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US nuclear missile test: What's the purpose?

As the United States launches its second ICBM test in a week, observers question the high level of publicity surrounding the event. While some suggest it is merely routine, others point to diplomatic signals targeting a range of countries.

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    An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California at 11:01 p.m. On February 25, 2016.
    Kyla Gifford/Reuters
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The United States carried out an intercontinental ballistic missile test Thursday night, its second in a week, in what seems to have been a highly publicized event.

While regular testing of nuclear capabilities is nothing out of the ordinary, some observers perceive a heightened public awareness in this instance, as well as an unusual effort on the part of the military to boost that awareness.

At a time of fragility in international relations, with renewed Russian adventurism, China flexing its muscles in the South China Sea and North Korea hurtling along its path of nuclear weapons development, this test is likely part of a complex diplomatic message, with multiple intended recipients.

“It was a very, very public test, not just aimed at the military guys who monitor this sort of activity,” says Nicholas Kitchen, assistant professor in the United States Center at the London School of Economics (LSE), in a telephone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. “This indicates to me that it’s much more about North Korea, not Russia.”

This test is also likely intended to reassure the Japanese, who have been increasingly anxious about China and its activities in the South China Sea – and whether US defense guarantees are credible.

“It’s difficult to understate quite how nervous Japanese diplomats are on the question of the credibility of US commitment to them, particularly in the aftermath of what happened in Ukraine,” says Dr. Kitchen.

US diplomats, for their part, point to the fact that Ukraine is not a member of NATO, and nor is there a defense agreement between them and the United States, as there is with Japan.

Nonetheless, the US retains nuclear weapons in Europe, whereas it has withdrawn its missiles from South Korea. It is for this reason, following the recent nuclear test by North Korea, that the US and South Korea started exploring the idea of deploying a missile interceptor system, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD).

And so we come to the next target in the US diplomatic thinking behind this missile test: China.

“A missile interceptor system worries China because it might provide early warning of Chinese missiles directed against the United States in the fantastic and highly unlikely event of a nuclear confrontation between those two countries,” continues Kitchen.

So disconcerting do the Chinese find the prospect of THAAD that, according to Kitchen, one South Korean diplomat recently suggested that, should it be deployed, “it would destroy our bilateral relationship with China in an instant.”

So it is that the US could be aiming to signal to China that, while it is ready and able to come to the defense of regional allies, it will do so from afar, from over the horizon, rather than installing more local systems that would be perceived by the Chinese as a threat.

If these latest tests have anything to do with Russia, then Kitchen says he would struggle to understand the message. Pavel Podvig, an independent analyst of Russian nuclear forces and publisher of the RussianForces.org blog, agrees.

“I don't know why all this publicity around the test. Maybe the US Air Force wants to remind everyone that the ICBMs are still around and doing reasonably well – they had quite a bit of bad publicity in the past several years,” says Dr. Podvig, in an email interview with the Monitor.

“As for Russia, I am reasonably certain that nobody there would notice – as I said, these tests are routine activity and there are no surprises there. The military intelligence I'm sure is keeping track, but that would be about it.” 

Yet Russia has certainly been busy of late, intensifying its own nuclear rhetoric, as Thomas Karako, Senior Fellow for the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, tells the Monitor in a telephone interview.

“This is no longer the cold war, but it is nonetheless the case that we still have to worry about the very significant Russian nuclear arsenal. Russia has lowered its nuclear threshold to compensate for diminished conventional forces,” says Dr. Karako.

“When you combine that with their aggressive actions in Georgia, Ukraine, Estonia etc, many of which are accompanied by nuclear threats and insinuations, it’s a reminder of how important it is to retain a robust nuclear capability.”

Yet Karako also says that he sees “no indication that this is anything other than a test of US ICBM reliability,” pointing out that the US Minuteman III missiles entered service in 1971.

“If you had a 1970s car in your garage, you’d want to check it regularly,” says Karako.

And, whatever the nuances behind this particular test, there can be no denial of the fact that it does form a part of the grand nuclear strategy, the global system of deterrence, informing allies and adversaries alike that the US has a functioning nuclear arsenal, and it is willing to use it.

“In the final analysis,” says Kitchen of LSE, “this test says to China, 'We can fire a load of missiles at each other, if it comes to it, but we don’t get to that point because we know the system works.' ”

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