New US missile proposals cause old adversaries to stir

Russia and China appear to be worried that possible new US weapons really are aimed at them.

Missile defense. Space weapons. A new nuclear warhead design.

Issues from the 1980s? Yes – and issues for today. This spring has been a time of traveling back to the future for US strategic weapons policy as old controversies return in new geopolitical contexts.

The US government says it is just trying to adapt to a new world of threats. For instance, a proposed missile defense site in Eastern Europe is meant to counter Iranian long-range missiles, according to the White House.

But America's old cold war adversaries don't see things quite the same way. Russia and China appear to be worried that the burgeoning missile-defense system and possible new US weapons – such as nonnuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles and a new nuclear Reliable Replacement Warhead – really are aimed at them.

The Russians and Chinese see these various steps "as a potential threat to their own nuclear deterrent capabilities," says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. "So the US has to look carefully at the costs and benefits of these various military systems."

Missile defense has been an item of contention between superpowers since the days of President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative. Soviet leaders took SDI seriously, despite the fact that its early technology often failed development tests – seeing the system as something which US technological prowess might eventually turn into a capable shield.

Today's missile defense is intended to protect against only a few incoming weapons, rather than provide a shield against massive attack. The US has erected sites in Alaska and central California, which for the most part are still being tested. The ground-based interceptors it commands are meant to protect against North Korean long-range missile development, according to the US.

The US also wants to erect a defense site in Eastern Europe, with 10 interceptors based in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic. But Russian leaders remain adamantly opposed to this defense site, for much the same reason cited by their Soviet predecessors.

The Russians do not worry as much about possible Iranian missile threats as do American officials. They do worry that defenses, even imperfect ones, might blunt the power of their own vast nuclear arsenal.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, after a visit to Moscow on April 23, said that he felt as if he had made some "headway" on this subject. He offered to work with the Russians on defense concepts and technologies, and to perhaps locate Russian and US defense radars together.

"We face new threats that require new strategies for deterrence and defense," said Mr. Gates.

But public comments by Russian officials suggested continued opposition.

"We do believe that deploying all the strategic elements of the ballistic missile defenses is a destabilizing factor that may have a great impact upon global and regional security," said Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov.

Missile defense isn't the only new US program that Moscow opposes. Russian officials also told Gates of their concerns about a US Navy plan to replace nuclear warheads with conventional ones on some Trident sub-launched ICBMs.

Russia worries that the US launch of a conventionally tipped missile might look just like the launch of a nuclear one, forcing Moscow – or Beijing – into a rushed decision on a possible retaliatory nuclear strike.

But US officials say they need a big club such as a conventional ICBM for the same reason they need missile defense: to guard against emerging threats.

China's recent successful test of an antisatellite (ASAT) weapon, for instance, shows how vulnerable America's valuable eyes-in-the-sky may soon become. Conventional ICBMs would allow the US to quickly attack an ASAT launcher without crossing the terrible threshold of nuclear war, according to the Pentagon.

"We need to have an alternative to those nuclear weapons," said Gen. James Cartwright, head of the US Strategic Command, in March 29 Congressional testimony.

Proponents of arms control say the Chinese ASAT threat might be handled better via negotiation of a treaty to ban weapons in space. Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association and others point out that China has long advocated such a pact.

"We really need to come to terms with what the rules of the road are going to be, or we face a potentially destabilizing free-for-all," says Mr. Kimball.

Other experts think China's position on the ASAT ban has long aimed at banning any future US space-based weapons, while allowing ground-based ASATs such as their own.

Blinding US reconnaissance satellites is likely to be a crucial part of any Chinese military plan to seize Taiwan, says John Pike, director of

"They can only win if they act quickly and we react slowly, and blinding us might get them an extra couple of days," says Pike.

Against this background, US officials are also asking Congress to fund development of the first new US nuclear warhead in years.

The Reliable Replacement Warhead is meant to be safer, more robust, and easier to manufacture than current models.

But the current arsenal is safe and reliable enough, say critics – and a new US warhead might send the wrong message to potential nuclear proliferators such as Iran and North Korea.

"If Congress gives a green light to this program in our current world environment ... I believe that this will be misunderstood by our allies, exploited by our adversaries, [and] complicate our work to prevent the spread and use of nuclear weapons," said former Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, at a March 29 House hearing.

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