Offensive Defense

by David Krieger, Stanley K. Sheinbaum

Defense is sometimes contrary to what it appears. A good defense may also contribute to one's offensive capabilities. Richard Nixon understood this, and signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 1972 to prevent defensive arms races from spurring new offensive nuclear arms races.

A national missile defense may embolden the US to use its offensive capabilities more freely, but this will not make us more secure. US leaders may believe that a national missile defense will give them greater degrees of freedom to use offensive force. Imagine that the US decides to send troops into a country that doesn't want us there. The leader of the country warns the US that if the US persists in its offensive action, the US will be subject to attack by weapons of mass destruction. It would be a foolish threat against overwhelming US conventional force, but also foolish for US leaders to dismiss this threat and rely upon a less than fully tested missile defense system to protect its territory.

A second offensive aspect to ballistic missile defense is that the research and development for the system is leading the US toward the weaponization of outer space-what the US Space Command refers to as the "New Frontier." Today, the heavens are free of all weaponization, but current international law only precludes weapons of mass destruction in outer space and not, for example, space-based lasers. Outer space is a common heritage of all humankind to be shared and appreciated with awe. If the US moves forward with weaponization of outer space, the dangers to the Earth of new arms races in space will grow enormously.

A third offensive aspect to ballistic missile defense is the threat they pose to Russia and China of a US first-strike potential. If the US had a national missile defense system that appeared reliable, Russia and China could believe that the US might launch a first-strike attack and use the defensive system for intercepting any missiles that survived the attack. Russian and Chinese planners, just like US planners, must concern themselves with worst-case scenarios, and a US first-strike attack would be considered in this category. This is why Russia and China are so opposed to US plans to deploy new ballistic missile defenses.

The US government is preparing to spend another $60 to $120 billion or more to develop and deploy ballistic missile defense systems to defend against "rogue" states that currently do not possess nuclear weapons or missile delivery systems capable of reaching the US. It is an investment in destabilizing the international system by undermining one of the key arms control agreements of the Nuclear Age, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. It is a plan that is perceived by many national leaders throughout the world, including many US allies, as being offensive rather than defensive.

If the leader of a small country decided to attack the US with one or more nuclear weapons, it would make sense not to do so with ballistic missiles. To attack with ballistic missiles would be suicidal since the US has overwhelming nuclear and conventional weapons superiority. There are easier and less expensive ways to mount a nuclear attack on the US, for example, by ship, van or suitcase. These low-tech ways of attacking have the advantage that they do not leave a return address in the way that launching a missile would do.

The best defense is the verified elimination of the opponent's offense. The US, along with the other nuclear weapons states, has pledged to eliminate its nuclear arsenal. By leading the world toward the negotiated and verified elimination of nuclear weapons, the US would demonstrate its intentions to rid the world of its gravest danger. By providing development assistance to the states it deems as "rogues" to help them overcome the debilitating effects of poverty, as it has already begun to do with North Korea, the US could for a fraction of the cost turn potential enemies into friends. This path will have its risks, but on balance these risks are far less than moving forward with an offensive ballistic missile defense.

David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation in Santa Barbara. He is also co-editor along with Carah Ong of the upcoming volume, A Maginot a Line in the Sky.
Stanley K. Sheinbaum as a UC Regent was on the Oversight Committee for the Lawrence and Livermore Nuclear Weapons Labs.

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