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Post 9/11: Missile threats and responses

Rebecca Johnson, The Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy

Notes for Presentation at the UN Department for Disarmament Affairs Seminar Impact of 11 September 2001 on a Disarmament Agenda in the 21st Century, United Nations, October 3, 2002.

Notwithstanding the 1993 basement bomb in the World Trade Centre, the devastating Oklahoma bombing in 1995, and attacks on US service-people and embassies abroad, the United States prior to September 11, 2001, did not "live with terrorism" as so many countries with violent extremists have learned to do. When three passenger jets slammed into the World Trade Centre towers and the Pentagon a year ago, they changed the way Americans felt about their security, imbuing them with an unprecedented sense of vulnerability. Although the coordinated September 11 attacks confirmed that ordinary capabilities - box-cutters to hijack fuel-filled aeroplanes - could be deployed as weapons of mass destruction, the targeting of thousands of civilians in the World Trade Centre and the grand dimensions of the terrorists' deadly intent also increased awareness of what could happen if such religious and political extremists got their hands on nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. Despite the obvious fact that low-tech delivery by hand, truck or ship is most likely to be a terrorist's method of choice for delivering radiological, biological or chemical weapons and even, potentially, a nuclear weapon, it appears that an early beneficiary of the 9/11 attacks has been long-standing but seriously contested plans for missile defences and - potentially - space-based weapons.

The timing of the 9/11 attacks enabled the administration of George W. Bush to push through, virtually unchallenged, the allocation of billions of dollars to two areas of defence: civil- now called "homeland" defence; and military defence. In particular, the Republicans' controversial missile defence programme avoided the anticipated intense scrutiny and Democrat challenges to its rationale and cuts to its budget. The demands of post 9/11 unity ensured that by October 3, 2001, the US Senate had voted by 99 to nil a budget for FY 2002 of $343 billion for defence, which included 7.9 billion for missile defence.

After any attack, from a violent street mugging to large-scale terrorism, it is common to find that survivors are left with feelings of deep vulnerability and a desire for maximum protection of all kinds, however illogical. I will address five key aspects related to missiles: the asymmetry between missile threat perceptions and actual security threats; the relationship between weapons of mass destruction and missiles; different approaches for addressing missile threats and proliferation; the relative gains for missile defence proponents in the immediate post 9/11 security environment; and the risks of weaponisation of space and the need for the international community to develop a space security regime.

1) Missile threats, which require both capability and intention, should not be divorced from security threats.

Look around the world. The security threats that need to be most urgently addressed in the 21st Century include:

  • Environmental degradation, climate change and conflicts over resources and necessities such as clean water;
  • Poverty, hunger, epidemics like Aids;
  • Social, urban and state disintegration;
  • Crime, criminal gangs, warlords;
  • Proliferation and trafficking in all kinds of weapons and weapons components, not just WMD but small arms and light weapons;
  • The abuse of and trafficking in people (especially women) and drugs;
  • War - internal (so-called "civil" war), regional conflicts and future asymmetric war;
  • Use of weapons of mass destruction by non-state or, for that matter, state actors; and, yes, also missile threats.

Many of these security threats are linked. Missile threats do not immediately jump out as a pre-eminent danger, yet the threat perception associated with missiles is growing, not least among countries which already have well-developed missile programmes of their own. And it is threat perception rather than threat logic that drives defence policy. Underlying the fear of missile attack is the assumption that missile programmes are linked with programmes or ambitions to acquire a weapon of mass destruction capability.

2) Missile development and WMD

The UN panel on missiles noted that some 35 countries now possess missiles with ranges of 150 km or more. Whether a particular country with a missile programme is assessed as a threat is a question of politics and perception, but analyses from the Carnegie Endowment and Union of Concerned Scientists suggest that the actual military threat to the United States from missiles has decreased rather than increased over the past 20 years. Though missile programmes may be intended for conventional warfare, the US rationale for missile defence is to forestall nuclear, chemical or biological attacks. Missile development is indelibly associated with WMD ambitions because of the expense and technology: the heavier the payload, the greater the penalties in terms of range and capabilities, so for maximum effect, the lighter, more compact WMD warhead would be the rational payload of choice. Given this association, and the fact that it is impossible to distinguish what kind of warhead is being carried by an incoming ballistic or cruise missile, conventionally armed missiles will have declining utility and increased risks for the sender, especially if pre-emption is elevated into doctrine, as indicated in the National Security Strategy of the United States, signed by George W. Bush on September 17, 2002.

3) Defending against missile threats

People want reassurance that they can be shielded from attack by missiles bearing mass destruction warheads, political leaders would find it very difficult to withstand the pressure to do so, however much it cost. Missile interception and defence programmes, however, are only one of several possible approaches to the perceived threats from missile delivered WMD. As recognised by the 2002 US Nuclear Posture Review, civil or homeland defence based on enhancing on-the-ground emergency responses can minimise or mitigate the effect of an attack and potentially reduce the attackers' incentives. A third approach may be characterised as "political defence". Political defence may encompass multilateral regime-building based on nonproliferation and controls or on disarmament and prohibition.

Examples of the nonproliferation approach include the MTCR and its related, recently developed, International Code of Conduct, and the Russian-initiative for a Global Control System. The unfortunately abbreviated ICoC, negotiated during a series of meetings, the most recent of which - in June 2002 - involved 96 states, is an essentially supply-side approach aimed at curbing the proliferation of ballistic missiles and missile technologies and developing norms covering transparency, launch declarations, and other confidence-building measures. It is not presently designed to cover cruise missiles. Russia's Global Control System, undergoing development among up to 71 countries at meetings in March 2000 and February 2001, aims for a multilateral, legally binding agreement on a global regime of missile non-proliferation under UN auspices.

Political defences to missile threats based on disarmament and prohibition are not yet being given serious attention, although the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty stands as a successful example of a negotiated (albeit bilateral) agreement that completely eliminated an entire class of ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles (GLCM, Pershing II, and SS20) with ranges of 500 to 5,500 km. In addition to overseeing the verified removal and destruction of existing missiles, the INF Treaty also prohibited the production, testing and deployment of such weapons.

4) Missile defence: protection or increased threat?

The same Republicans that pushed Bush's presidency campaign had already turned missile defence into a major issue for the Clinton administration, which found itself reluctantly supporting a "phase one" ground-based "national missile defence" research programme. Once in power, the Bush team got rid of the imprecise distinction between national and theatre missile defence and embarked on a round of "consultations" with Russia, China and US allies to persuade them to accept its repudiation of the ABM Treaty and open-ended architecture for missile defence, potentially encompassing ground, sea, air and even space-based interceptors. After Bush's major policy statement of May 2001, the media in Europe and elsewhere were filled with sceptical debates about missile defence, and government leaders such as Tony Blair, prepared to accommodate the Americans plans and provide facilities, for example Fylingdales and Menwith Hill, were expecting a rough ride. Moreover, the Democrats, unexpectedly becoming the majority party after Sen. Jeffords rejected the Republican Party and crossed the Senate floor, were beginning to gear up to challenge Bush on missile defence.

All that changed after September 11. President Putin moved quickly to position Russia as America's ally in the war on terrorism, which necessitated accommodation with Bush's determination to leave the ABM Treaty. When the six month notice of US withdrawal from the Treaty was given barely 3 months after 9/11, on December 13, Russia acquiesced, merely commenting that it was a mistake. China, too, chose to accept the US decision without wasting further political capital. The treaty was abandoned, and the world moved on.

That does not, however, mean widespread acceptance of missile defences. The demise of the ABM Treaty removed one focus of opposition, but there are other reasons for the relative lack of mobilisation. The 9/11 classification of the world as "either with us or with the terrorists" has continued to inhibit allies and critics alike, although the gag-effect is beginning to wear off now. Secondly, the Bush concept of missile defence is so woolly, undefined and open-ended, in terms both of architecture and time-table for deployment, that it is difficult to find a clear, salient target for opposition. Will it be boost phase (and rain potentially lethal debris down on countries below), or mid-phase (and increase the debris in the lower-earth orbit)? Will it be ground-based, sea based, air based, space based or a complex mix of some or all of these launch platforms? Will the United States go it alone or in partnership with the Nato allies, Japan, even Russia? Is it really intended to shield against a small number of "rogue" missiles or is the wider intention to degrade the deterrence capability of medium-sized nuclear forces, such as China's? Tests are known to have been falsified, increasing scepticism about the technological feasibility of some or all of the plans, not least from America's own scientists. Will missile defence rely on kinetic-kill or will laser based directed-energy interception be incorporated? Rumsfeld agreed funding for a research project to look again at nuclear tipped interceptors, which the United States had previously decided against (in order to protect space assets, among other reasons), but which Russia has all along argued would be technologically more feasible than trying to kinetically kill a bullet with a bullet. Others moved swiftly to dismiss this option. The questions are legion, but clear answers or understandings appear to be sparse. So many missile defence opponents are adopting a "wait and see" attitude, perhaps hoping that - like with Reagan's Strategic Defence Initiative in the 1980s, this latest incarnation will collapse under the weight of its own costs and technical problems. Such an attitude, however, may be dangerous, for where significant money and prestige becomes embedded, political interests become entrenched. Important questions still need to be asked about where US missile defence plans are really going.

In keeping with the new strategic triad, announced in the January 2002 US Nuclear Posture Review, the Bush administration wants to establish "a revitalised defence infrastructure that will provide new capabilities in a timely fashion to meet emerging threats". It is this shift from threat-based to capabilities-based defence that is potentially most destabilising for security and disarmament objectives in the 21st Century. Keeping all options open, by refusing to ratify the CTBT, for example, in case a future new tactical nuclear weapon or nuclear component of missile defence might need to be tested, is itself a high risk option that may fuel a new kind of offence-defence race and lead to self-fulfilling prophesies about future threats, enhancing the attractions of asymmetric approaches and capabilities, including cyber-attacks designed to disable or distort computer-dependent or satellite based information systems and components.

On the other hand, there is a scenario in which shared, limited, terrestrial missile defences (if they could be made to work) could perhaps provide confidence to meet concerns about vulnerability to rogue state or non-state nuclear blackmail or threat if the existing nuclear arsenals were brought down to very low levels and then zero. In the post cold war, post 9/11 world, doctrines of nuclear deterrence are more clearly exposed as flawed or illusory. Such a recognition, though not yet overtly admitted, is evidenced by the recent US emphasis on strategic nuclear and non-nuclear forces, defence and pre-emption. Under certain conditions, it is conceivable that missile defence could hasten the process of diminishing reliance on nuclear weapons and allow the nuclear weapon states to fulfil the NPT's disarmament obligations. But this more positive concept of missile defence appears to be a long way from the Bush Administration's thinking, and would require conditions that are incompatible with current NWS doctrines and policies, in which, paradoxically, new doctrines of use and missions for tactical nuclear weapons are being evolved.

5) Weaponising Space

Perhaps one of the most worrying developments, underlined by Donald Rumsfeld's policy statement on May 8, 2001 (and subsequent speeches), is the creep of missile defence concepts and technologies into space. Already space is substantially militarised with surveillance, navigational, communications and substantial military support functions for conventional forces. Rumsfeld, however, has sought to increase the importance of US Space Command within the Pentagon and seeks to accomplish the vision of space control and full spectrum dominance envisaged in US SpaceCom's Vision for 2020 (February 1997) and Long Range Plan (March 1998) and in the Report of the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organisation, Washington DC (Public Law 106-65), January 11, 2001, which was chaired by Rumsfeld before he became Defense Secretary.

Responding to the notion of putting weapons in space, Senator Tom Daschle (Democrat) of South Dakota on May 8, 2001, called it "the single dumbest thing I have heard so far from this administration...It would be a disaster for us to put weapons in space of any kind under any circumstances. It only invites other countries to do the same thing."

Space weaponisation is by no means a done deal. Indeed, the post 9/11 budget cut resources to space-weapon-related research while greatly increasing the money for combating terrorism and homeland defence. Many countries are opposed to the weaponisation of space. Russia, China, Indonesia, Belarus, Viet Nam, Zimbabwe and Syria co-sponsored a working paper on "Possible Elements for a Future International Legal Agreement on the Prevention of the Deployment of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects" in the CD, June 27, 2002; and delegations such as Canada, Egypt, France and Sri Lanka have also in the past put forward proposals for addressing space security more effectively. There is not time now to go into the issues relating to space weapons and security here [mention seminar for Geneva-based Missions at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, November 26-27], except to point out that there are both strong advocates and opponents within the US government, military and space users (not least in the Pentagon and NASA).


September 11, 2001 did not create new missile threats, but it was utilised to push through already determined policy preferences. Pre-existing attitudes with regard to missile defence were merely reinforced - opponents considered that their view of the need to address the more realistic threats of WMD attack using less high tech delivery had been vindicated, while proponents used Americans' heightened sense of vulnerability across a spectrum of potential threats to push home their argument that the United States could not be left without a missile shield. The terrorist attacks handed a temporary carte blanche to missile defence advocates, with important implications for the disarmament agenda of the 21st century.

In the changed strategic environment following 9/11, US withdrawal from the ABM T was able to be accomplished without the feared destabilisation of East-West relations, but it should not be inferred from this that missile defences can be deployed without undermining disarmament and arms control and risking further proliferation in certain kinds of weaponry. If US missile defence plans and ambitions become clearer, the arguments for and against are likely to become sharper, dividing not only countries and alliances, but domestic constituencies. The sharpest edge of opposition will occur around any plans to use space as a territory either for interception or for basing weapons. Proponents of the technology fix, through missile defence or space weaponisation, need to bear in mind President Chirac's analogy about history's long argument between the sword and the shield: improving one merely drives a spiralling search for innovation in the other.

Weapons of mass destruction, whether delivered by missiles or not, will pose a serious threat as long as they are perceived as morally, politically and militarily usable. The primary threat from missiles is their perceived enhancement of the ability to deliver a devastating nuclear, chemical or biological payload, but such capabilities are complex and expensive to develop, making it very difficult even for states - let alone for non-state actors - to develop them without being detected. There is no magic bullet or 100 percent shield of protection when dealing with terrorism, but a combination of approaches can greatly reduce the risks and impact of state or non-state terrorist attacks. At the moment, there is a tendency for governments to rely on military force for defence and if that fails to keep piling on the force and pouring in more money and technology to try to plug the vulnerabilities. By contrast, some governments apply completely different standards for political defence and security measures such as multilateral treaties and the building of cooperative security regimes. In the latter, any weakness in compliance or verification is treated as proof of vulnerability and justification for bailing out, rather than (as they should) spurs to improve implementation procedures and capabilities. Such approaches are short-sighted, for a perfect force field that can repel all attacks exists nowhere but in science fiction, and the quest for perfect security based on military and technological dominance will merely give rise to new kinds of threats.

With regard to missiles, the present supply-side approaches (MTCR, IcoC and GCS) will only ever be partial, in the absense of more fundamental measures to address the underlying causes, conditions and incentives that foster terrorism and to embed norms against the production, possession or use of the weapons. A fundamental question remains: are the perceived threats from missile-delivered weapons of mass destruction sufficiently high for countries already possessing missiles designed for nuclear warheads to forego such options and establish a more thorough-going regime that addresses the demand-side as well as the supply-side? If so, they would be in the position to lead the way to a much more rigorous disarmament regime that would stand some chance of being effective in reducing missile threats towards zero. There are ways of regulating the peaceful uses of ballistic missile technology, for example for space launches, while severely constraining developments that could lead to missile threats. But if not, they must be prepared to bear the consequences of spiralling insecurity. Attempts by a few countries to maintain as wide a spectrum of military options as possible are likely to defeat their own security interests and make it impossible to deal effectively with terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, or missiles.

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