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Missile Defense is Not a Substitute for Arms Control

President Ronald Reagan had a dream of an impregnable shield that could swat away nuclear-tipped missiles like flies. Mikhail Gorbachev saw that as a nightmare. He feared that America’s missile defense system would leave Russia no option but to develop more and more nuclear weapons to overwhelm that shield. Fast forward to 2021 and $400 billion in missile defense funding later, U.S. advocates of missile defense still do not have a reliable missile defense system. However, Gorbachev’s heirs in the Kremlin are acting on their threat to build more and newer nuclear weapons as protection against the event, however unlikely, that the United States fields a missile defense system that could neutralize Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

The United States and Russia are at a critical juncture, and the next steps will determine whether the two countries escalate the arms race or chart a more stable path. Joe Biden extended the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) in one of his first acts as president, preserving the last treaty capping the nuclear weapon stockpiles of the two largest nuclear powers. Analysts have rightly begun asking, what comes next? Further steps to diminish the danger of nuclear war by addressing — in a future agreement — cyber threats to nuclear command, control, and communication or space-based systems would be desirable. However, these efforts have been stymied by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s insistence that U.S. missile defenses be part of the talks, and America’s insistence that nonstrategic nuclear weapons be on the table.

One recent commentary in War on the Rocks framed the question of discussing missile defenses in the next round of strategic talks as whether the United States should unilaterally place limits on its missile defenses “to entice Russia — which publicly opposes U.S. missile defense plans — back to the negotiating table.” In addition, the author argued that “[t]he problem with offering to limit U.S. missile defense plans up front is that it allows Russia to use missile defense as a point of leverage in the talks.” This framing misses the mark. First, any unilateral limits on missile defense — particularly if they are unverified — would not address Russia’s long-term grievances with the program. Showing a willingness to discuss Russia’s concerns, however, could be an element of a practical approach to try to get Russia to put its own destabilizing technologies on the negotiating table as well.

Demonstrating an openness to including missile defense in strategic stability talks is actually a point of leverage for the United States. Russia has evinced little interest in further arms control in recent years, except where controls would apply to technologies it does not possess, and an openness to dialogue on something Moscow cares about may provide a way to unlock the door to progress.

As the Biden team prepares for a proposed summit with Russia in the coming months, signaling that the United States could be willing to discuss missile defense would put the United States on the front foot going into talks.

Read entire article at War on the Rocks