Like a few others in my generation who were gluttons for punishment, I spent a lot of the 1980s in negotiations with the former Soviet Union over the future of strategic weapons – specifically, strategic defensive weaponry and its associated research, development and technology.
While there were eventually so-called START agreements that limited offensive strategic nuclear weapons and associated delivery vehicles – and also for so-called intermediate range nuclear forces – there were no new limitations placed on strategic defensive weapons and research. And President George W. Bush formally withdrew from the 1972 Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002. For many of us involved from the beginning with the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI program, this was a fitting closer for this phase of our lives.
End of story? Not by a long shot, because now we have a dangerous new set of emerging strategic threats, ones driven by not so friendly nations unconstrained by offensive weapons arms control, yet we remain tied by our Cold War agreements with Russia.
The first thing to understand about these new threats is that some are not really new at all, at least to us and the Russians. However, they may be new – and cheap – ways for the Chinese, Iranians or the North Koreans to threaten us strategically.
- High speed RAM jet powered cruise missiles
- Fractional Orbital Bombs, or FOBS
- Glide bombs and associated launch vehicles
- RPV’s and drones
These are the kinds of technologies we need to be concerned with, and at least as engaged with them as those who are most likely to threaten us with them.
There seem to be three basic approaches for dealing with this class of strategic threats:
- New arms control relationships – I’ve suggested this approach before, at least with China, and there are some sound arguments in favor of this path, despite the inherent risks of the Chinese cheating.
- Make selective “enabling” amendments to our existing agreements with Russia to allow the work we need to do. These could be in the form of unilateral notifications on our part.
- Research and development on selected new classes of offensive strategic weapons and defenses thereto – of special interest would be clever combinations of them.
We should be pursuing all three approaches simultaneously if we hope to avoid a new period of strategic vulnerability.
We should already have seen the need to be able to develop, perfect and – just as important – to defend against these kinds of strategic weapons, whether they are consistent with existing arms control agreements we have with the Russians or not. There will be no excuse for us not having done it, especially when – just for example – the Iranians or the North Koreans decide to operationalize some of these technologies to be able to deliver the nuclear weapons they are developing.
And they will.