“We Didn’t Start the Fire” is a new column in collaboration with Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen network, a premier group of next generation foreign policy leaders committed to principled American engagement in the world. This column elevates the voices of diverse young leaders as they establish themselves as authorities in their areas of expertise and expose readers to new ideas and priorities. Here you can read about emergent perspectives, policies, risks, and opportunities that will shape the future of US foreign policy.
As the US faces a range of serious threats, policymakers often behave as though we are somehow invulnerable to the deadliest threats we face. This perception of invulnerability clouds our collective judgment on a number of issues from COVID-19 to climate change. Yet, as the US faces a new year with a number of formidable nuclear challenges looming, we must not repeat the error of ignoring our collective vulnerability to nuclear weapons.
US nuclear policy is — and to some degree always has been — beset by a misreading of US vulnerability. To focus on just a few areas, not only is the US vulnerable to a nuclear attack by countries such as Russia or China, it also has starkly limited options for militarily rolling back Iran’s nuclear program. These realities, which expose the limits of US military and economic might, have practical consequences for strategic missile defense, for new hypersonic missiles, and for the future of the moribund Iran nuclear deal.
Good strategy must be based in reality. If the US’ view of reality is skewed by its inability to reckon with its vulnerability, the US will misprioritize resources, misjudge adversaries, and misshape policies. It is essential, therefore, for the US to acknowledge, and tackle, at least three vulnerabilities in its nuclear policy.
ADMIT THAT MISSILE DEFENSE DOESN’T ALWAYS WORK
The modern story of missile defense largely begins with the Reagan administration’s refusal to acknowledge American vulnerability to Soviet nuclear attack. Although in many ways it dealt with that vulnerability soberly and constructively, the Reagan administration never fully conceded to the reality of US vulnerability. Rather, it launched the Strategic Defense Initiative — a program based on the idea that it would be possible to develop a system that could intercept incoming nuclear-armed missiles.
As we enter 2022, let us be hopeful that the US will ground its nuclear policy in the reality that even a country as powerful as the US retains vulnerabilities and limits
In 2001, citing the threat from smaller powers, the George W. Bush administration decided to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which had previously constrained US missile defense development. Yet, the stubbornness of physics continues to render reliable missile defense a dream more than a reality. Today, despite spending over $200 billion on missile defense since 1991, the US remains unable to defend against a strategic nuclear attack from North Korea, let alone China or Russia.
The misguided attempt to escape the very real threat of nuclear weapons comes with real costs. Most obviously, there is the opportunity cost of misallocating funds; the US could have used those resources to alleviate any number of problems at home, from racial inequality to crumbling infrastructure, to name just a few. Efforts to build up US missile defenses may have also backfired, making the US’ security position worse than it otherwise might have been.
Moscow sees US missile defenses as an attempt to build toward a secure US first-strike capability. Vladimir Putin was sufficiently spooked by the US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty that he oversaw a long-term buildup of Russian maneuverable hypersonic missiles. This is precisely the outcome that a younger Joe Biden predicted when the Bush administration withdrew from the ABM Treaty, a decision Biden called “the starting gun that will begin a new arms race in the world.”
Failing to acknowledge US vulnerability to nuclear weapons no matter how much we spend on unsuccessful missile defense systems led the US to misallocate resources and misread an adversary. However, there is still time to correct course. As US negotiators meet with their Russian counterparts to discuss the future of arms control, US missile defenses are sure to rank high on the Russian agenda. Making progress on reducing Russia’s nuclear arsenal may well require discontinuing certain US missile defense programs — a small, relatively favorable, concession to make as these systems do not fully work and are extremely expensive.
ADMIT TO BEING VULNERABLE TO HYPERSONIC MISSILES
Largely due to insistence on continued missile defense projects, the US now faces new hypersonic missiles from both Russia and China. Usually defined as missiles capable of flying five times faster than the speed of sound, hypersonic missiles are not new. What makes some Russian and Chinese missiles new and distinct is their ability to avoid a ballistic trajectory and instead maneuver, presumably to avoid US missile defenses. These missiles have generated quite a lot of alarmism in Washington. But rather than produce a new vulnerability, these missiles merely underscore an existing one. Russia and China are already more than capable of evading US missile defenses with existing ballistic missiles.
When news broke of a Chinese hypersonic missile test in the summertime, physicist James Acton pointed out that there were only limited reasons for US concern, writing “the US government has long said that US homeland defenses are not designed or able to intercept Chinese ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles]. There’s no existing capability here to become obsolete.” Put another way, when Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley called the Chinese launch “very close” to a “Sputnik moment,” he may have been overstating the case.
The US has been vulnerable to hypersonic-speed nuclear attack ever since the days of Sputnik. No matter how much the US government spends on missile defense, or even if we did engage in a hypersonic missile arms race, we cannot and would not be able to escape the reality of our vulnerability to nuclear weapons. This misperception, that nuclear-armed hypersonic missiles are a completely novel threat, clouds our ability to react prudently. These systems were developed in response to US missile defense programs, a fact which should underscore that missile defense needs to be up for debate.
That is not to say that the new systems present no new challenges. The more novel threat from some hypersonics is not a nuclear attack, but more likely a conventional attack on an aircraft carrier. Additionally, hypersonic weapons, especially dual-capable systems that can deliver both nuclear and conventional warheads, can present signaling problems and exacerbate confusion in a crisis.
Rather than continuing to squander money on costly, ineffective, and destabilizing ballistic missile defenses, the US should respond to these new threats. For example, the US should explore physicist Dean Wilkening’s proposal that the US research improving point defenses for naval targets like aircraft carriers; the US could also look further into ways to limit problems posed by dual-capable systems, such as building greater transparency on these systems into arms control talks. Washington should focus on exploring solutions to the genuinely new problems that hypersonic systems pose.
ADMIT THAT SOME OPTIONS WON’T WORK
Faced with the dire possibility of a nuclear Iran, President Barack Obama rallied the international community to constrain Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief through the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). When President Donald Trump ripped up that deal, those constraints started to fall away. Today, Biden still has not found a way to reinstate the deal, while Iran continues to advance its nuclear program.
Hawkish voices within the US have long criticized the Obama-era deal, but the Trump administration took that animus to a new level. Trump’s refusal to admit that the US had a strong, but finite, ability to curtail Iran’s nuclear program was a huge miscalculation. The administration’s policy of “maximum pressure” did not work, as Iran realized the US had limited military options and decided to disregard the agreement after the US withdrew.
What opponents of the deal ignored, however, is that the military options for constraining Iran’s nuclear program would never have been likely to delay Iran’s progress indefinitely. Today, as they continue to slam Biden for entertaining re-entering the deal, they ignore that the US has even less military ability to curtail Iran’s nuclear progress. The US has less military leverage now than it back during the Obama-era negotiations for the simple reason that Iran is closer to a bomb today than it was then, having enriched uranium much closer to weapons-grade levels and clashing repeatedly with International Atomic Energy Agency Inspectors.
All is not yet lost. Negotiations continue and the outcome is not only dependent on the US. The new Iranian government may well sabotage its own chances at much-needed sanctions relief by not re-entering the deal. But the fact that the deal is on such thin ice already is an indication that the US decision to withdraw was not based in reality. It was based on an “alternative fact” or more directly, a lie, that the US had other, better options to limit Iran’s nuclear program. A strategy based on accepting the vulnerability of the US position would not have been so quick to abandon the diplomatic benefits of the JCPOA.
TACKLING THESE VULNERABILITIES
There are signs that the Biden administration is willing to acknowledge the US’ nuclear vulnerabilities. It extended the New START arms control treaty with Russia and restarted a strategic stability dialogue. It has begun the process of opening up arms control talks with China. And it has continued to signal to Tehran that a revived deal is still possible. It has even hired many officials from organizations critical of missile defense.
As we enter 2022, let us be hopeful that the US will ground its nuclear policy in the reality that even a country as powerful as the US retains vulnerabilities and limits. Where nuclear weapons are concerned, tackling those vulnerabilities seriously is not just good strategy, but also a moral imperative.
Akshai Vikram is a former Roger L. Hale Fellow at Ploughshares Fund and a member of the 2021 Nuclear Scholars Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.