plate of arms control agreements. In crucial respects, however, combining an escrow plan for nuclear weapons with a movement to ban long-range ballistic missiles could help cut the Gordian knot in which nuclear diplomacy is now entangled. Changing operational deployments in these ways would take time, but far less than current projections for force dismantlement. Offloading warheads and placing them in secure storage would be simpler, faster, and cheaper than destroying them, and safer than feeding their nuclear components into channels less reliable than those the military provides. Banning ballistic missiles is not a onesize-fits-all panacea, but the concept is strategically wise and technically feasible and could be politically critical to building a global regime of restraint for such destabilizing technologies.

The place to introduce these novel concepts is the next round of strategic negotiations between Moscow and Washington. The United States has been reticent on the subject of such discussions, which has aroused a suspicion among Russian strategists that Washington may be content to pause at START II levels. That suspicion in turn has led some of those strategists, as well as Russian politicians, to argue that ratification of START II could have serious disadvantages for Russia. Among others, the agreement’s ban on multiple-warhead ICBMS imposes on the Russians expensive investments for reconfiguring their forces with single-warhead missiles.

With such concerns in mind, analysts in Moscow have stressed the need to set force levels below the 3,000 to 3,500 warheads permitted under START II, partly because it will be hard for Russia to afford a force posture of that scale. To some American observers, that fact is a temptation difficult to resist. Why not exploit Russia’s current economic hardships by demurring on further negotiations in the expectation that the United States will be able to maintain START II force levels while Russia has to trim its deployments well below the authorized limits? That inclination is old-think, rooted in the competitive attitudes that sought unilateral advantage rather than the preference for mutual benefits that has guided the START endeavor. It is a disposition that simultaneously makes a return to counterproductive strategic antagonism more likely and makes collaboration to stem the most pernicious strategic threat to both countries—nuclear and missile proliferation—less likely.

If, as many who have studied the matter closely believe, it is possible to design more stable strategic postures at much lower levels than START II calls for, there is no sufficient reason to postpone further discussion. A willingness to begin START III talks now would help smooth the way for the Russian Duma to ratify START II, as the U.S. Senate has already done. Since more far-reaching START arrangements hinge on approval of those previously negotiated, preliminary discussions could start now without conditions or commitments and on the explicit understanding that actual agreement must await Russian ratification of the pending treaty.

Since additional major reductions raise novel problems, including the need to extend controls to British, French, and Chinese strategic forces, they require thorough preparation. But START III negotiations would also permit exploration of the concepts and rationales described here. The resulting ideas would challenge the parties to look beyond the conventional, linear approach to reductions, however valuable it may be, to more imaginative innovations that can accelerate progress toward the fundamental goal of a stable, reliable strategic relationship.

International pressure is mounting for more decisive measures to deal with weapons of mass destruction. Against the urgings of the United States, Britain, and a few other countries, on July 8 the International Court of Justice responded, nearly unanimously, to a request by the U.N. General Assembly for an advisory opinion on the legality of nuclear weapons. On the merits, the judges split evenly, with seven of fourteen concluding that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to law (although they did not offer a definitive opinion on whether the extreme case of a threat to a state’s survival might permit an exception). Significantly, judges from Russia and China, as well as ones from Germany, Italy, and Hungary, were among those ruling that the threat to use such weapons would be unlawful in most circumstances. The court was unanimous in concluding that states possessing nuclear weapons are legally obligated to pursue and conclude negotiations in good faith “leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.”

The thrust toward abolition of nuclear weapons is likely to gain momentum this fall with the so-called Canberra Commission’s report to the United Nations. The commission’s discussions have clearly run in that direction and will carry added weight because of the participation of retired U.S. Air Force General George Lee Butler, the former commander in chief of the U.S. Strategic Command. The sentiment is widespread that last year’s indefinite extension of the NPT obliges the nuclear powers to phase out their existing arsenals of such weapons. These political trends reinforce the strategic arguments for initiatives that will ease countries away from the persistent risks of current nuclear and ballistic missile force postures.

In politics, strategy, and technology, trends rarely move in phase. More often than not they advance out of step with each other, interacting disjointedly, with lag times and repercussions that impose strains on governments and societies. It is the task of statecraft to harmonize their movement, so far as possible, and otherwise manage the disruptions they generate. The extraordinary successes of strategic diplomacy in the Reagan-Gorbachev and the Bush-Yeltsin-Clinton years represent statecraft of a high order. They make it possible to consider still more remarkable departures. And without bolder innovations, the achievements so far recorded will remain in jeopardy.