Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Incredible Shrinking Missile Threat

The United States is in the midst of one of the largest military buildups in history. And it is against a threat that is disappearing -- fast.

If President George W. Bush's budget requests are met, the United States will spend more this year than it ever has on anti-ballistic missile defense -- some $12 billion, or nearly three times what the United States spent on anti-missile systems during any year of the Cold War. The United States would spend more than $60 billion on missile defense in the next six years, an unprecedented sum, even for the Pentagon. But what makes this spending most remarkable is that the threat it seeks to counter is actually declining. There are far fewer missiles, missile programs, and hostile states with missiles aimed at the United States and its armed forces than there were 20 years ago. The number of long-range missiles fielded by China and Russia has decreased 71 percent since 1987. The number of medium-range ballistic missiles pointed at U.S. allies in Europe and Asia has fallen 80 percent. Most of the 28 countries that have any ballistic missiles at all have only short-range Scud missiles -- which travel less than 300 miles and are growing older and less reliable each day. Even the number of countries trying to develop ballistic missiles is falling.

This is not to say that our world is without risks. Russia has more than 660 missiles capable of striking the United States. China has about 20. But these weapons are not the focus of the United States' anti-missile program. In fact, U.S. officials have gone out of their way to assure Russia that the anti-missile bases they seek to build in the Czech Republic and Poland are not intended to offset the Kremlin. They can't. There are countermeasures both the Russians and the Chinese can put on their missiles that would render any interceptor ineffective. Instead, the United States justifies the anti-ballistic missile program by the alleged threat from Iran. Of the $60 billion the United States wants to spend, $10 billion is earmarked specifically to counter a future Iranian missile.

The cost is real, but the missiles are not. Both Iran and North Korea are trying to develop long-range missiles that can strike countries far beyond their borders.

If President George W. Bush’s budget requests are met, the United States will spend more this year than it ever has on anti-ballistic missile defense — some $12 billion, or nearly three times what the United States spent on anti-missile systems during any year of the Cold War. The United States would spend more than $60 billion on missile defense in the next six years, an unprecedented sum, even for the Pentagon. But what makes this spending most remarkable is that the threat it seeks to counter is actually declining. There are far fewer missiles, missile programs, and hostile states with missiles aimed at the United States and its armed forces than there were 20 years ago. The number of long-range missiles fielded by China and Russia has decreased 71 percent since 1987. The number of medium-range ballistic missiles pointed at U.S. allies in Europe and Asia has fallen 80 percent. Most of the 28 countries that have any ballistic missiles at all have only short-range Scud missiles — which travel less than 300 miles and are growing older and less reliable each day. Even the number of countries trying to develop ballistic missiles is falling.

This is not to say that our world is without risks. Russia has more than 660 missiles capable of striking the United States. China has about 20. But these weapons are not the focus of the United States’ anti-missile program. In fact, U.S. officials have gone out of their way to assure Russia that the anti-missile bases they seek to build in the Czech Republic and Poland are not intended to offset the Kremlin. They can’t. There are countermeasures both the Russians and the Chinese can put on their missiles that would render any interceptor ineffective. Instead, the United States justifies the anti-ballistic missile program by the alleged threat from Iran. Of the $60 billion the United States wants to spend, $10 billion is earmarked specifically to counter a future Iranian missile.

The cost is real, but the missiles are not. Both Iran and North Korea are trying to develop long-range missiles that can strike countries far beyond their borders.

So far, they have had little success. North Korea’s two tests of its much-hyped Taepodong missiles, in 1998 and 2006, both ended in failure. The first went about 800 miles and failed to put a satellite into orbit; the second blew up 40 seconds after launch. In the 1980s and 90s, Iran purchased from North Korea a handful of missiles with a 600-mile range, painted them patriotic colors, and gave them the Iranian name Shahab. Tehran has been boasting that it could use these weapons to develop a new generation of long-range missiles. But the Shahab test program has had as many failures as successes. Even if they were successful, the Iranians lack a nuclear warhead to put on a missile, and they are five to 10 years away from having such a capability.

Yes, Iran’s efforts to build medium-range missiles must be countered. But they represent a threat that is orders of magnitude smaller than the 5,000 nuclear warheads that former President Ronald Reagan hoped to intercept when he launched the anti-ballistic missile program in 1983. Those were real warheads on real missiles. They could have destroyed most life on the planet. Yet, Reagan’s program had an average annual budget of just $4 billion during the 1980s. Today, the United States is spending billions more, yet the technology is no more effective now than it was 20 years ago.

The truth is that diplomacy has destroyed far more missiles than interceptors ever will. The agreements Reagan negotiated over the eight years of his presidency slashed the Soviet long-range missile arsenal by half — and completely eliminated all of Russia’s 800 intermediate- and medium-range missiles. Follow-on agreements could cut long-range arsenals further, and a global ban on intermediate- and medium-range missiles could intercept these weapons before they are even built. In the meantime, individual deals are destroying missiles, too. Libya negotiated an end to its ballistic missile program in 2003. North Korea has suspended its long-range missile tests and could end its program completely if current talks prove successful. An agreement with Iran to contain its nuclear program to exclusively civilian ends could terminate its missile program as well.

The Pentagon’s top brass have never been fans of spending billions on programs that do their troops little good. The Joint Chiefs of Staff have tolerated massive spending on the anti-ballistic missile program in recent years because the overall Defense Department budget has swelled alongside it. This will not be the case forever, and as the Pentagon budget eventually shrinks, the Joint Chiefs will almost certainly rather spend that money on planes, tanks, and ships. Part of this calculus will be the war in Iraq, where half of the Army’s and Marine Corps’ equipment has been chewed up. The last time the Joint Chiefs were asked to recommend a budget for antimissile systems, in 1993, they said to spend no more than $3 billion a year. Asked again, they would likely give similar advice.

The threat of ballistic missiles is limited and changing slowly. The only proven defense against this threat is diplomacy, deterrence, and measured military preparedness. There is every reason to believe this strategy can be as effective today as it was in the 1980s. Officials during any year of the Cold War would have gladly traded today’s limited threat for the dangers they confronted then. If missile defense technologies prove feasible, particularly those designed to counter more prevalent short-range missiles, they may eventually earn their place in the military’s defense strategy. But they are far from a panacea. The sooner the United States returns to a balance of realistic threat assessment, smart budgeting, and vigorous diplomacy, the sooner it will truly be prepared for the genuine threats of the 21st century. Until then, America’s foes will continue to chuckle as it squanders billions to combat a threat that is growing smaller every day.

Joseph Cirincione is the president of the Ploughshares Fund and author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons.

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