World Naval Developments in Review

By Norman Friedman

The United States, unfortunately, seems unable to exert much leverage on the Chinese government in such matters. China has found it easy to sweep aside U.S. trade sanctions-threatened as retaliation for treaty and agreement violations, largely because of its position as a major U.S. trading partner. As for deterrence, there is always the question of what constitutes the threshold for a U.S. retaliatory strike, given the massive civilian deaths that would surely occur. For example, if a Chinese missile destroyed an isolated U.S. base such as the one on Diego Garcia, what would be an appropriate U.S. response? Also, there remains a real question concerning the deterrent value of our own weapons. During the Cold War, we in effect threatened to kill large numbers of enemy civilians, who, in a dictatorship like the Soviet Union or China, could not possibly have influenced central policy. During the Cold War, moreover, those in power in both countries themselves killed (or helped kill) millions of their own people. Mao often said that it would be well worth it to lose hundreds of millions of Chinese if he could trade their deaths for the final destruction of his capitalist enemy (Deng was an enthusiastic deputy).

Whether or not Mao was bluffing, his comments still are chilling. In all likelihood, we can never be sure what will, or will not, deter anyone from a very different political culture. In 1941, faced with the threat of disaster due to a U.S.-led oil blockade, and in the expectation that they would lose a war against the United States, the Japanese leadership nevertheless decided to go to war. Deterrence just did not work. Ultimately, it seems irrational to trust our lives to the idiosyncrasies of unbalanced rulers.

In many cases, however, the only threats such rulers respect are threats to their grip on power or, their own existence. The ability to destroy a command bunker (preferably while the target is inside) may, then, prove sufficiently sobering. A new generation of very precisely targeted earth penetrators may offer just this capability. On the other hand, it is not clear that such threats are always credible. Dictators often survive by making it difficult for potential assassins-who are probably smarter than missiles-to find them. Many such dictators may be unable to take the missile threat seriously, at least until it is used against one of them. If indeed we cannot expect to find the local ruler's lair in order to hit it, such a failure would probably destroy the deterrent effect of the new technology.

Clearly it can be extremely expensive to erect a defense against very large numbers of enemy weapons, since two or more defensive missiles must be available to deal with every incoming weapon. The question then is whether it is cheaper for the attacker or the defender to multiply weapons. As long as offensive weapons had single warheads, it could be argued that costs on both sides were roughly equivalent (in fact the United States could probably afford missiles far more easily than the Soviets). That is why multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) had so great an impact on strategy. Once this technology had taken root, a single missile could fire several separate warheads, their aim points so widely separated that each would have to be intercepted independently. Because it was entirely unguided, each warhead was relatively inexpensive, certainly far less expensive than a separate missile. Now economics drastically favored the attacker, unless somehow the defending missile could either destroy the attacker before the warheads separated or it could somehow deal with several warheads (i.e., unless it too could be MIRVed).

Many U.S. strategists concluded that defense was ultimately impossible, because it was so easy for the offense to add a few missiles or make the missiles slightly larger (so that they could launch more warheads). They made a virtue of the problem by arguing that the most stable international situation was one in which either superpower could destroy the other without hope of avoiding crippling return damage. They also argued that, since any leak in the defense might well be catastrophic, one could not rely on missile defense for any sort of victory; for them, vulnerability became a source of stability. This mutual assured destruction (MAD) posture was enshrined, and the United States negotiated a treaty with the Soviets to restrict any deployment of antiballistic missiles (ABMs). Although the treaty allowed for some limited deployments, the United States soon abandoned the one system it built in North Dakota. It never tried to protect Washington, although the Russians built and maintained defenses around Moscow. It seems noteworthy that the last U.S. ABM system began in the mid-1960s specifically as a defense against the sort of light attacks the Chinese might launch (the Soviets were a very different proposition).

To the extent that the attempt at Cold War arms control is deemed a success, the ABM Treaty must be considered one of its major achievements. Conversely, to the extent that Cold War arms control is seen as a sham, the ABM Treaty is just one more example of self-deception. Within the United States, arms control is most often favored by the Democratic Party; the Republicans have usually questioned the value of paper limitations on foreign governments. In recent years, then, pressure by the Republicans to build strategic defenses, and thus to overturn the ABM Treaty, often has been seen as an attack on the Cold War record of the Democratic Party.

The question is far more than academic. Arms control treaties are not negotiated in a vacuum. They are generally presented as measures of progress toward a future in which countries will argue in court rather than on a battlefield. Given such hopes, minor violations of a treaty are surely of little real significance. Better to maintain the treaty regime than to admit that the larger hope is unlikely ever to materialize. A cynic might say that the entire enterprise reflects our own legalistic culture and thus has little relevance to the politics or to the culture of most of the world. Americans doing business abroad often learn as much to their cost Kipling's thoughts on the fool ". . . who tried to hustle the East," come to mind. It seems odd that the much more experienced U.S. government has never quite learned. Recent experience with the Chinese government and with its limited adherence to agreements ought to have made this point particularly clearly.

Certainly advocates of arms control have not lost their ardor. The U.S. government is now pondering a treaty banning chemical weapons. From our point of view, such a ban (were it real) would certainly be attractive. After all, Iraqi chemical weapons were a major problem during Desert Storm (and in the "Gulf War Syndrome" we may be seeing the unpleasant effects of even minor inadvertent use of chemicals). On the other hand, to the Iraqis chemicals were an important potential deterrent to U.S. operations. Why sign a treaty abandoning them?

As in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, the carrot to attract signatories is a promise to give dual-use technology (i.e., technology that can be used to make chemical weapons) to countries that agree to forgo their production and use. In this particular case, inspection is almost impossible, since war chemicals are so similar to standard agricultural ones (readers may recall the controversy over the Libyan plant a few years ago). The stick is the tacit threat that, if anyone breaks the treaty, the major powers also will abandon compliance. Since our own chemical threat to the Third World is negligible, this stick seems less than impressive. Perhaps more to the point would be a tacit threat that we would step up our own defensive measures, so new chemical weapons would be ineffective. Conversely, lulled by a treaty, we might well be tempted to abandon work on chemical defense. That would not be unprecedented. Major navies largely abandoned work on protecting merchant vessels against submarines after World War I-style unrestricted submarine warfare was formally outlawed at Washington in 1921 (in which case surface raiders became the major prospective threat to trade). All of the major navies then received some nasty shocks once war began in 1939.

The chemical treaty follows much the same logic as the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, with much the same sources of support. The carrot is much the same: a country cannot secure nuclear technology from a signatory unless it agrees to forgo making bombs. The problem is also the same: the treaty is the best possible path to the bomb, since by signing it a government secures its access to the appropriate technology. It turned out that the treaty actually provided more, since physicists who joined the UN inspectorate learned what was needed to make a bomb (after all, that was what they had been charged to determine). The chief of the clandestine Iraqi bomb program was a graduate of the UN organization intended to preclude bombs from being made. Remarkably, despite the evidence gathered in Iraq, the U.S. government made extension of the antinuclear treaty a major policy initiative, as though governments could always be taken at their word.

The history of arms control, including the ABM Treaty, is rather depressing on exactly this sort of point. In the case of the ABM Treaty, U.S. negotiators thought that they were educating the Soviets in the more sophisticated strategic concepts evolved here, such as MAD. There is no particular evidence that this happened. The Soviets isolated their treaty negotiators from their government, so the education, such as it was, had little or no impact. The Soviets regarded MAD as yet another idiotic Western concept, in fact as one which placed the West at a disadvantage to themselves, since it codified Western fear of nuclear attack.

Soviet progress toward ballistic missile defense was restrained mainly by severe technical problems. The ABM Treaty made little difference, because the Soviets had no realistic option of deploying a national defensive system, although they did deploy-illegally-the defensive radars that would be required for any subsequent missile deployment. Indeed, they probably were interested more in the inhibiting effect of the treaty on the United States, which they perceived as far more advanced technologically. A successful U.S. ABM system would have neutralized their own deterrent, which was why President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative far better know as Star Wars-terrified them. Star Wars planned to turn things around by orbiting devices that could destroy so many enemy warheads that the economics could be reversed to favor the defense. Although the President initially based his thinking on a new nuclear-powered X-ray laser (which had to be abandoned), the U.S. capability to mass produce micro-electronics also promised a massive new kind of defense. Much of the opposition to Star Wars can be traced to fears that the arms-control approach to national security was being overturned, that the hope of a legalistic world order was being abandoned.

None of this should have been news. Anyone aware of the attempts at naval arms control (1921-39) has seen much the same progression from hope to disaster. Perhaps the most prominent feature of that gloomy period was the democracies' continued wishful thinking in the face of constant evidence of cheating on the part of the dictatorships. Western governments saw the treaties as a way of reducing the cost of defense. The belief that a combination of treaty and a low level of expenditure provided sufficient security became deeply entrenched both in Britain and in the United States. As a consequence, they were unwilling to rearm as it became clear that the treaties were being violated; they preferred to imagine that violations were marginal. For example, when the British examined an Italian heavy cruiser in dry dock, they estimated that its displacement exceeded by 20% that fixed by treaty. Instead of making the obvious deduction that the limits were no longer relevant, they concluded that the Italians had been unable to design tightly enough to avoid weight increases during construction. Her designers, however, had provided the Italian cruiser with far better protection than her British counterparts. Much the same unwillingness to believe that foreign governments would actually lie can be seen in British underestimates of the size (hence level of protection) of the German battleship Bismarck. Even after Japan explicitly withdrew from the treaty regime (1934-36), the U.S. Congress was only barely willing to build the U.S. Navy up to the level the now-defunct treaty allowed-all of which had real consequences early in World War II.

What happens now? China has a small number of long-range nuclear missiles, and the Chinese government may well believe that the threat they present will deter the United States from involvement in future adventures in East Asia. Our own tacit threat of similar attack against China may or may not seem realistic (much would depend on the target of the Chinese strike). We also may face threats that cannot, by their nature, be deterred. It is quite conceivable, for example, that at some future time the Russian government may no longer be able to control all of its strategic weapons. Individuals may try to use them for blackmail. How are they to be deterred? Surely a U.S. threat to wipe out some Russian city (once missiles have been launched) is less than relevant. Potential threats by small states lie further in the future.

Deterrence a la MAD seems less and less an inherent stabilizer and more and more an artifact of specific conditions during the Cold War. Some form of national missile defense would be far more stabilizing in the future. It might buy time for a U.S. administration to decide whether or not to react to the firing of a few missiles. Right now, a rational reaction to a missile apparently headed for Washington would be difficult at best. One might observe, too, that in the absence of any sort of missile defense an enormous amount depends upon our ability to detect and track possible incoming weapons. A missile defense would make errors far more tolerable, since firing a few defensive weapons would be relatively harmless. Too, a United States that had some means of blunting an enemy attack might find it tolerable to live with smaller strategic offensive forces. Not all arms control agreements really reduce threats, and the ABM Treaty may well turn out to have had horrific unforeseen consequences.

Today's ATBM program focuses on the ability to protect relatively small areas from incoming weapons. Some elements of the system, such as the space-based warning and cueing sensors, are clearly adaptable to any future large-scale defense. The missiles themselves probably are not. Some advocates of a return to ABM have seen in the Navy ATBM system a possible quick path to a wall that might be erected around the United States, either by deploying ships or by land basing. Given the limited footprints of these weapons, any such wall would probably be prohibitively expensive. Oddly enough, the problem would not be so much the need for additional missiles to deal with each additional threat missile, as the need to provide very large numbers of installations to cover the borders of the United States. Even full coverage of the West Coast (against China) would be costly.

This suggests that effective national missile defense requires some new weapon, and that space-basing (a la Star Wars) may be the best bet. The difference from the Star Wars scenario would be the much smaller numbers of threats. China is credited with 14 possibly MIRVed ICBMs plus small numbers of submarine-launched weapons, so any space-based weapons need not be particularly exotic. Probably the main obstacle to any such development is the ABM Treaty itself, which seems a curious relic, given the collapse of Soviet power.

What of the future? China has an immense and growing economy. Right now, 14 missiles seem like small change, but at current rates of growth the Chinese economy will soon be the second-largest in the world. Surely it will be able to turn out ICBMs as fast as cars. In that case we may wonder just why we signed an ABM Treaty (and a variety of arms control treaties) that bind us, but which have no effect on China in any way, since the Chinese government was never even invited to sign them. That must be the worst arms-control nightmare of all: facing a totally unlimited adversary with one's hands tied. Might one suggest that serious U.S. efforts toward national missile defense would help suggest to the Chinese government that its own offensive posture had its limits?

Skeptics might note that China has been unable to translate its current economic muscle into modern military power. That may be partly a consequence of Mao's Cultural Revolution, which suspended technical education and thus denied China a generation of technicians and engineers. It may also be structural reasons that preclude China from tapping its growing market economy for military production. Long-range missiles are not yet, apparently, cheap. That may, of course, change as the effects of the Cultural Revolution continue to subside, but the problem of tapping the market economy goes well beyond any such historical issue. The Chinese military industry almost certainly sees the market part of the economy as a direct threat; jobs can easily be lost. Promises to reform the old Stalinist industries of north China have been made (and broken) so often that the problem seems quite intractable.

Consider again the economics of a missile defense. An existing U.S. system would raise considerably the price of any credible Chinese intercontinental striking force-and Chinese military resources are finite. Since the command portion of the economy seems not to be able to expand very quickly, that increased price has to be paid out of other kinds of military investment. Some other military requirements cannot be relaxed. It seems unlikely that the big ground forces will be cut; they are necessary for maintaining stability, particularly in areas of the country dominated by non-Chinese ethnic minorities. Too, the government seems to have been forced to strike a bargain with ground force commanders, leaving them large commands in return for stability.

Might one then see the Chinese navy as the likeliest source of increased strategic-forces funding? In that case, a U.S. ABM system might provide some leverage against exactly that naval expansion that now threatens friendly countries bordering the South China Sea.

Ultimately, the argument against any form of ballistic missile defense is that the cost of failure is horribly (often said to be unacceptably) high, so the system becomes a bottomless pit for money without offering much in the way of security. Clearly, however, such a system offers at least a chance of survival on our terms-not those of some unpredictable regime. It seems unlikely that, trusting in its defensive system, a U.S. administration would cheerfully fire strategic weapons at some foreign country; it could not be certain enough that its defense would work. On the other hand, a foreign government contemplating an attack on us cannot be sure that our defense would fail. A properly designed defensive system should be able to achieve good results against small numbers of attackers. At the very least, it should be able to minimize the damage they do, simply because the attacker will have to use more weapons (a greater proportion of a limited force) on each target. In other words, the attacker might be able to flatten Washington, D.C., but probably not five other cities as well. That is surely worth a great deal to the inhabitants of the other cities.

The ABM Treaty enshrines not a fundamental principle of human or state relationships, but rather a particular set of technological capabilities, as they existed about 1970, in the context of a Cold War in which each adversary had thousands of MIRVed warheads. Concepts developed under the Star Wars program suggest that we can do much better now, even against fairly heavy attacks-and far, far better against light ones, which seemed quite surmountable even in 1970. Surely it is better to place primary reliance on our own ability to beat off attack, rather than on a threat to do damage so horrific our own consciences would probably preclude our doing it.


Norman Friedman is a consultant on global naval strategy, naval trends, and naval warfare. An internationally known military technology analyst and naval historian, he worked for a decade as an advisor to Secretaries of the Navy, and for another 10 years with a leading U.S. think tank. Dr. Friedman travels the world speaking to military and defense industry leaders, and appears frequently appears on television as a guest commentator. He has authored more than 30 books, and has since the 1980s contributed regular columns analyzing world naval developments for Proceedings magazine. His PhD in Physics was earned at Columbia University.

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