It’s a Mad, MAD World

June 16, 2010
Mark Donaldson
Former contributor

In the June 15, 2010 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the New START agreement, Senator DeMint (R-SC) again lamented that, as he argued, the United States has ruled out attempting to develop a missile defense system that could defend against a full-scale Russian nuclear attack. He said he didn’t like and didn’t think the American people would like the fact that we continue to live in a world of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) with Russia.

He certainly is right—no one likes the fact that, in a very real sense, every American is threatened by the enormous and inconceivably powerful Russian nuclear arsenal. Or that, however unlikely a Russian nuclear strike is, our defense relies on the American ability to retaliate and destroy Russia with our nuclear arsenal. The Senator is also right that we should want to escape that MAD world, and in fact we can.

But we can’t escape that world by developing a missile defense system that attempts to stop a Russian nuclear attack. As Secretary Gates previously reminded Sen. DeMint, not since the early days of President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative—commonly known as Star Wars—has any U.S administration sought to unilaterally neutralize Russia’s offensive capabilities, and for very good reasons.

What would happen if the United States decided to deploy an anti-missile system aimed at neutralizing Russia’s long-range nuclear-armed missiles? The first thing to note, one can be sure, is that Russia wouldn’t simply accept this development. It could not accept the loss of its nuclear deterrent, and has a number of options to counter such a U.S. initiative.

What could Russia do? It could substantially increase its nuclear arsenal, deploying additional missiles and warheads to overwhelm the defense (like the U.S., Russia has large numbers of warheads in storage). As Gen. Patrick O’Reilly testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 16, for every Russian warhead, an anti-missile system would want two to four interceptors to attempt to shoot it down.

And since one missile can launch many warheads, this makes it even easier and cheaper to deploy additional warheads than it is to expand a missile defense system to keep up. Any missile defense system can be overwhelmed by a rapid increase in missile and warhead numbers.

Add to this the fact that Russia can deploy highly effective countermeasures that would render the U.S. anti-missile system completely ineffective. In 2000, UCS published a report, Countermeasures, outlining the vulnerability of long-range anti-missile systems to countermeasures, and those problems are every bit as real today as they were then. Some of these fool the interceptors with decoys using a more elaborate version of a Mylar “Happy Birthday” balloon. We put together a short animation explaining the science. As the U.S. national intelligence community concluded in a 1999 NIE, even countries like Iran and North Korea could use available technologies to defeat a U.S. anti-missile system. Russia, as it has repeatedly bragged (and the above NIE confirmed), already has the technology to deploy countermeasures capable of defeating an anti-missile system.

Finally, Russia could deploy nuclear warheads on cruise missiles, short-range missiles launched from ships, depressed trajectory submarine-launched missiles with short flight times, or any number of other alternatives to overwhelm, defeat, or go around a U.S. long-range, anti-missile system.

For all these reasons, the United States abandoned the idea of developing an anti-missile system that sought to defend against a Russian long-range nuclear attack. Even Ronald Reagan in the end understood that seeking such a unilateral defense was hopeless.

The bottom line is this: in today’s world of terrorist threats, nuclear proliferation, and the continuing existence of enormous Cold War arsenals, nuclear weapons are a greater liability than an asset for the United States. Nuclear deterrence will be with us as long as nations possess nuclear arsenals, and attempts to undermine that balance will only increase the danger of disaster. To end Mutually Assured Destruction, the only way forward is reducing nuclear arsenals, eventually to where no country possesses the ability to destroy another with nuclear weapons. That process begins with the New START agreement.