BMD: Cooperative Protection or Strategic Instability

It’s hard to believe, but less than a decade ago, academics, policy analysts, and even officials were exploring US-NATO-Russia cooperation on ballistic missile defence1 – begging the question: why is that no longer considered an appropriate subject for polite company? Missile defence cooperation is still happening, of course, but it’s between Russia and China on one side and among the US and its friends and allies on the other. Unless, however, missile defence is pulled back from its current competitive dynamic to one of east-west accommodation and cooperation, nuclear tensions, and arsenals, will only grow. Canada has joined the competitive fray in Europe through NATO, but, to its credit, continues to resist direct involvement in the strategic North American version of ballistic missile defence.

Unilateral strategic-range ballistic missile defence (BMD) erodes strategic stability to the extent that it is seen to challenge an adversary’s strategic deterrent. Notably, Russia and China are not amenable to the view that the intense and costly western pursuit of ballistic missile defence (an American obsession buttressed by a rare case of Washington bipartisanship) is aimed simply at the North Korean nuclear threat, or at future Iranian or other “rogue” nuclear threats. American-led, multi-layered missile defence pursuits, the Russians and the Chinese suspect, are ultimately intended to undermine the credibility and effectiveness of their nuclear deterrent forces.

And the more the Americans try to perfect their still faltering BMD technologies, the more their adversaries are inclined to fear missile defence as credible (if not yet, then possibly in the future), inclining them to retain and potentially expand their offensive arsenals. It is an obsession/suspicion dynamic that is decidedly not conducive to mutual nuclear arms reductions.

Avoiding this defence/offence arms race will require either the revival of an ABM-type2 treaty of mutual forbearance, or recovery of the decades-old notion of cooperative missile defence (even Ronald Reagan fleetingly proposed sharing missile defence technology with the Soviet Union3). That would mean the serious exploration of joint programs with the objective of protecting any vulnerable populations from isolated, very low volume, long- and medium-range missile attacks – with accompanying guarantees that such systems would have no consequential capacity against even drastically reduced arsenals of the major powers.

When BMD cooperation seemed possible

In 2010 NATO and Russia agreed to explore cooperating on missile defence in Europe. The Lisbon NATO Summit that year included a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) which agreed on “a comprehensive Joint Analysis of the future framework for missile defence cooperation.” They promised to review the results at the 2011 meeting of NRC Defence Ministers.”4 After the Summit, then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, had it about right: “We will either come to terms on missile defense and form a full-fledged joint mechanism of cooperation or … we will plunge into a new arms race and have to think of deploying new strike means, and it’s obvious that this scenario will be very hard.”5

The promise of 2010 was compelling. The Brooking Institution’s Steven Pifer, among others, argued that cooperative BMD would facilitate further arsenal reductions, enhance protections for Europe, including European Russia, and, by making NATO and Russia allies in protecting Europe, it would fundamentally change the East-West strategic relationship.6 But it wasn’t to be. Russia wanted a “legal guarantee” that US missile defence would not be directed against Russian strategic nuclear forces, and there was no way the American Congress would give it – it would compromise American sovereignty, they argued.

Advocates of cooperation nevertheless continued to counsel greater transparency and confidence building – the sharing of technical information on defensive and offensive capabilities, sharing information on planning and programmatic developments, exchanging observers during tests and joint exercises, and exploring a jointly managed NATO-Russia centre for monitoring missile launches worldwide. A 2012 study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace saw such jointly staffed centres as “integrating data and forming a comprehensive picture of potential dangers as well as coordinating responses to real missile threats.”7 In 2013 the Obama Administration proposed a legally binding agreement on transparency, including sufficient exchange of information to confirm that missile defence programs on either side would not present a threat to each other’s defense forces.8

In 2012 the German Institute for International and Security Affairs also counselled cooperation on missile defence, beginning with transparency and information sharing measures. The study concluded that, in the long run, “NATO-based missile defense can only strengthen European security if Russia is on board”9 (emphasis added). That remains true, and it applies equally to the North American version of missile defence intended to respond to the North Korean threat, and to China as well. These and other similar proposals put forward in and around 2010 all focused on the need to switch from competitive to cooperative approaches in missile defence.

The continuing competition

At the start of this past holiday season, however, it was the competitive, not the cooperative, approach that was on full display. President Donald Trump signed into law a short-term government funding bill (actually, it was a missile defence bill to which were added provisions to keep the US Government funded and the lights on over the holidays), which handed the US missile defence agency another $4 billion to spend on what the bill called “missile defeat and defense enhancements.”10 The President explained the new funding in quintessentially Trumpian terms:

“We are ordering $4 billion worth of missile defense equipment and missiles. Very important. Top of the line. Best in the world. We make the best military product in the world, and nobody is even close.”11

The focus of these latest “enhancements” is the ground-based, mid-course interception version of BMD – the system centered in Alaska, and the one Canada has to date declined to join. The bill authorized adding 20 mid-course interceptors to the 40 now deployed in underground silos at Ft. Greely in Alaska (another four are deployed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California). It also adds two billion-dollar radar installations and more satellites to help guide the interceptors’ non-explosive warheads, or “kill vehicles,” into the paths of attacking nuclear warheads12 – a feat that testing has so far shown to be rather elusive, interceptions failing as often as not.13

Canadian Defence Policy Briefing Paper
By Ernie Regehr O.C.
Senior Fellow in Arctic Security and Defence
The Simons Foundation
January 18, 2018


1 For example:

Steven Pifer, “NATO-Russia Missile Defense: Compromise is possible,” The Brookings Institution, 28 December 2012.

Dimitri Trenin, James Collins, “The Game Changer: Cooperative Missile Defense,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 29 November 2012.

Michael Paul, “Missile Defense: Problems and Opportunities in NATO-Russia Relations,” Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, SWP Comments, July 2012.

Susan Cornwell, “Missile defense cooperation could be ‘game-changer’ for US, Russia: report,” Reuters, 04 February 2012.

Igor Ivanov, Wolfgang Ischinger, Sam Nunn, “Missile Defense: Toward a New Paradigm,” Euro-Atlantic Security Initiative Working Group Paper, 03 February 2012.

And a decade earlier:

Pavel Podvig, US-Russian Cooperation in Missile Defense: Is it Really Possible?” Center for Arms Control Studies, November 2003.

2 The ABM Treaty (Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty) limited the US and the Soviet Union to two point-defence installations each (the national capital and one ICBM field). The US announced its withdrawal from the Treaty in 2001.

3 Mark W. Davis, “Reagan’s Real Reason for SDI,” Policy Review, Hoover Institution, 01 October 2000.

4 Steven A. Hildreth and Carl Ek, “Missile Defense and NATO’s Lisbon Summit,” Congressional Research Service Report R41549, 11 January 2011.

5 CRS Report, 11 January 2011.

6 Steven Pifer, “NATO-Russia Missile Defense: Compromise is Possible,” The Brookings Institution, 28 December 2012.

7 Dimitri Trenin, James Collins, 29 November 2012.

8 Tom Z. Collina, “Russia, U.S. Trade Missile Defense Offers,” Arms Control Today, 03 June 13,

9 Michael Paul , July 2012.

10 H.R. 1370.

11 “Trump Signs Bill Adding Funds for Missile Defense,” Destroyer Fixes,” DODBuzz, US Department of Defense, 22 December 2017.

12 David Willman, “Trump administration moves to boost homeland missile defense system despite multiple flaws,” Los Angeles Times, 24 December 2017.

13 “Ballistic Missile Defense Intercept Flight Test Record,”, Missile Defense Agency, Fact Sheet, 30 May 2017. The table marks 10 out of 19 tries as successful, without any information of the extent to which tests simulated real-world conditions.