The Arms Race Myth?

Richard Perle has an interesting op-ed on missile defense in Monday’s Washington Post. The point is that arms races aren’t all that they’re cracked up to be; arms controllers’ belief in an iron-clad law of politics saying that rival states engage in arms races is wishful thinking driven by opposition to arms. He’s more right than wrong.

Perle does overstate his point. He claims that there was not arms racing during the Cold War. Wrong. The US-Soviet nuclear weapons dynamic during the Cold War, to use Sam Huntington’s famous distinction, can be accurately described as a quantitative arms race until the 1970s, when the competition became more qualitative. All along, because US nuclear weapons policy consistently aimed at making a preemptive first strike against Soviet nukes possible (mutually assured destruction was a lot of talk never reflected in weapons policy), you could reasonably call our behavior arms racing. Early on, the Air Force largely based its preferred number of bombers and ICBMs on the number of Soviet nuclear weapons launchers – whether bombers or missiles – and routinely exaggerated those numbers for bureaucratic purposes. Later, when arms limitations talks like SALT occurred, we limited total numbers of platforms but strove for higher accuracy to maximize our ability to pull off a disarming strike.

But Perle’s overall point is still accurate. The Cold War was unique. Today pundits often argue that if we build a missile defense system that works against their missiles, the Russians and Chinese will just build more missiles to overwhelm it. Maybe. But this begs the question of why the Russians have been letting their nuclear arsenal (particularly early warning radar) decay since the Cold War, to the point where people like Keir Lieber and my former Professor Daryl Press can write that we have gained a first strike capability against Russia. One reason the Russians let this happen, presumably, is that they were broke, which would imply that they’ll fix things now that they’re not. Another explanation, however, is that the Cold War ended, and they stopped caring about the nuclear balance.

If that condition holds, Russia might view our missile defense system as a nuisance not worth great expense. They probably still dislike an image of weakness, largely because of Russian domestic politics. Putin may therefore bluster that he would never let the US get too large a nuclear lead, but that is more about symbolism that true responses. Where the rubber meets the road, they may avoid investing enough to match us. No arms race. Maybe they’ll settle for simple qualitative steps like developing decoys that can overwhelm the system. That could be called an arms race, but not much of one.

Likewise, since it built nuclear weapons, China has lived under the shadow of a possible disarming first strike from us (and for years, probably the USSR). They have showed little inclination to deal with this situation by making their missiles mobile, building far more, or deploying nuclear missiles on submarines. Today they are moving anemically toward developing those submarines, it appears, and making their ICBMs mobile. But they are not investing heavily in those capabilities. If they’re in a race to assure a deterrent capability against us, it’s a very slow one. Perhaps this is a legacy of our friendly late Cold War relations. Maybe it’s a hedging strategy born of poverty, which is disappearing. Maybe they figure 20 ICBMs is enough to keep us from getting too confident. Whatever the case, it is hardly inevitable that their reaction to our missile defense efforts will be to build-up to overwhelm our system. That depends on lots of conditions, especially the state of bilateral relations. The more we label them as the object of our arms, the more likely this buildup is.

Unlike Perle, by the way, I’m not for national missile defense – not twelve billion a year of it, anyway. It’s wasteful. One reason is that the conditions of hostility likely to make it useful vis-à-vis rich states are precisely the conditions that would cause those states to arms race enough to overwhelm it (assuming, heroically, that it worked). But neither am I alarmed by missiles defense’s independent implications for international relations. That depends on a lot more than defense systems.