Strategic Vision

By Biden, Joseph R. | Harvard International Review, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Strategic Vision


Biden, Joseph R., Harvard International Review


Abstract:

Some 8 years after the end of the Cold War, relations between the US and Russia are in a curious - and surprisingly dangerous - condition. Because international communism has collapsed as a worldwide threat, neither country has a serious reason to fear an attack by the other. Yet each still maintains enough nuclear weapons to cause mutual devastation. Still worse, both countries seem poised to accept an increased risk of war. Despite the US preponderance of power in its current relationship with Russia, the potential for instability in strategic arms relationships must be understood and diminished.

Text:

Headnote:

Mapping a Future for US-Russian Relations

Eight years after the end of the Cold War, relations between the United States and Russia are in a curious-and surprisingly dangerous-condition. Because international communism has collapsed as a worldwide threat, neither country has a serious reason to fear an attack by the other. Yet each still maintains enough nuclear weapons to cause mutual devastation. Still worse, both countries seem poised to accept an increased risk of war.

Despite the United States' preponderance of power in our current relationship with Russia, the potential for instability in our strategic arms relationships must be understood and diminished.

The Current Situation

Russia, with its economy shattered and its military in decline, relies increasingly upon its strategic rocket forces as its shield against attack When a country has survivable strategic forces and a functioning ballistic-missile early-warning network, reliance upon strategic deterrence can be sensible and cost-effective. A country like the United States can count on its ability to respond to any nuclear attack as it occurs, or even to respond in kind after absorbing an attack. But holes in Russia's early--warning network, as well as its inability to sustain the high cost of maintaining or replacing its aging missiles and submarines, compromise its deterrent capability. As a result, Russia is being forced into a "launch on warning" posture, with the attendant risk of accidental war caused by overreacting to fragmentary or erroneous warning data.

The United States, for its part, is moving toward a national missile defense that will cost more than US$10 billion over the next six years, yet could actually endanger our national security. The limited national missile defense that the US Department of Defense is developing (and that the US Senate partially endorsed this year) may protect us in the event of attack by a small number of incoming warheads. However, it could also force Russia to rely even more on its aging strategic missiles to maintain nuclear deterrence against the United States and China. There is no way that Russia, in its current economic straits, could match US expenditures on missile defense. Unable to match US defense strategies, Russia would logically turn to offensive missile forces to overwhelm any defense the United States might deploy. Moreover, China may modernize and increase its offensive forces for the same purpose, and Russia might feel compelled to match the Chinese improvements as well.

Given these developments in the United States and Russia, the future of both arms control and crisis stability (the situation in which our strategic forces may be safely held in reserve until attacked) is in question. In the United States, many adherents of national missile defense call for abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. They realize that treaty-compliant missile defenses, or those that might be permitted after negotiations with Russia, will not only be limited, but difficult to expand. But were American missile defenses not so difficult to expand, Russia's deterrent capability could be seriously threatened.

In Russia, many politicians and retired military officers have called for rejection of START II, or at least for its abrogation should the United States deploy a national missile defense. …

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