When it comes to strategic relations among the United States, China, and Russia, few issues have a greater impact than ballistic missile defense (BMD). From U.S. plans to expand its Phased Adaptive Approach from Eastern Europe into the Asia-Pacific to China’s recent ground-based midcourse missile interception tests, BMD is making inroads into the regional and global strategic stability calculus. In the third installment of the “China-Russia Dialogues” and the fifth in the “Strategic Stability Seminar Series” for senior experts, over forty Chinese, U.S., and Russian participants met to discuss the impact of U.S. BMD planning on China and Russia. Carnegie’s Lora Saalman moderated.   

BMD Background

  • Offense to Defense: Facing an offense-dominated method of nuclear deterrence during the Cold War, in 1972 the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty) to constrain the threat of missile defense deployment to strategic stability, a U.S. expert explained. With the advent of the Reagan era, the discussion in Washington changed to a defense-dominated approach that advocated BMD, added a U.S. attendee.
  • Modifying Treaties: During the late 1990s, the United States sought to modify the ABM Treaty to allow for U.S. interceptor expansion, but Russia was unwilling due to concerns over its impact on strategic stability, a U.S. expert maintained. This contributed to Washington’s decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty in 2002 and to station 30 interceptors and eight extra silos in Alaska. The U.S. participant contrasted this with Russia’s 100 interceptors protecting Moscow and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch sites.
  • Evolution of BMD: One U.S. expert noted that early versions of BMD were nuclear tipped, due to an inability to directly hit reentry vehicles. Moscow’s systems remain nuclear-based but U.S. BMD is now conventional, due in part to advances in kinetic intercept or “hit to kill” technology. A Chinese expert noted that many of the challenges the United States once faced in BMD testing and discrimination have been overcome. A U.S. expert differed, stressing discrimination remains one of BMD’s biggest issues, particularly given China’s strides in penetration aids and decoys.

Impact on China and Russia

  • Fending Off Attacks: As early as the 1990s, the United States sought to protect its assets from small, unsophisticated attacks by Iran and North Korea. These concerns have grown in the wake of North Korea’s successful December 2012 satellite launch and Iran’s development of long-range missiles, argued one U.S. expert. A U.S. participant noted that future stages of U.S. BMD planning would include radars and interceptors in Romania and later Poland, as well as mountings on sea-based Aegis destroyers. A Chinese expert argued that sea-based systems threaten retaliatory capabilities of Beijing and Moscow, by serving as mobile tracking and targeting devices.
  • Phased Adaptive Approach: One of the U.S. experts distinguished between national or homeland BMD to protect the United States and regional or theater BMD to protect U.S. allies and forces stationed abroad. He described the European and Asia-Pacific variants as part of the ongoing Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA). A Chinese and Russian expert both argued that BMD should not be divided into regional and national, since current U.S. planning is global. A U.S. attendee responded that while radars in Turkey and Japan constitute theater defense, they can conduct early warning and tracking for national defense, as with the Army Navy / Transportable Radar Surveillance (AN/TPY-2), but that such systems remain directed at Iran and North Korea.
  • Increasing Survivability: A Chinese expert asked whether U.S. BMD systems deployed in the Asia Pacific would serve as national missile defenses and threaten China’s deterrent. A U.S. expert responded that despite U.S. BMD being targeted at North Korea, China’s retaliatory capabilities follow a similar trajectory and might be impacted. He stressed that as China makes strides in survivability—via mobile ICBMs, multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles, submarine launched ballistic missiles, and sophisticated penetration aids—this will mitigate the impact of future U.S. SM-III Block 2B systems, which are not due until 2020 and face budgetary constraints.
  • Mitigating Concerns: One U.S. expert stressed that despite Russian and Chinese concerns, U.S. BMD systems may be adequate for theater missile defense, but are still unable to intercept ICBMs. U.S. theater missile defenses typically fly at 2-3 kilometers per second, while an ICBM would range from 6-7 kilometers per second, he explained. This means that early warning systems would demand territorial or airspace proximity to be able to anticipate a launch and any intercepts would have to be fired ahead of the missile to catch it, resulting in both political and technical obstacles.
  • Questions on Space: One of the Chinese experts asserted space-based early warning systems allow for U.S. BMD to intercept ICBMs and a Russian expert cited Space Tracking and Surveillance Systems (STSS) and Precision Tracking and Space Systems (PTSS) as examples. A U.S. participant responded that PTSS is part of the fourth phase of the PAA program after 2020, noting that STSS is in fact even more ambitious when it comes to tracking and discrimination. However, whether or not these systems are cost effective remains under debate in Washington, he added. 

Overall Impact

  • Global Zero: One Chinese expert asked how BMD would impact the Obama administration’s agenda for a world without nuclear weapons. A U.S. participant responded that Russian and U.S. relations face challenges that hinder further negotiations and reductions. He suggested that BMD would enable, not hinder, nuclear reductions as it would provide a new paradigm for defense.
  • Absolute Security: A Chinese expert noted that the U.S. pursuit of BMD is equated in China with its pursuit of absolute security. He asked why the United States has not been willing to sign a legally binding treaty with Russia for a modified ABM Treaty. A U.S. expert explained that given the U.S. political climate and broad support for BMD, such an agreement would be unlikely to receive the votes needed for ratification. Another U.S. expert added that in Russia there is also less willingness and less pressure to act than in 2009 with the New START treaty.
  • ASAT Systems: One Chinese participant asked about the connection between missile defenses and anti-satellite systems. A U.S. expert responded that a mid-course interceptor, which can hit the unpredictable trajectory of a missile, is even better equipped to take out a satellite that follows a fixed orbit. He cited the United States use of a SM-3 to destroy its own deteriorating satellite with operation Burnt Frost in 2008. In intercepting low to medium geostationary orbit satellites, BMD could be effective as an ASAT device, but above this height it would face challenges, he said.
  • Ally Cooperation: One Chinese expert detailed successes in U.S.-Japanese cooperation on SM–3 Block IIA systems. Another Chinese expert asked whether the United States intended to expand BMD cooperation to include South Korea, citing reports of the latter’s refusal to join U.S. BMD expansion. Extended deterrence has largely met this need on the part of South Korea, explained a U.S. participant. Also, when faced with short intercept times for short-range and intermediate-range missiles from North Korea, while South Korea might consider procuring U.S. Patriot systems, it would be better served by a system like the Iron Dome used by Israel, he added.
  • BMD Expansion: A Chinese expert noted the potential for BMD to spread, citing China’s own ground-based midcourse missile interception tests. Sino-U.S. competition has already emerged in high-precision weaponry, said one U.S. expert. Noting China’s advances in DF-21D that could be used against U.S. aircraft carriers, he noted that U.S. theater missile defenses have a role to play in protecting U.S. allies and forces. A U.S. expert said that China’s and Russia’s greater cooperation on the Iranian and North Korean nuclear issues would mitigate the need to expand BMD systems and highlighted the importance of Sino-U.S. exchanges on BMD to enhance strategic stability.