How Biden Can Leverage Missile Defense in His Summit with Putin
Putting it on the table would put the United States in the driver’s seat in strategic stability talks.
President Joe Biden has forgotten more about missile defense than most people know. He can now use that knowledge in his talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin to reorient programs that have cost more than $400 billion over the decades yet cannot reliably protect the nation.
Two decades ago, then-Senator Biden warned about a “theological allegiance to missile defense.” Biden understood that the United States and the Soviet Union, as part of the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, had agreed that limiting nationwide defenses against long-range missiles was a “substantial factor in curbing the race in strategic offensive arms.”
Biden knew that President Richard Nixon saw the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty as key to reducing nuclear threats. If we did not limit defense systems, Nixon reasoned, each side would simply build more offensive weapons to overwhelm them. The treaty worked. The following decades saw a series of agreements to limit, then reduce, U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.
Then in 2001 a new president claimed that a quick, cheap, and effective national missile defense system was right around the corner. He wanted to double the missile defense budget to $8 billion per year. Scientists, diplomats, and Democrats disagreed. The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd wrote on Sept. 5, 2001, “Why can George W. Bush think of nothing but a missile shield? Our president is caught in the grip of an obsession worthy of literature.”
Biden spoke out five days later, noting that “the Joint Chiefs say that a strategic attack is less likely than a regional conflict, a major theater war, terrorist attacks at home or abroad, or any number of real issues.” In words that have particular meaning today, he warned, “We don’t have…a public health infrastructure to deal with existing pathogens that are around now.”
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush got his way, tearing up the ABM treaty and fast-tracking deployment of a missile defense system under a “spiral development” process that allowed for little oversight as weapons not fully tested or developed were installed.
As Biden predicted, the weapons did not work. Worse, trying to field a system—effective or not—stimulated a nuclear arms race. “Make no mistake about it, folks,” he had warned, “if we deploy a missile defense system that is being contemplated; step back from the ABM Treaty; go full steam ahead and deploy…we will be raising the starting gun.”
It took a while for the race to be revealed. Russian President Vladimir Putin told Bush back in 2001 that Russia would be forced to develop new offensive weapons if America proceeded to build defenses. In 2018, Putin unveiled five new weapons designed to overwhelm or circumvent American defenses, saying America didn’t listen to him then, “so listen to us now.”
If Biden’s views had prevailed, we could have saved hundreds of billions on weapons that still don’t work and forged agreements to further reduce the excessive U.S. and Russian arsenals that still represent 93 percent of global stockpiles. But now he has a second chance.
Then-President Donald Trump budgeted a staggering $20 billion a year for missile defense and associated weapons, and Biden’s first budget continues this funding. However, the programs are plagued with problems. While interceptors have a good chance of shooting down slower short-range rockets (as Israel’s Iron Dome demonstrated) interceptors against hyper-velocity, long-range missiles have a terrible test record, only succeeding 11 of 19 times in highly scripted tests that don’t come close to replicating real-world conditions.
The record has not improved over time. As a respected scientist testified two decades ago before a House subcommittee one of us chaired, missile defense against long-range missiles is “more theology than technology.” The technological hurdles are too formidable to make it a strategically reliable and realistic proposition.
So, too, are the costs. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that Trump’s weapons will cost up to $176 billion over the next ten years. Additions pushed by contractors and advocates would increase the price tag by hundreds of billions of dollars for more interceptors, more bases and new missions.
Biden can correct the mistakes of the past. The future of missile defense will be thoroughly studied as part of a broader nuclear posture/deterrence review that will be started in the few weeks. Mindful that less expensive offensive weapons can always be developed to overwhelm, sabotage, or destroy any conceivable defensive system, his administration can return to diplomacy, seek verifiable mutual reductions, prevent the development of new threats, and address rising concerns such as the weaponization of space and cyber threats. That would allow the transfer of funds from the weapons that don’t work to programs that will rebuild and add to America’s security.
Wednesday’s summit meeting between Presidents Biden and Putin is a good place to start. Putting missile defense on the table in strategic stability talks with Russia would put the United States in the driver’s seat and halt the arms race between U.S. missile defenses and Russia’s new offensive weapons, as outlined in a letter coordinated by Council for a Livable World, and signed by more than 65 national security experts.
Above all, Biden can make sure all systems undergo rigorous, realistic testing so that we fly before we buy. This does not have to be a theological battle. Contractors should show that their weapons can actually destroy a determined attack and not be overwhelmed, spoofed or cyber-crippled. Let science judge.
Twenty years ago, Senator Biden knew missile defenses were unproven and destabilizing. Today, President Biden can act on his beliefs to correct the distortions created by decades of bad choices and bloated budgets.
John Tierney is executive director and Joe Cirincione is a member of the board of the Council for a Livable World. Tierney is a former member of Congress from Massachusetts and Cirincione once testified on missile defense before the Government Operations subcommittee Tierney chaired.