Tuesday 14 Aug 2018 | 18:49 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 14 Aug 2018 | 18:49 | SYDNEY

BMD: Welcome signs of Reaganism


Sam Roggeveen


24 August 2009 15:50

Encouraging news from America's big annual ballistic missile defence (BMD) conference, during which General James Cartwright, Deputy Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged reality by saying that the the threat of intercontinental ballistic missiles had been overstated during the Bush Administration. That acknowledgment came alongside a 'major shift in rhetoric' from military brass at the conference which emphasised cooperation with allies and countries such as Russia and China.

It's a promising sign, and if pursued, could actually return missile defence to what Reagan envisaged: not just a military system but an arms control tool that could be deployed to enhance stability while offensive arms reductions take place.

It's often overlooked, but Reagan was completely serious about sharing his Strategic Defense Initiative ('Star Wars') with the Soviets so that both would be protected, even as they each reduced their arsenals to zero. This would have met Soviet concerns that unilateral adoption of missile defence was just a cover for American plans to develop a first strike capability. Reagan's plan was that the shared shield would remain in place indefinitely to guard against any other state developing nuclear weapons. After World War I, Reagan said, 'we all kept our gas masks…this weapon…would be our gas mask.'

Under Clinton and George W Bush, missile defence lost this idealistic edge, and it became solely about physically protecting the US against missile threats. But Reagan's unsuccessful attempt to harness the program to larger disarmament goals could be revived if a more internationally inclusive approach is pursued.

One could envision a BMD coalition acting like a global troubleshooter, as part of broader efforts to reduce tension and encourage disarmament.

For instance, a BMD coalition, perhaps NATO-led, could move into troublespots where there is risk of ballistic missile use. Consider renewed India-Pakistan tensions (both countries, remember, now have nuclear-armed ballistic missiles). If the parties agreed, an international BMD force could be put in place that would share with both sides the information they are receiving from their BMD sensors — instantaneous knowledge of what the other side is doing would increase crisis stability.

This NATO-led coalition could even agree with the protagonists to shoot down missiles, whichever side they came from, in order to prevent a catastrophic wider war that could be touched off by a rogue commander or an accidental launch.

Longer term, such a third party force could promote the kind of stability that would allow arms reductions between two foes. You could call this as a kind of neo-Reaganite vision for missile defence, in which it becomes a tool to replace mutually assured destruction with a mutually defensive posture.

Photo courtesy of the US Navy.