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4/3/2012 - What's at Stake in the Missile-Defense Debate?


When President Obama beseeched the Russian president to give him "space" until after the November election to deal with Moscow's concerns about U.S. missile defenses, it was with his larger objective of a world without nuclear weapons in mind. In explaining his remarks, the president said: "I want to reduce our nuclear stockpiles; and one of the barriers to doing that is building trust and cooperation around missile-defense issues."

It appears the president is willing to compromise our own missile-defense capabilities to secure Russian support for another round of nuclear-arms reductions. To accomplish that, he may have to ignore or circumvent commitments he made to Congress to secure support for the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (Start)—among them, that he would deploy all four phases of planned U.S. missile-defense systems for Europe, and that he would modernize the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system for the protection of the U.S. homeland.

The president's re-election prospects could suffer if concessions on these systems were to be openly discussed before the election.

The Russians have made clear their concern about the range and speed of U.S. missile-defense interceptors planned for deployment later this decade, as well as American plans to base those interceptors in Poland, in Romania, and on naval vessels. In particular, the Russians decry the development of the SM-3 block IIB missile, which is planned for deployment at the beginning of the next decade. This potential missile would be the only U.S. theater missile-defense system capable of catching intercontinental-range Iranian missiles, making it important for the defense of our homeland.

Russia also wants increased involvement in actual operation of NATO missile defenses and would not want to see expansion and improvement of our existing national missile-defense system (which already has been curtailed by the president).

It is questionable whether concessions on missile defense would induce Russia to further reduce its nuclear arsenal. Unlike the U.S., Russia maintains a robust nuclear warhead production capability, and its national security strategy is to increase reliance on nuclear weapons. Russia is also modernizing ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

In addition to worrying about our missile-defense capability, the American people should question the assumptions behind the president's quest to reduce the number of nuclear weapons well below New Start Treaty levels. While in South Korea last month, President Obama said that he "can say with confidence that we have more nuclear weapons than we need."

U.S. military planners don't necessarily share that view. During Senate hearings in 2010 on the New Start Treaty, the then-Commander of U.S. Strategic Command Gen. Kevin Chilton testified that, "I think the arsenal that we have is exactly what is needed today to provide the deterrent."

Would the world be safer and more peaceful if the U.S. had fewer nuclear weapons? Is the current nuclear balance unstable? Are there incentives to strike first during a crisis? Are there pressures to increase the numbers of nuclear arms? Do our allies worry about the credibility of the U.S. nuclear umbrella?

The answer to all of these questions is "no." Yet very low numbers of deployed nuclear weapons, as the president appears to have in mind, could engender instability. Lower numbers of U.S. and Russian nuclear forces could encourage China and other nations to seek equivalence. Our allies would be less certain about American nuclear guarantees, and they would then have an incentive to develop their own nuclear arsenals.

Very low numbers could prove destabilizing during a crisis, when even small amounts of cheating could tip the balance. With a very small nuclear arsenal, we would be less able to respond quickly to new threats and strategic challenges. It is far from certain that the supposed benefits of the additional reductions favored by the president outweigh the risks of lower numbers in our nuclear stockpile.

As the president has noted, any new arms-control treaty would have to be supported by the Senate. His failure to request full funding to modernize our nuclear weapons laboratories—another pledge he made to secure ratification of New Start—is another reason his proposals would be met with strong skepticism in the Senate.

As he said on his recent trip to South Korea, President Obama believes that, because we are "the only nation ever to use nuclear weapons," we now have a "moral obligation" to pursue nuclear disarmament. In fact, the United States used two atomic weapons to end World War II in order to fulfill a moral obligation to save the lives of perhaps a million American GIs.

Today, the federal government has no higher moral obligation than to protect the American people and to help ensure the human race never again experiences the ruin and destruction of the wars that occurred before the advent of nuclear weapons. Supporting a robust nuclear deterrent and an effective missile defense is a moral obligation for all those who are entrusted with ensuring our nation's security.
Wall Street Journal
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