To Defend, or To Deter?

February 13, 2011 | 7:01 pm
Lisbeth Gronlund
Former contributor

Note: This post discusses an issue raised in one of the WikiLeak cables, but does not quote from the cable.

One of the recently released Wikileaks documents is a State Department cable describing the February 8, 2010 meeting in Paris between Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and French Minister of Defense Herve Morin. Among other things, they talked about missile defense—and what they each had to say is both revealing and fascinating.

Morin began by explaining how France sees missile defense, which he summed up by stating that it was wrong to believe that missile defense would provide additional security. He said he believes that the U.S. shift from a theater missile defense (designed to defend troops against a limited number of theater missiles) to a defense of Europe and its population will provide people with an unwarranted sense of security, since in the end offense is stronger than defense. Senior Ministry of Defense officials later disavowed Morin’s comments.

One might expect that Gates would argue that missile defense would offer a limited defense that was better than nothing. Apparently he did not even suggest this possibility. Instead, he responded to Morin’s points by stating that missile defense contributes to deterrence. In particular, he argued that missile defense would deter limited nuclear missile attacks by countries such as Iran that might acquire that capability in the future.

The first thing to note is that Gates’ focus on deterrence as a rationale for the U.S. defense system suggests that he agrees with Morin’s assessment that it would not provide a population defense.

Second, Gates’ argument is essentially that a potential attacker would not be deterred by the certainty of a devastating military response, but would nonetheless be deterred by the possibility that its missiles would be destroyed in flight. That makes no sense.

Of course, any deterrence provided by missile defense would only be viable if the attacker believed the defense was effective. What matters for deterrence is not actual capability but perceived capability. For deterrence purposes, missile defense is in the eye of the beholder.

This has implications for the kind of flight test program you want to run. After all, if the missile defense system is seen to not work in tests, then it will not serve as a credible deterrent. Conducting more tests, and under the conditions you would want in a rigorous test program, raises the risk of more test failures.

This problem was pointed out several years ago by the Missile Defense Agency’s own Independent Review Team, which noted that the “dissuasion and deterrence value” of the system will be “decreased by unsuccessful flight tests.”

Thus, there would be a strong motivation for a limited flight test program with softball tests against target missiles that don’t represent a realistic threat. (For more on realistic threats, see our report Countermeasures.) And if the purpose of a system is deterrence and not defense, there will be no real interest in making sure the system will actually work and no concern about a test program that is too limited to provide meaningful data about real-world effectiveness. And this is just the type of test program we’ve seen.

The question remains, does Secretary Gates really want to spend billions of dollars on a Potemkin defense to deter potential future missile states, or is he constrained by the political climate in Washington that requires all good Americans to support missile defense?