Theater Missile Defense Is Destabilizing?
An ongoing dispute about missile defense in the Far East echoes some Cold War arguments. In the wake of North Korean missile tests, the South Koreans and the Japanese are apparently ready
to buy the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system. China protested that such a move by South Korea would destabilize East Asia, and the Russians agreed. Both organized demonstrations, including at least one in Washington. The slogans warned that the United States was militarizing East Asia and igniting a new regional arms race. This is somewhat rich.
THAAD is intended to defend South Korea and Japan against missiles fired at them from outside. It is “directed” at various other countries only to the extent that it devalues their investments in weapons designed to obliterate people in South Korea and in Japan. During the Cold War, the strategic argument against missile defense was that a successful system might encourage a government to attack its enemies. Nuclear deterrence would collapse if a government thought it could attack without the threat of a counterattack. This was and remains a rather thin argument, because everyone is painfully aware that no defense is perfect. No government would chance its own obliteration in hopes that a defensive system, which could never be tested fully, would keep it safe against a massive counterattack.
This rationale, however, does not cover the current Far Eastern case. At this time, neither Japan nor South Korea has nuclear weapons or strategic missiles of its own. Neither is seeking the ability to attack anyone without consequences. Both want additional safety for their populations, particularly in the face of the demonstrably irrational North Korean government. If they also want security against Chinese and Russian pressure, it is difficult to explain why that desire is somehow illegitimate. The thinness of the argument is demonstrated by Russia’s enthusiasm to sell extremely capable air defense systems to Iran, which are intended to reduce Israeli and U.S. leverage against that country. Presumably what destabilizes the Far East cannot possibly destabilize the even less safe Middle East…?
Similarly, the Russians have charged that deployment of Aegis Ashore land-based defensive missiles in Poland destabilizes Central Europe. Russia’s accusation means that they believe their investment in nuclear missiles is being devalued. Aegis Ashore in Europe is intended mainly to protect U.S. allies from small numbers of Iranian missiles and is too weak to deal with the mass of missiles the Russians have built and deployed. The Russians are aware, however, that future U.S. administrations may be more interested in defending Europe, the cost of defensive missile systems may come down, and their numbers may increase.
For the Russians, this is a crucial issue in which economics and military considerations intersect. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been unable to rebuild completely the military-industrial machine of the old Soviet Union. His power is based in part on what amounts to feudalism. Loyalty is purchased. Unless the oligarchs continue to be paid generously, their support for Putin will evaporate and someone else will take his place. The problem is that the Russian economy as a whole has not grown sufficiently to cover both the bribes and the actual costs of national defense. In the quarter-century since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian economy has not developed much beyond resource extraction. Its most valuable exports are still oil and natural gas. Over the past few years, as the price of hydrocarbons collapsed and Western sanctions tightened, Moscow’s fortunes waned.
Putin’s military has had to emphasize low-cost forms of military power. In the past, the best bang for the ruble was nuclear weapons. That is why systems like THAAD are “destabilizing.” They devalue Moscow’s investment. More recently the Russians have added cyber warfare capabilities to their bag of tricks. In theory they are less expensive than nuclear attack, but also unpleasantly usable by others. During the recent U.S. presidential election, it appears the United States conducted its own cyber attacks or probes against the Russians to warn them off continued cyber meddling.
A third element of current Russian military power is the use of “little green men,” deniable special forces which were employed extensively during the invasion of Ukraine. The Korean and Japanese episode reveals a fourth element of Russian power, the use of sympathizers in the West, who are willing to push whatever line the Russians choose. Although effective during the Cold War, they probably are less impactful now. With a little populist camouflage, however, sympathizers could gain strength again.
Interestingly, the argument against missile defense is an American creation, born of Cold War exigency. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara first argued against missile defense in order to kill a U.S. program he feared would break a budget badly strained by the Vietnam War. McNamara doubted it was possible to defend against long-range ballistic missiles—to “hit a bullet with a bullet.”
When Army missile developers showed it was possible to hit an enemy warhead in space, McNamara had to deploy more effective arguments. One was that missile defense merely raised the cost of offensive missiles on both sides without changing the balance of power. The other was that it would be cheaper for the Russians to defeat any defensive system than for the United States to build one. That generally meant using decoy warheads which might be indistinguishable from real ones. The usual ratio quoted in the late 1960s was that for every dollar the Russians invested in their military, the United States would have to spend three. Such arguments left out a vital detail, however. The Soviet economy was about a sixth the size of the U.S. economy, and the Soviets were dedicating about half of it to defense, which was unsustainable. The military crowded out investments in everything else in the Soviet Union, including modernizing oil production to keep earning foreign currency. The Soviets did not have the money to spend, no matter how much leverage they might have gained.
Given McNamara’s argument that it was better to accept the Soviets’ ability to vaporize large numbers of Americans than to defend against it, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (which limited anti-missile systems) became a triumph of Cold War arms control.* Conversely, when President George W. Bush abrogated the treaty in 2001, he was widely condemned. Critics did not notice that the world had changed considerably. The United States was no longer simply trying to deter the Soviet Union (which no longer existed). Suddenly the United States, its allies, and forces abroad were threatened by ballistic missiles wielded by regimes which might not be subject to deterrence. Some of those regimes, particularly North Korea and Iran, are now developing long-range missiles that can threaten the United States. It is not clear that threats of nuclear counterattack will deter those regimes. Hence there is no longer a clear alternative to missile defense.
Now looking back to the Far East, North Korea’s economy is in shambles. It has less surplus money than the old Soviet Union. THAAD has a good chance of working against North Korean missiles because Pyongyang is likely to find building large numbers of ballistic missiles with real warheads plus decoy warheads unaffordable. Japan already has invested in Aegis ballistic missile defense with the SM-3 missile. Aegis and THAAD would form a layered defense over the Japanese islands.
A disturbing development, from the point of view of Beijing and Moscow, is that North Korea’s missile threat is bringing South Korea and Japan closer together despite unresolved problems left from World War II. Tokyo and Seoul recently agreed to share intelligence to support their missile defenses. South Korea already tracks North Korean missile shots using precise radars. Comparable radars in Japan see the same missiles on other parts of their trajectories. Taken together, the tracking and other data the two countries collect makes it easier to distinguish a real North Korean missile from a decoy.
The Chinese may well fear that if the United States sells THAAD to South Korea at some point it may sell similar systems to Taiwan. China probably is not terribly alarmed by a South Korean defensive system, but THAAD in Taiwan would be a very different proposition. China’s threat to Taiwan includes large numbers of short-range ballistic missiles, which the Chinese hope Taiwan believes would wipe out much of their military. Survivors might find it difficult to resist an invasion after such an attack.
That calculus is probably important to the Chinese. Many analysts have argued that China has sufficient military power to overrun Taiwan, but they tend not to focus on the number of casualties the People’s Liberation Army would suffer in doing so—which might be a highly unacceptable number. Recently a single Chinese peacekeeping soldier in Africa died in an ambush, and that single casualty to a one-child family on the Mainland generated enormous sentiment against the peacekeeping mission. There are numerous indications the current Chinese government fears, but cannot completely control, dissent. The cost in only-child blood of an expedition to Taiwan may well deter such an assault.
Taiwan is also in an interesting position in the context of regional missile defense. If that defense were directed against China as well as against North Korea, Taiwan would be in position to provide radar coverage of Chinese missiles in flight. In that case Japan and South Korea might find themselves rethinking their decisions to drop formal relations with Taiwan.
It is not clear the Russians and the Chinese have thought what might happen if their pressure succeeds. Tokyo and/or Seoul might decide the best alternative to missile defense would be to have their own nuclear-tipped missiles. For example, the current Japanese defense minister has said publicly that it is time to drop the ban on Japanese nuclear weapons. Both Japan and South Korea have the potential to build nuclear weapons, as well as sophisticated delivery systems.
*This treaty is widely imagined to have banned ballistic missile defense altogether. In fact it left each side the right to build one defensive system, either protecting its capital or a missile field. The Russians built a system protecting Moscow. The U.S. government rightly understood that to protect Washington while leaving the rest of the country unprotected would be an outrage. The system to defend a missile field was built, but Congress shut it down before it became operational.