Debating Missile Defense

During the final panel of ACA’s “Next Steps in Arms Control” conference today, the discussion turned to missile defense. Panelists discussed the upcoming NATO summit in Lisbon, the Obama administration’s Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA), and the prospects for NATO-Russia cooperation on missile defense.

Eric Desautels, Senior Advisor to Under Secretary of State Ellen Tauscher, began by striking an upbeat tone on the Lisbon summit. He said that U.S. efforts to convince NATO to adopt a comprehensive missile defense program had been very well received by America’s allies in Europe. He described the PAA as America’s “contribution” to a NATO missile defense capability, and added that he hoped NATO would expand its command-and-control system so that the U.S. and its allies would be able to plug their own national sensors and interceptors into the broader system. So far, this plan has encountered little opposition and it appears likely that it will be formally adopted in Lisbon.

Later, ACA’s Greg Thielmann raised a number of “warning flags” about the potential impact of NATO’s proposed missile defense system on nuclear arms control. First, he noted that there is a remarkable degree of vagueness concerning exactly who the proposed system is meant to defend against and the scope of that defense. Second, he argued that historically, the effect of building missile defenses has been to encourage rather than discourage missile proliferation, as nations simply seek to build more advanced offensive weapons in order to overcome others’ defenses. Finally, he called the pursuit of territorial missile defenses “a financial black hole,” noting the opportunity costs for NATO’s other important defense programs and contending that the alliance will never have enough money to deploy missile defenses adequate to ensure destruction of all the offensive weapons that other nations can array against it.

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