The US May Seek Defenses Against Russian Missiles. We Need to Talk about That.
If the Trump administration goes down that path, it should boldly declare a change in strategy, not hide behind ambiguity.
The Trump administration’s long-delayed Missile Defense Review, expected later this month, may bring the biggest change to U.S. missile defense policy since 2001: a decision to develop capabilities to counter Russian missiles. This choice will be controversial for political, technical and financial reasons, especially among European allies. Consequently — and as hinted by the Pentagon’s policy chief in recent congressional testimony — the drafters of the review may adopt a policy of strategic ambiguity that underplays new U.S. efforts against Russian cruise and ballistic missiles.
This opaque approach would be risky and counterproductive. If President Trump decides to build missile defenses against Russia, he should openly announce a reversal of outdated Bush and Obama policies in response to a changed and evolving Russian threat in a new era of strategic competition.
Since 2001, the United States has maintained that its missile defense system is not targeted against Russia but against regional adversaries like North Korea and Iran. When European allies endorsed a joint NATO missile defense system with the United States in 2010, they stressed that it would focus on threats “emanating outside the Euro-Atlantic area.” U.S. and NATO officials have since assured Moscow that defenses in Europe are not designed to shoot down Russian missiles and will not undermine the region’s strategic stability.
But now circumstances have changed. Since 2014, Russia has begun to present new political challenges and missile threats to Europe and the American homeland. As Defense Undersecretary for Policy John Rood told the Senate Armed Services Committee, the United States now sees Russia as a revisionist power that presents a “central challenge to [U.S.] prosperity and security.” This view is part of a “consistent and pragmatic” threat assessment reflected across all of the administration’s recent strategic reviews.
So the Trump Missile Defense Review will likely reflect bipartisan agreement that Russia poses new strategic challenges to the United States, its forces abroad, and to its allies and partners. It will likely highlight new areas of U.S. capability development, such as homeland cruise missile defense and more mobile and relocatable regional defense systems. But it may remain silent on how U.S. defensive systems link to Russian military strategies and offensive missiles. Rood’s testimony suggests three areas of U.S. capability change that could pertain to Russian threats. First, the United States is fielding sensors and shooters against air and cruise missile threats to Washington, D.C. Second, it is seeking regional missile defense capabilities that are “mobile and relocatable” so that they can be “surged when and where required” to respond to regional missile threats. Third, Rood highlighted the development of advanced technologies for improved discrimination including space-based sensors, lasers for intercepting missiles in the boost phase of flight, and a multi-object kill vehicle that could shoot down multiple enemy warheads.
These capabilities indicate possible long-term adaptations of U.S. homeland and regional defenses against a Russian threat. They demonstrate a new U.S. concern about cruise-missile strikes on the American homeland that could be decapitating. They also demonstrate a new concern about the vulnerability of NATO forces in Eastern Europe to Russian ballistic and cruise missile attacks. While new U.S. missile defense technologies remain focused on a North Korean threat, they could eventually provide capability to shoot down more sophisticated Russian missiles. Not identifying these links in the review would be a lost opportunity to redefine Washington’s evolving strategic relationship with Moscow.
A clear missile defense strategy would specify the objectives of deterring and, if deterrence fails, denying some Russian cruise and ballistic missile attacks against the U.S. homeland, U.S. forces and allies. The strategy would usefully signal both resolve and restraint. For example, it could indicate that regional defenses will focus on ensuring U.S. conventional power projection and defense of NATO allies. It may also state that defenses will increase the survivability of U.S. nuclear forces in Europe. The review could explain that defenses aim to strengthen U.S. extended deterrence guarantees to Europe by undermining Russian limited nuclear options and disrupting its anti-access area-denial operations.
A clear strategy would also indicate what U.S. defenses will not do. Most notably, the document could explicitly state that defenses will not target Russian strategic nuclear forces nor seek to undermine stability based on mutual nuclear vulnerability.
The Trump administration may nevertheless see strategic ambiguity as a tempting solution to two political challenges facing the review. The first is ensuring NATO cohesion ahead of the alliance’s summit in July. While some Europeans favor a tougher stance toward Moscow, many are unprepared to declare that NATO’s missile defense system will counter Russia. The second challenge is avoiding further aggravating relations with President Putin who has long claimed U.S. missile defenses are destabilizing and were always directed against Russia.
But an ambiguous missile defense policy will have short-term benefits at best and more likely to produce unwanted consequences. European allies may see uncalculated ambiguity as mission-creep and vindication of Russian paranoia. In turn, President Putin will likely double-down on efforts to divide NATO, as his distrust of President Trump and fear of unrestrained American defenses deepen. More fundamentally, U.S. ambiguity would feed Moscow’s narrative in the political battle for hearts and minds both at home and abroad. In reality, of course, an opaque missile defense policy would actually mask a measured, proportional and justifiable U.S. response to a new strategic environment.
A clear U.S. missile defense strategy that signals resolve and restraint would be more effective than an ambiguous one in deterring adversaries, assuring allies, and, ultimately, to paving the path to cooperation with Russia. It would demonstrate to Russia’s leaders that their actions have consequences and instill uncertainty in their minds that employment of revisionist strategies can succeed. Allies will ultimately find assurance in U.S. policies that align with the changed political and technical realities, and pledge to improve collective defense without jeopardizing strategic stability.
An overt reversal of outdated Bush and Obama policies could also help move the United States and Russia beyond the decade of stalemated debates on missile defense and strategic stability. Straight-talk could further a mutual understanding of the risks of U.S.-Russia conflict and help identify converging approaches to integrated deterrence in a new era of strategic competition. A shared understanding may eventually lead to a transparency or arms control deal that addresses both offense and defense systems and reduces nuclear risks.