Throughout his career Joe Biden has opposed U.S. missile defense, and now that he is president, he could trade our defenses in a deal with the Russians. That would be a dangerous mistake.
Even President Barack Obama, who was sympathetic to the idealist view of disarmament, and was caught on a hot mic talking to President Dmitry Medvedev suggesting he would negotiate on missile defense after the U.S. election, ultimately chose to not trade away missile defense with the Russians. And now the U.S. is firmly locked in a rivalry with not just one nuclear superpower, but two, and still contending with a nuclear rogue state.
The growing threats and increasing uncertainty about our adversaries’ intent and doctrines make the strength and credibility of U.S. nuclear deterrence and defense even more critical. Biden should, like Obama, keep missile defense off the negotiating table.
The theory that missile defenses might prompt an arms race between the United States and nuclear powers by degrading the certainty of “mutual vulnerability” has always been dubious. But after so many years of observing the impact of missile defenses, we have mounting evidence that it is compatible with mutual offensive arms reductions. Missile defense is de-escalatory, has a deterrent effect, and most important, saves lives.
But that doesn’t mean the Russians, or the Chinese, won’t try to use arms control, and in particular limits to missile defense, to gain the advantage over the United States.
Leading up to the1986 summit in Reykjavik, President Ronald Reagan faced strong pressure from many Democrats in Congress to put his Strategic Defense Initiative on the bargaining table with the Soviets. Among the most vocal critics of the Reagan Doctrine, and a strong voice for putting it on the bargaining table, was then Sen. Joe Biden. who said, “The president’s continued adherence to [SDI] constitutes one of the most reckless and irresponsible acts in the history of modern statecraft.” Reagan stood fast in the face of that pressure and refused to back off his missile defense initiative.
U.S. advanced missile defense research showed that the theory of advanced space-based missile defense could complement other capabilities and have great potential to protect Americans. SDI didn’t interfere with mutual offensive limitations, and also, Reagan went on to negotiate the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which stayed in effect until Russia’s persistent cheating prompted President Donald Trump to withdraw in 2019.
In 2002, President George W. Bush withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and once again, Biden led opposition to the withdrawal and the plan to deploy and improve homeland missile defense.
The reality is the ABM Treaty had no appreciable impact on adversaries’ intent to invest in more and new offensive capabilities. Bush’s plan, to defend Americans in an unpredictable age of terrorism and nuclear missiles, went forward, and the country began initial deployment of a limited system designed only to defend against rogue states.
It quickly proved its worth. On July 5, 2006, North Korea launched a multi-stage, long-range missile capable of reaching the United States. U.S. intelligence was unable to assess with adequate confidence the purpose of the North Korean launch.
Several former senior Defense Department officials including former Democratic officials Ash Carter and William Perry called for the U.S. to preemptively strike the launch site. A preemptive strike would have been risky, and could have precipitated escalation, especially if the North Koreans hadn’t intended to attack.
Instead of preemption, Bush continued to observe the North Koreans and rely on the nation’s long-range missile defense system. Indeed, the North Korean launch was a test, and a failed one.
The missile defense system that Bush relied on in 2006, and which today provides protection for our homeland, deployed forces, allies and friends, is based on the technology developed by the SDI program. Had Biden had his way in the 1980s and the early 2000s, the U.S. would be vulnerable and exposed to adversaries’ missiles across the globe.
In addition to providing decision-makers with greater options than preemption, missile defense may also bolster deterrence. In August 2017, again North Korea threatened to shoot a missile toward Guam, and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis warned that the United States would shoot it down. North Korea demurred.
North Korea continues to improve its nuclear missile program and Iran is on the precipice of a nuclear weapons capability. It is possible that in this decade, Los Angeles to Philadelphia, and everything in between, will be within reach of North Korean and Iranian nuclear missiles.
But the U.S. rivalry with China has also changed the way defense planners consider modern strategic deterrence. China is expanding its presence in the South China Sea and threatening Taiwan. Like Russia, China is investing heavily in nuclear weapons in what has been described by U.S. military leaders as a “strategic breakout.”
Both countries are investing in weapons that counter U.S. space systems. Just weeks ago, a Russian anti-satellite test spewed dangerous debris that threatens our assets and astronauts. This provocation followed a Chinese globe-spanning nuclear-capable hypersonic missile demonstration.
The modest homeland defense development under Bush continues to serve the country well against the rogue state threat. But it is not designed to defend against the new threats, and it needs to be expanded to address both the Russian and Chinese developments.
Rather than trading away missile defense, we should invest in it. Since the Cold War, technology has so dramatically improved, the lessons from the SDI research can be applied in a new and profound way.
We should never rely primarily on missile defense for our security. But missile defense should play a much more significant role in our defense planning in this highly complex threat environment.
Biden should follow the lead of Reagan and invest in the most robust U.S. defenses. And like Bush and even Obama, refuse to trade away missile defense to the Russians.
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