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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

EDITORIAL: U.S. Should Try to Pick Its Battles




In recent weeks, the United States has been pressing forward with attempts to persuade Russia, and the U.S. European allies, that the venerable 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty needs tweaking to accommodate moves toward a U.S. national missile defense. Russia - and the Europeans - have balked. They should. National missile defense is an idea whose time has not yet come, if it ever will.


The ABM treaty enshrined the Cold War balance of terror by limiting each side to one anti-missile system defending one limited area. The treaty was based on the principle of mutually assured destruction - that neither side would attack if it knew retaliation was certain.


Now, that world is gone, and there are new threats. The United States says that attempts by Iran, Iraq and North Korea to join the nuclear club present a graver danger than does Russia. That's not an unreasonable position. The problem is that beginning to build a national missile defense covering larger areas of the United States risks damaging relations with Russia - without much payoff in terms of security for the United States.


As Vladimir Yakovlev, head of Russia's Strategic Rocket Forces, likes to say, the sword is always stronger than the shield. He's got a point. Missile defense raises the specter of what in strategic arms jargon is called asymmetric responses. In plain English, that's called watching the other guy spend billions on a defense, and then just going around it - the way the Germans went around France's Maginot line.


Instead of a missile, rogue nations could try to deliver a weapon by other means - by ship or car trunk, in some of the nightmare scenarios. Neither of these requires a missile defense to stop it. Traditional countermeasures, intelligence and diplomacy among them, are going to be needed anyway.


Other, even less likely opponents, i.e. Russia or China, could target the launch sites for the interceptor rockets, overwhelm the system with multiple warheads and decoys, or use tricks like missiles with shorter take-off phases or maneuverable warheads.


Meanwhile, Russian officials threaten to tear up existing arms control agreements if the U.S. dumps the ABM treaty. Some of this is due to a lingering Cold War mentality - but the Pentagon is not immune to this syndrome, either. Missile defense looks a lot less harmless when it's the other guy that's building it.


With a bomb-proof - pun intended - system still years away at best, the United States is better advised to not give another kick to its present-day relations with Russia to gain a dubious security advantage against rogue nukes that may not materialize for years, if ever.