Missile Defense: Two perspectives

My friend and colleague, Dr. Pavel Podvig, has always provided an interesting perspective on Russian-American relations, especially those concerned with military issues. Born and educated in Russia — he has a Ph.D. in Physics from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology — he also has spent considerable time at MIT, Princeton, and Stanford. His current  blog post on missile defense is no exception. Here are some key excerpts:

Judging by the intensity of Russia’s constant opposition to US missile defenses in Europe, one might think that the very survival of the nation is in danger. In reality, though, the opposite is true: … In terms of an actual impact on Russia’s security, US defense is largely irrelevant. The intensity of Russia’s opposition to the missile defense plans owes more to its internal political circumstances than to anything else … 

even a capable missile defense would be entirely irrelevant if it ever comes to countering a real threat of a nuclear missile attack: While a nuclear threat needs only a small probability of success to be credible; missile defense needs absolute certainty. … 

missile defense is a very personal subject for the Russian president [Putin] … This passion, however, serves a very pragmatic political purpose: It paints a picture of Russia as under siege, which helps deflect challenges to the legitimacy of the Russian political system. … Russia wants to keep the controversy alive, not to resolve it.

While I agree with this reasoning, there is another perspective that also deserves our consideration. As I explained in a 2009 posting on this site:

The potential value of missile defense can be seen more clearly by recognizing that a Russian-American crisis is like a play with two actors, each supremely vulnerable and using every prop at its disposal to mask its nakedness. Neither our Turkish missiles nor the Soviets’ Cuban missiles made a difference to 1962′s balance of power, but they were useful props, giving an ability to project a perception of additional power.

The Russians thus have reason to fear that even a rudimentary, untested American missile defense will allow us to increase the intensity of our bluffs during a crisis. To be afraid of our missile defense, the Russians don’t have to fear that it will give us a military advantage. They don’t even have to fear that our leaders will mistakenly believe that it will. All they have to fear is that our leaders will act as if they believe that it does. In nuclear chicken, the first party to behave rationally loses, so having one more prop to use in our act is dangerous to Russia’s interests.

At first, that might seem to favor the Eastern European missile defense — at least from our [i.e., the American] vantage point. But appearing more irrational than the Russians is a highly questionable advantage since it increases the risk of a catastrophic outcome. Failure to weigh the chance of a small gain (coming out ahead in a crisis) against the risk of an infinite loss (destruction of our homeland) clearly can have disastrous consequences.

Martin Hellman

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." Its soon to open website explains: https://anewmap.com.
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One Response to Missile Defense: Two perspectives

  1. Carl Shulman says:

    I agree that missile defense is now risky in undermining deterrence. But if we think about a future nuclear-free world, missile defense systems could eventually increase the stability of the system by making it harder for a few secretly concealed or constructed weapons to enable a sneak attack after general disarmament.

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