Deterrence and Space-Based Missile Defense

By Frederick, Lorinda A. | Air & Space Power Journal, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Deterrence and Space-Based Missile Defense


Frederick, Lorinda A., Air & Space Power Journal


During the Cold War, the United States relied on the nuclear triad to deter ballistic missile threats emanating from the Soviet Union. Today, the threat is expanding to include rogue elements and proliferators of missile technologies undeterred by Cold War methods. Missile technology is growing despite political attempts to stop it. The United States and other nations are fielding advanced missile defenses to counter the threat posed by proliferating ballistic missiles. However, this air-, land-, and sea-based missile defense architecture lacks redundancy and depends on the proper positioning of assets to intercept missiles in their midcourse and terminal phases of flight. This architecture also lacks a reliable capability to intercept missiles during the boost phase- a capability perhaps best provided from space.

Deterrence before Ballistic Missile Defense

The Department of Defense (DOD) defines deterrence as a "state of mind brought about by the existence of a credible threat of unacceptable counteraction."1 "Counteraction" conjures up Cold War images of massive retaliation and vulnerability when the adversary could threaten not only vital interests but also national survival. In the absence of ballistic missile defense (BMD), the US military could not negate or counter the missile threat facing the nation without retaliating in kind. Effective deterrence denies an adversary the benefits of his actions, imposes costs, and/or encourages restraint.2

The United States refined its deterrence strategy during the Cold War from massive retaliation to mutual vulnerability to assured destruction. Massive retaliation, a policy adopted by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1954, threatened an overwhelming nuclear response to any Soviet aggression.3 Limited options forced the United States into a position of fighting fire with more fire or, more precisely, fighting threats with more threats.

Massive retaliation evolved into mutual vulnerability in the late 1950s, when the Soviet Union appeared to match US nuclear capabilities: "With each side vulnerable to a nuclear strike by the other, nuclear weapons no longer conferred a simple military advantage, and their use could not be threatened unilaterally to deter general aggression by a nuclearcapable opponent."4 Mutual vulnerability made sense in a time when BMD could not negate or even reduce the threat.

As the Soviet Union and United States continued to increase their nuclear arsenals, mutual vulnerability was bolstered with assured destruction. In the 1960s, the strategy of assured destruction "required each side to possess a guaranteed second-strike capability, one which could survive the opponent's massive, and possibly unanticipated, first strike."5 This strategy did not eliminate mutual vulnerability because one side's ability to defend against an attack might weaken deterrence by tempting it to strike its adversary first.

To reinforce the stability provided by assured destruction, both sides agreed to limit BMD severely, as set out in the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Such defenses were considered destabilizing during the Cold War because strategists predicted that a defended nation might strike first, confident that it was protected from the limited retaliatory strikes of its adversary's surviving nuclear forces. In truth, these newly emerging BMD technologies had not matured to the point where nations could trust their performance.

Deterrence and Ballistic Missile Defense

After the Cold War, deterring ballistic missile threats became more complicated due not only to the increasing numbers of nuclear-capable states but also to the rise of hostile rogue elements within a state as well as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), along with missile technology and expertise.6 According to joint doctrine, "the predominant threat is not from a competing superpower, but more likely from the deliberate launch of a ballistic missile from a 'rogue state/ failed state, or terrorist group. …

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