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The Moral Necessity of Missile Defense

The Moral Necessity of Missile Defense

James S. Robbins

5 Mins
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October 20, 2010

March 2001 -- At the June 1967 Glassboro Summit, President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara implored Soviet premier Alexsei N. Kosygin to end work on the Soviet missile defense system or risk a renewed arms race. "Defense is moral," Kosygin replied. "Offense is immoral." Thirty-four years later, the United States is beginning to discover that the Soviet premier may have been on to something.

The missile threat to America is real. A 1998 bipartisan commission chaired by Donald Rumsfeld, now Secretary of Defense, reported a much bleaker outlook for missile proliferation than a similar 1995 National Intelligence Estimate. The response would seem obvious. Yet, the only policy that the government has to offer in case of an incident involving weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) is known as Consequence Management--in other words, cleaning up the mess. We are helpless--not because of technological limitations, but by our own choice.

Countries have not always chosen to render themselves defenseless. When the first German V-1 rockets were launched against Britain in 1944, the response was immediate and straightforward. The RAF began to shoot them down. There was no question about it--had anyone suggested otherwise he would have been thought a fool or a traitor. For twenty-five years after Word War II the United States had a comprehensive missile defense program. But this work was virtually ended with the 1971-72 Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I) between the United States and Soviet Union, which produced the agreement commonly known as the ABM Treaty (Antiballistic Missile Treaty). After the treaty came into effect, research on missile defense was scaled back dramatically. President Reagan fueled renewed interest in defense with the advent of his Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983, but no operational system was deployed, and, under the Clinton administration, the missile defense program was reorganized, de-emphasized, and redirected towards regional missile threats.

The problem that missile defense faces is not the ABM Treaty--legally, it may be abrogated unilaterally with six months' notice. The problem, rather, is continued adherence to the strategic rationale that the treaty codified, which is known as Assured Destruction (AD). AD is a notion rooted in game theory, and its object is not defending against nuclear attacks but deterring them. Assuming rational actors on both sides, AD argues, they are unlikely to take any course of action if the expected cost is likely to exceed the expected reward. Now, the "rewards" of any full-scale nuclear exchange are dubious to begin with, but put that aside. If the costs of a nuclear attack are raised to an intolerable level, it will certainly be in neither side's interest to start a war. Therefore, all a country need do to achieve AD-style deterrence is build a second-strike capability--that is, it must have the ability to absorb a pre-emptive attack by a hostile power and still respond with devastating force. And, if both sides possess second-strike capability, the system becomes a mutually reinforcing deterrent, hence the term Mutually Assured Destruction or MAD.

In essence, MAD counsels that the best defense is a good offense. Cities become the ideal target--easy to hit and of great value to the nations' leaders (thus the term of art for this type of bombardment, "counter-value targeting"). Enemy weapons systems need not be targeted, and in fact are best left alone, for it might look as though Country A was trying to destroy Country B's second-strike capability, thus undermining MAD. By the same token, missile defense--or even civil defense--is not only unnecessary in this model, it is destabilizing. A country that could defend itself successfully against a second strike could launch its own attack with impunity. Thus we save lives by risking lives, and we threaten lives by protecting lives. Henry Kissinger, an architect of the ABM Treaty who has since recanted, called this "making a virtue of our vulnerability."

But is it a virtue? Homeland defense--that is, the physical security of the territory and citizens of a country--is the primary national security priority and ultimate moral requirement of any state. After all, liberal democracies are formed to preserve and defend the lives, rights, and property of the people who bring them into being. Thus, the state attains its moral character and accepts certain responsibilities: internal defense (police and courts); and external defense (national security).

The ultimate objection to MAD, then, is moral: It seeks to protect citizens by risking the very lives the state is required to protect. Fred Iklé, writing in Foreign Affairs in 1973, noted that this type of deterrence strategy "rests on a form of warfare universally condemned since the Dark Ages--the mass killing of hostages." This is the core of the moral conundrum faced by proponents of MAD: The government has no right to make its citizens hostage to the decision-makers of a hostile power--to place their very survival in the hands of foreign rulers. To do so violates the primary covenant between the citizens and the state.

Donald Brennan, a proponent of missile defenses, formulated an alternative to MAD in 1969, a strategy later dubbed "Live and Let Live." His reasoning was: "We should prefer live Americans to dead Russians. . . . The Soviets may be expected to prefer live Russians to dead Americans, and therein resides the basis for an important common interest; we may both prefer live Americans and live Russians."

Brennan sought a balance of interests rather than a balance of terror, and missile defense does engage the self-interest of all parties. It is non-threatening to others and does not endanger the citizens the government is pledged to protect. Not coincidentally, then, it is both prudent and moral.

In the case of defense against weapons of mass destruction, the moral case becomes overwhelming. These weapons, as their name implies, have the potential of wreaking widespread havoc. Hence, they are the weapons that it is most critical for the military to defend against.

And it is important to note that the United States already has anti-WMD defenses. In fact, the U.S. has a defense against every type of WMD attack except missiles. We have anti-air weapons and interceptors to use against enemy bombers. We have anti-submarine warfare systems and fast attack-submarines to neutralize nuclear-capable subs. We have a very sophisticated and robust intelligence and counter-intelligence capability to intercept attacks by so-called "suitcase bombs" carried by terrorists. Would anyone counsel doing away with these safeguards in the name of Mutual Assured Destruction? And if not, why is a defense against missile attack any different?

The strategic setting has changed significantly in the past thirty years. Whatever rationale may have existed for the MAD paradigm is gone. The number of variables has increased beyond the capacity of simple game models. We no longer live in a bipolar world where the superpowers shape all major events, and the threat is one of instant and total annihilation by a mass salvo of missiles. Today, about twenty countries have active missile programs, and none of them is likely to acquire arsenals the size of those possessed by the U.S. and Soviet Union in the 1970s. That makes missile defense more feasible--it is easier to respond to smaller numbers of missiles--and more necessary, for the greater the number of missile-armed states, the greater chance for accidental launch or attack in the guise of accident. This is the most compelling way of envisioning the moral case for missile defense. Imagine a president waiting thirty minutes for the arrival of incoming warheads from an accidental launch, with nothing to do, no way to respond, and thousands if not millions of lives about to be lost. Such a tragedy would surely settle the debate over missile defenses, but we should not have to wait for it to happen for a system to be deployed.


The Bush administration has made it clear that it does not accept the MAD paradigm. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has stated that the Cold War is over and MAD no longer applies. Secretary of State Colin Powell maintains that missile defense does not destabilize but in fact strengthens deterrence. All of this is good and a giant step forward. Debates over the cost of missile defense, the type of system to deploy, the treaty structure, technical feasibility, and the response of our allies and adversaries are inevitable. But nothing should be allowed to obscure these fundamental truths: Given a principled policy of homeland defense, an operational national missile defense system is the right thing to do. So let's do it.

James S. Robbins is a writer living in Alexandria, Virginia.

This article was originally published in the March 2001 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.

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