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Joint Force Quarterly 72 (1st Quarter, January 2014)

Letter

By Paul Bernstein | Joint Force Quarterly 72 | January 01, 2014

In Joint Force Quarterly 71 (4th Quarter 2013), Karen Kaya offers a number of perspectives on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO’s) evolving missile defense project, in particular those shaping Turkey’s calculations as it works to define its role. Ms. Kaya makes a numbers of observations that merit comment.

Irrational Actors and Extended Deterrence. Kaya is right to suggest that some new actors who may present strategic threats to NATO may prove difficult to deter, and while one cannot rule out the possibility of an adversary that truly acts without regard to costs, risks, and benefits, the main challenge to deterrence is not the irrationality of adversaries but rather, properly understanding their strategic intentions, capabilities, decisionmaking, and degree of commitment. Certainly, an adversary’s development of asymmetric strategies and its preparedness to pay a high price in pursuit of advantage or victory can hardly be considered hallmarks of irrationality. Kaya is closer to the mark when she later states that missile defense provides the means to add a denial component to traditional deterrent strategies based on the threat of unacceptable retaliation, implicitly acknowledging the premise that adversaries armed with ballistic missiles may think twice about using such weapons if they stand a good chance of being intercepted.

Adversaries making such an assessment are by definition rational—even if they weigh costs, risks, and benefits differently than we do. But Kaya’s assertion that the advent of missile defense represents a transformational shift away from extended deterrence is mistaken. Extended deterrence as a concept and a policy does not include or exclude any particular set of military capabilities or strategies. Both “deterrence by punishment” and “deterrence by denial” are perfectly compatible with the theory and practice of extended deterrence. U.S. extended deterrence assurances to its Allies have not changed, much less been transformed; NATO remains a nuclear alliance and indeed has chosen in recent years not to make fundamental changes to its nuclear deterrence mission. Thus, missile defense is best viewed as complementing the nuclear deterrence mission, hopefully providing new opportunities for burdensharing and enhanced decisionmaking flexibility in a crisis. If the Alliance determines one day that missile defense and other nonnuclear strategic capabilities can replace nuclear-sharing arrangements as the core of extended deterrence, that truly would be transformational. But that seems a distant prospect.

History. Kaya’s brief historical references are not fully accurate and less than complete. It is true that the Reagan-era Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was a source of friction between the United States and Soviet Union, though whether it ever precipitated a crisis in relations is debatable. SDI certainly was controversial, in part because of its cost, but the reorientation of the U.S. approach to missile defense was driven principally by the end of the Cold War and the emergence of regional missile threats, exemplified at the time by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Thus, on the eve of the first Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush announced a major reconfiguration of SDI to focus on limited missile threats from any source, to include protection of the United States, forward deployed forces, power projection capabilities, and the territory of allies and friends. After the Gulf War, the Clinton administration emphasized the development of theater missile defenses to protect against regional threats; capabilities to protect the homeland were given lesser priority but not abandoned.

When the intelligence basis for prioritizing short-range over long-range missile threats was challenged by the Rumsfeld Commission in the late 1980s, the Clinton administration reconfigured its missile defense program to give greater weight to protecting the homeland against potential regional intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The administration of George W. Bush accelerated and expanded this effort, though to infer that this was a resurrection of the SDI program is mistaken. Kaya is correct that the missile capabilities of North Korea and Iran were the principal concerns, but she does not make clear that it was those nations’ potential development of ICBMs that drove the program—and less so their continued investment in short-, medium-, and intermediate-range missiles.

To fully address the potential ICBM threat from Iran, the second Bush administration promoted a so-called Third Site in Eastern Europe (to complement two U.S.-based sites). The agreement reached with Poland and the Czech Republic was for the deployment, respectively, of 10 two-stage ground-based interceptors and a sophisticated X-Band radar. The Patriot missiles Ms. Kaya refers to were not part of the Third Site. They were essentially a sweetener for Warsaw under which the United States agreed to deploy Patriots to Poland and train Polish units in their operation. These missiles, of course, provided no protection against Iranian ICBMs. Kaya is correct that the Third Site initiative was strongly opposed by Moscow, but the termination of these arrangements was not undertaken principally to ease political tensions; rather, it reflected the Obama administration’s new approach to missile defense based on an updated assessment of the threat (which Kaya does not mention) and concerns about reliability and affordability. Indeed, as Kaya herself notes, the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) has done little to ease tensions with Moscow over missile defense.

Russia’s Position. The roots of Moscow’s opposition to NATO missile defense run deep and reflect a range of grievances and anxieties that goes beyond the relatively narrow question of whether projected Alliance capabilities pose a meaningful threat to Russia’s nuclear deterrent. Unfortunately, this broader context is missing from Kaya’s article. On the question of capability, she states that the now-canceled Phase Four of the EPAA “would have capability against some of Russia’s strategic forces.” She does not explain what she means by that. By the citation, her statement appears to be based on the findings of the September 2011 report by Yousaf Butt and Theodore Postol published by the Federation of American Scientists. I am not a physicist, so I will not engage on technical issues. But Kaya should not have asserted this conclusion as ground truth; she should have offered a more balanced and nuanced discussion of this question, which is a critically important aspect of the ongoing U.S.-NATO-Russian dispute on missile defense. At a minimum she should have noted that this issue is contentious, that Butt and Postol themselves place important caveats around their analysis, and that other respected experts have come to different conclusions (notably, Dean Wilkening’s “Does Missile Defence in Europe Threaten Russia?” Survival, February–March 2012).

Turkey. I defer to Kaya on matters Turkish where her expertise far exceeds mine. This part of the article conveys a strong understanding of Ankara’s thinking and there are many useful insights. But I was surprised not to see mention of the government’s anticipated—now announced—decision to purchases a missile defense system from a Chinese company that has been sanctioned by the United States. Even taking account of cost and coproduction considerations, this decision certainly had to be understood as one that would invite conflict with Turkey’s NATO allies. It is entirely possible, of course, that Ankara will change course. But how should we try to reconcile this development with the other decisions that Kaya documents demonstrating Turkey’s commitment to NATO’s missile defense project?

—PAUL BERNSTEIN
Senior Research Fellow
Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction
National Defense University