Missile Defense, Nuclear Disarmament and International Stability
Lessons from the Cold War*

Jürgen Scheffran

* This article refers to some results of a study by the author completed ten years ago, shortly before the Berlin Wall came down.
The analysis is to be re-examined in the context of the current missile defense debate. Further studies on the link between missile defense and international stability are planned.

New strategic, doctrinal and military-technological dynamics are changing the nature and likelihood of war. They promise to revolutionize military affairs as fundamentally as gunpowder and the atomic bomb once did. We are entering a new, vastly more complex nuclear and post-nuclear age. ... Historically, periods of very rapid technological advance combined with old concepts of strategy have always been dangerous. Technology outrunning strategy - the single most notable characteristic of to-day’s strategic environment - has proved particularly dangerous."2

The hope that the end of the Cold War could make nuclear weapons obsolete and open an era of peace did not succeed. The "new strategic, doctrinal and military-technological dynamics" mentioned in the 1987 SIPRI book gained a momentum that could not be reversed with the end of the East-West conflict, but rather transformed the world into new arms races and opened the Pandora’s box of new wars. Political struggles and economic competition, human rights and refugee movements, resource scarcity and ecological disasters - all these developments could now be causes of war. The major powers, above all the United States and NATO, are preparing to dominate in a world of chaos created by their own politics.

Nothing is proving the technology-strategy link like the rebirth of the debate on ballistic missile defense (BMD). The technical programs succeed the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) launched by the 1983 "Star Wars" speech of former US President Ronald Reagan who called scientists to make nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete". Actually, never in the past 15 years the BMD budgets substantially declined in the US. In 1993 US President Bill Clinton renamed the SDI Organization into BMD Organization and for the moment abstained from space-based exotic weapons, but left the revised budget largely intact. What Reagan failed to achieve, the testing and deployment of BMD systems in contradiction to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, is now on the agenda for the coming years with the US initiatives on tactical missile defense (TMD) and national missile defense (NMD). And Russia, being too weak to really oppose this development, is forced to accept, perhaps with a few question marks on the speed and extent of the seemingly unavoidable. The negotiations on START III are directly linked to the revision of the ABM Treaty to make the technical program legally compliant, at least for the near future. In the medium term, large-scale nation-wide missile defenses can only be deployed if the ABM Treaty is abandoned. Until then it will be a matter of interpretation how compatible the BMD program is.

It is remarkable to see how the BMD program survived the end of the Cold War, despite the changing political circumstances, and how it is now reshaping the world’s political conditions to justify its existence. To some degree this was expectable already ten years ago when SDI seemed to decline as a result of Gorbachev’s Perestroika: "if the SDI re-search program goes on, one cannot exclude that realistic technical solutions, modest strategic goals, and a low level of nuclear weapons could give SDI a new impetus. Then stability will be, once again, an important question."3

More than ever the impact of BMD systems on international security and stability becomes important if they are actually being deployed, whether technically efficient or not. While it is clear that the world has changed, a critical analysis of BMD did not become obsolete. As long as nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence exist, the underlying (il-)logic and the strategic and technical characteristics remain fundamentally the same, independent on who is ruling the US or Russia. The current missile defense debate resembles many of the arguments from the first ABM debate of the 1960s and the SDI debate of the 1980. 4 Different from the Cold War times, today the situation is less antagonistic (at least between the former superpowers) but this does not mean that it is more stable. In many respects the world is now more complex, the future more uncertain and more players are involved, which rather suggests a higher probability for instability than for stability. Since the understanding of the implications is still at an early stage, it may be helpful to reflect some of the messages from the past. In the following some of the arguments from the debate on SDI and stability are recalled, and the reader may decide which of them could be relevant for a future BMD. A deeper, more up-to-date analysis is left for the future.

The debate on SDI and stability in the US establishment

During the SDI debate, the impact of missile defense on stability had been estimated quite differently. For the proponents a missile defense would provide more national security for the US, without endangering strategic stability. In their view a builddown of offense and buildup of defense (whether cooperative or not) could lead to a transition from Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) to Mutually Assured Survival (MAS) which should be a more stable world, without the dangers of first strike, unintentional nuclear war and nuclear attack by small nuclear powers. For the opponents of SDI, a nation-wide defense of the US against a comprehensive nuclear first-strike would be unfeasible, not only for technical reasons, but because countermeasures seemed to be more effective and cheaper than the defense.5 The result would be an accelerating and dangerous arms race, in which the action-reaction cycle between offensive and defensive weapons would create unpredictable risks. Confidence into the second strike capability would be undermined and the introduction of space weapons could create new technological instabilities.

If BMD would provoke the buildup of cheap countermeasures to overcome or even destroy the defense, then the buildup of defenses would be highly destabilizing, both in terms of crisis instability and arms race instability. In general, vulnerable weapon systems and military structures invite preemptive attacks, since in a crisis, an attacker would be tempted to limit damage by preemption. According to the former Vice President of the RAND Corporation, J.A.Thompson, the potential dangers of a unilateral decision to deploy defenses 6 "would likely trigger a competition involving offensive improvements (for example, the proliferation of warheads and deployment of penetration aids to overcome the defenses); defense-suppression capabilities, to destroy the defenses or reduce their effectiveness; or defense deployments themselves. The complexities of such a competition are far greater than the offensive competition we are familiar with today".

And for Dean Wilkening from RAND Corporation "the least stable situation occurs when both sides’ defenses are vulnerable and their defense-suppression forces are also vulnerable. In this situation, the side that strikes first can destroy both the opponent’s defenses and defense-suppression forces."7

To counter some of the criticism, in 1985 Paul Nitze converted part of their arguments into two operational criteria for strategic defense - "survivability" and "cost-effectiveness": 8 "The criteria by which we will judge the feasibility of such technologies will be demanding. The technologies must produce defensive systems, that are survivable; if not, the defenses would themselves be tempting targets for first strike. This would decrease, rather than enhance stability. New defensive systems must also be cost effective at the margin - that is, they must be cheap enough to add additional defensive capability so that the other side has no incentive to add additional offensive capability to overcome the defense. If this criterion is not met, the

defensive system should encourage a proliferation of countermeasures and additional offensive weapons to overcome deployed defenses instead of a redirection of effort from offense to defense. As I said, these criteria are demanding. If the new technologies cannot meet these standards, we are not about to deploy them."

Soviet transformation under Gorbachev

After Reagan’s 1983 speech, the Soviet position on SDI was determined by the fear that US technical dominance could undermine the Soviet nuclear power status and provide the United States with a first-strike capability. While still opposing SDI, Soviet General Secretary Michail Gorbachev tried to transform this attitude to overcome the arms control deadlock. The Soviet position was outlined in the 1987 Yearbook of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO):9

Similar to the US debate, the main argument against the feasibility of SDI was not just the physical impossibility of strategic defense technologies, but the option of cheap and effective countermeasures: "The main problem with SDI is therefore not in that some physical laws preclude the possibility of creating a sufficiently effective global ABM system for the protection of home territory ... The heart of the problem is this: the other side is fully capable of countering effectively any large-scale ABM system using the selfsame laws of physics on whose basis the US plans to develop space-based antiballistic missile systems. Its efficiency will therefore be deter-mined by the competition between anti-missile and anti-anti-missile systems." (IMEMO (1988), p. 68).

These countermeasures which "would be asymmetrical to SDI, less costly and require less time to implement" could include:10

Back to Reykjavik?

The different positions on SDI and disarmament collided during the Reykjavik Summit between Reagan and Gorbachev in October 1986. Both sides seemed to agree on giving up their strategic nuclear forces, but fundamental differences remained about the role of SDI. Reagan, who called SDI an "insurance policy" against Soviet outbreaks, said:11 "We proposed a ten-year period in which we began with the reduction of all strategic nuclear arms, bombers, air-launched cruise missiles, intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and the weapons they carry. They would be reduced 50 percent in the first five years. During the next five years, we would continue by eliminating all remaining offensive ballistic missiles, of all ranges. And during that time we would proceed with research, development, and testing of SDI –all done in conformity with ABM provisions. At the ten-year point, with all ballistic missiles eliminated, we could proceed to deploy advanced defenses, at the same time permitting the Soviets to do likewise."

Gorbachev insisted that a combination of nuclear disarmament and defense buildup would be destabilizing:12 "As both sides are reducing their nuclear potentials and while the reduction process is underway, one of the sides secretly contemplates and captures the initiative and attains military superiority. This is inadmissible. ... Our proposal was reduced to the following: The sides consolidate the ABM Treaty of unlimited duration by assuming equal pledges that they shall not use the right to withdraw from the treaty within the next ten years. ... Simultaneously, we suggested that all ABM requirements be strictly observed within these ten years, that the development and testing of space weapons be banned and only research and testing in laboratories be allowed." Shortly after Reykjavik, the Soviet Union provided a draft proposal in the Geneva Negotiations on offensive, defensive, and space weapons for a "framework agreement", which specified the requirements:13 "Space-based elements of the ABM system were not to be tested in outer space. At the same time, it was permitted to test on specific test ranges fixed land-based systems permitted by the treaty and using both traditional technologies and other physical principles."

Although the US government committed not to withdraw from the ABM Treaty for 10 years in principle, it opposed a ban on testing of ABM components in space and a ban on space-based weapons, in particular anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons. Instead, a "predictability package" was proposed, including reciprocal visits to laboratories, observations of ABM tests, and yearly exchanges of information on technological progress. In July 1987, the Soviet Union provided a draft "Agreement On Certain Measures to Strengthen the Regime of the ABM Treaty", which proposed a definition of "devices which would be banned from deployment in space if their qualitative characteristics exceeded the specific thresh-olds. For example, interceptor missiles were limited in permissible speed; electromagnetic railguns - in mass and in boost velocities; lasers - in brightness (J/sterad); particle beam accelerators - in energy (in MeV); laser beam-reflector mirrors - in surface area".14

With the Joint Soviet-US Summit Statement of December 10, 1987, declaring both sides’ intent for the further course of negotiations, a common language was found with regard to the ABM Treaty and stability. In this statement 15 "both sides commit to observe the ABM Treaty, as signed in 1972, while conducting their research, development and testing as required, which are permitted by the ABM Treaty, and not to withdraw from the ABM Treaty, for a specified period of time. Intensive discussions of strategic stability shall begin not later than three years before the end of the specified period, after which, in the event the sides have not agreed otherwise, each side will be free to decide its course of action. .. The sides shall discuss ways to ensure predictability in the development of the Soviet-US strategic relationship under conditions of strategic stability, to reduce the risk of nuclear war."

An important precondition to begin the START negotiations was that the Soviet Union "would be willing to move ahead with talks on reducing strategic offensive nuclear weapons without resolving disagreements over the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative and the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty". However, the Soviets "would continue to insist on the right to pull out of any strategic arms treaty later if the United States moved to deploy SDI".16

Can the buildup of missile defense be stabilized?

Since the risks were recognized even in the US administration, the question was raised whether the instabilities associated with missile defense could be avoided if the USA and Russia and perhaps other countries would agree on negotiating appropriate measures. Several proposals came up during the 1980s that have not lost relevance for the current debate. In 1984, J.A. Thompson from RAND had presented a comprehensive arms control regime to stabilize a defensive transition, including the following rules:17

Others suggested a "Grand Compromise" that "would seek sharp reductions in strategic nuclear offensive systems in concert with mutually acceptable ground rules for the development of ballistic missile defense." Since this regime "could create enormous strategic uncertainties unless the transition is handled in a rational way", the following recommendations were proposed:18

The Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which became abandoned under Clinton, however remained sceptical and emphasized the problems, even of a cooperative approach to ensure stability:19

Uncertainties and complexities associated with BMD The sceptical attitude of the OTA on the possibilities of cooperatively stabilizing a defensive transition seems justified if two aspects of BMD are taken into consideration: uncertainty and complexity. As long as the outcome of nuclear war does not depend on the sequence of decisions and the dynamics of weapons interaction, nuclear war is essentially described by a simple two-strike scenario of an all-out exchange between the nuclear triad and the targets. With the current nuclear arsenals, the outcome would be total destruction, independent of who is striking first. Time does not matter as long as the capability to retaliate is guaranteed.

While the current strategic situation already includes a number of risks (e.g. accidents and intentional or unintentional missile launches), with the introduction of nation-wide missile defense systems both the relative simplicity and stability of the strategic situation would fundamentally change: the problems become more multi-dimensional. Instead of the interactions between offensive weapons and their targets, a complex network of interactions would occur if the following categories become strategically relevant: nuclear weapons, BMD sys-tems, ASAT weapons, satellites and C3I systems, other military forces (including conventional armament) and value targets. All of these categories could interact with one another: Nuclear weapons could destroy ground targets, including nuclear and conventional weapons, but also BMD systems, ASAT weapons and satellites in space. BMD systems could attack nuclear, conventional, and space missiles, satellites and ASAT, and, depending on the technology, targets on the ground. ASAT weapons could attack BMD systems and satellites. Satellites are important for giving information to all other categories. Conventional weapons, based on new technologies, might interact with the other weapons systems in a complicated way, especially if they are able to destroy nuclear forces.

Time would become a much more important factor in decision-making, and the fear of preemptive strikes. Countries waiting too long could risk to loose their capability to retaliate and thus are forced to react immediately on any sign of attack (even if accidental). Strategies could then switch to all-or-nothing to overwhelm the defense, reviving the possibility of all-out-nuclear war. With missile defense the inherent (il-)logic of nuclear deterrence would reach its climax.

While some of these problems might be reduced by the way the offensive and defensive forces are structured (for instance use space components could be minimized), the tendency towards more complexity and thus instability is not avoided. The more technical systems are involved, the more uncertainties about their performance exist and the more difficult it becomes to control and verify the arsenals. With a more complex strategic situation, perceptions and worst-case analyses become more important. Threat perceptions are not only determined by the real facts, but also by attitudes.

All these questions are still relevant for the on-going negotiations on nuclear reductions, BMD deployment and modification of the ABM Treaty. While it is too early to give definite answers yet, it is clear that both TMD and NMD complicate the relationship not only between the USA and Russia, but with all other countries whose security rests on either nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles. The more different kinds of systems exist, the more difficult it is to control them and to ensure stability requirements (like the Nitze criteria). If political attitudes become worse (like between NATO, Russia and China in the Kosovo war), a once friendly relationship could easily switch into an adversary - inducing mutual fears that the other side’s force could become dominant. If countries are forced to modernize their arsenals with countermeasures, then the result would be more insecurity for everyone, including the US and NATO. No-one really knows what will happen when the nuclear forces are declining and the (perceived) capabilities of strategic defense systems are increasing.

There is still no convincing argument why the United States does not launch major political initiatives to get rid of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles on a global scale instead of countering them by military means. One possible explanation is the last superpower’s continuing quest for dominance.


  1. J. Scheffran, Strategic Defense, Disarmament and Stability - Modelling Arms Race Phenomena with Security and Costs under Political and Technical Uncertainties, PhD Thesis in physics, Marburg, 1989.
  2. C.G. Jacobsen, The Uncertain Course – New Weapons Strategies and Mind-Sets, SIPRI, Oxford University Press, 1987, p. xi.
  3. Scheffran 1989, p.11
  4. See for instance G.N. Lewis, T.A. Postol, J.Pike, Why National Missile Defense Won’t Work, Scientific American, August 1999; G. Neuneck, "SDI light" oder die Aushöhlung des ABM Vertra-ges, Wissenschaft und Frieden, 2/99.
  5. See for instance the books by the Union of Concerned Scientists: J. Tirman (ed.), The Fallacy of Star Wars, New York: Vintage Books, 1984; J. Tirman (ed.), Empty Promise - The Growing Case Against Star Wars, Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.
  6. J.A. Thompson, Deterrence, Stability, and Strategic Defenses, in: F.S. Hoffman, A. Wohlstetter, D. Yost (eds.), Swords and Shields, Lexington, 1987, p. 348.
  7. D. Wilkening, K. Watman, Strategic Defenses and First-Strike Stability, Santa Monica, CA: The RAND Corporation, R-3412-FF/RC, November 1986, p. 29.
  8. P. Nitze, On the Road to a More Stable Peace, Speech before the Philadelphia World Affairs Council, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, February 20, 1985, reprint in: "Energy and Technology Review", February 1987, pp. 9-11.
  9. Disarmament and Security, IMEMO Yearbook 1987, USSR Academy of Sciences, Novosti Press, Moscow 1988, p. 78.
  10. IMEMO (1988), p. 88-89. SOF = Strategic Offensive Forces.
  11. R. Reagan, Address to the nation, October 13, 1986.
  12. M. Gorbachev, press conference in Reykjavik, Iceland, October 12, 1986.
  13. IMEMO (1988), p. 84.
  14. See IMEMO (1988), pp. 90-91. Similar limits had been proposed by J. Pike, Quantitative Limits on Anti-Missile Systems - A Preliminary Assessment, Washington D.C.: Federation of American Scientists, Fourth Draft, May 22, 1987; a shorter version can be found in: Scientific Aspects of the Verification of Arms Control Treaties, part II, pp. 137- 198, Hamburger Beiträge zur Friedensforschung und Sicherheitspolitik, June 1987.
  15. IMEMO (1988), p. 609.
  16. D. Hoffman, U.S. Hails Moscow’s SDI Shift, International Herald Tribune, September 25, 1989.
  17. J.A. Thompson, Strategic Defense and Deterrence, Statement Before the Defense Appropriations Sub-Committee of the House Appropriations Committee, May 9, 1984, p. 10-11.
  18. R. H. Kupperman, A. C. Goldberg, The Impact of a Grand Compromise in Arms Control on U.S. Strategic Forces, Center for Strategic & International Studies, Georgetown University, September 30, 1986 p. 1.
  19. Office of Technology Assessment, Ballistic Missile Defense Technologies, Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, OTA-ISC-254, September 1985, p. 13.

Jürgen Scheffran is senior researcher at IANUS and Editor of the INESAP Information Bulletin.
c/o IANUS, Darmstadt University of Technology, Hochschulstr. 10, 64289 Darmstadt, Germany;
Phone: +49-6151-16-3016, -4368 fax +49-6151-166039;
email: ianus@hrzpub.tu-darmstadt.de,

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