The Washington Post recently carried an important article on Ballistic Missile Defense. Essentially, the article reports on moves in Congress to change the official legislative remit of Ballistic Missile Defense, and its potential strategic consequences. There are two that I would like to focus on here, the first of which was not discussed in the article.
The Post opens by stating;
Donald Trump has sparked a presidential debate about whether and how the United States should use weapons from its nuclear arsenal.
But behind the scenes here in Washington, Republican lawmakers are quietly planning to ramp up development of defensive weapons in a move that could change long-standing U.S. policy and rock global relationships.
It all comes down to one word — “limited” — that currently defines the type of nuclear strike the U.S. guards against by tightly controlling the number of ballistic missiles in the country’s defensive arsenal. It’s a policy focused on threats from places like Iran and North Korea.
But now Congress is planning on removing that word and potentially replacing it with a more “robust” substitute, letting the next president significantly ramp up production, modernization and development of defensive weapons aimed against bigger nuclear powers.
Ballistic Missile Defense hitherto has been justified with respect to the ballistic missile “threat” from Iran and North Korea, and the appellation “limited” has been used to counter arguments from Russia and China that BMD is really directed against their nuclear deterrents.
The expression “robust” signals that BMD will also be overtly directed at the ballistic missile capability of Moscow and Beijing, although as the article points out there are real fiscal and technological constraints that prevent a significant near term increase in the BMD capability of the US. For example, recently the Pentagon announced that it has no plans to develop a third site for the Ground Based Midcourse Defense system citing budgetary concerns.
What the Post article ignores is the possible implications that moving toward a “robust” BMD capability has for the weaponisation of space, for “robust” means a robust multi layered system including space based interception. You can see hints of it in the article;
But nobody knows how much developing more advanced systems will cost. Another part of the House’s defense policy bill commissions a study to review the capacity of ballistic missile defense, with instructions to pay attention to researching space-based systems.
Signalling that you want to create a more “robust” BMD capability along side instructions to pay particular attention to researching more capable space based systems will be widely considered to be a Trojan Horse for the weaponisation of space, given that space based systems have anti-satellite capacities. The most cherished, by hawks from SDI onward that is, space based BMD system would have space based sensors and space based interceptors; this is what “robust” in the context of “researching space based systems” means. Such systems would have significant capabilities against satellites within their reach.
That is one way how robust space based BMD acts as a Trojan Horse for the weaponisation of space.
The second is the potential for Russia and China to further respond by placing counter-measures in space, so justifying the development of offensive ASATs in response to protect space based BMD. So you can very easily end up with the overt weaponisation of space.
Furthermore, robust space based BMD prevents the development of an arms control regime precluding the weaponisation of space given the ASAT capabilities of space based systems.
The second implication is the traditional one; robust Ballistic Missile Defense will encourage Russia and China to develop countermeasures including developing more nuclear warheads. This is not because BMD actually has the capability to negate their nuclear deterrents; the physics of Ballistic Missile Defense are well understood, and it has been known for quite a while that BMD cannot work as advertised. BMD, nonetheless, can encourage an arms race because political effects matter here, and, most especially, strategic war planners are required to develop plans upon the basis that they will work.
Nuclear war is a serious business where no chances can be taken, therefore Russian and Chinese planners must assume it will work.
What is especially interesting in this regard is what is happening to launcher numbers with respect to the US, Russia and China. The popular mind associated the absolutely absurd number of nuclear weapons deployed during the cold war with the number of missiles and bombers deployed on the ground, in the air and under the sea. However, the absurdity reached truly ludicrous levels with the advent of MIRV in the 1970s.
There has been a dramatic decline, still not enough to end “overkill,” in warhead numbers since the end of the cold war but that is because of deMIRVing, and the collapse of the Soviet Union which saw, for economic and political reasons, launcher numbers decline appreciably as Moscow moved from a Soviet to a Russian nuclear deterrent.
US launcher numbers, you might be surprised to know, remained relatively stable. As did China’s which always had emphasised that its nuclear deterrent was a minimum deterrence. However, the rate of decline in launcher numbers in Russia has now basically stopped. China is slowly increasing its launcher numbers and has began to partially MIRV its force in response to BMD and the Pivot to Asia.
The scene is set for another mad explosion in nuclear weapons. The launchers are there; all that is needed to surge to higher force postures is, robust if you will, reMIRVing..
Everybody is modernising their nuclear forces, so pay attention to throw weight as they do so.
That 70s show; MIRVs, throw weight, goodness me we’ll probably even get the window of vulnerability all over again if BMD encourages new warhead developments that increase Russian and Chinese counterforce capabilities.
If ABBA, flares, and sideburns return, well (*he* DID say well a lot didn’t he), basically, the world won’t be worth saving anyway.