Deterring Weak States and Provoking Strong Ones by Travis C. Stalcup

In a July 3rd post on Facebook, Admiral James Stavridis of US European Command mentioned that Spain would be the new homeport of American ballistic missile defense-capable warships starting in 2014. The ships, part of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System, complements land-based elements in Romania, Poland and Turkey to protect Europe against possible missile attacks from Iran. However, this missile defense strategy has drawn the ire of Russia and with good reason.

In 1967 during nuclear arms control negotiations, Soviet Premier Aleksey Kosygin famously declared, “Defense is moral, offense is immoral!” He was replying to US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s assertion that ballistic missile defense undermined the stability of deterrence. To many, McNamara’s argument is counterintuitive. In the face of a threat, our natural inclination is to defend ourselves—to “duck and cover,” build fallout shelters and now employ ballistic missile defense systems deployed in Eastern Europe and soon in Spain.

Deterrence theory requires states to remain equally vulnerable to one another to maintain a stable balance of power—an uncomfortable proposition. The defensive preparations of State A diminish the ability of State B to inflict pain, which means State A can strike first because it can better withstand State B’s retaliatory strike. It is dizzying in its logic, but deterrence worked during the Cold War. We’re all still here.

Unlike Cold War deterrence strategy, which threatened punishment, current US policy towards Iran favors denial. The Aegis system is designed to deny Iran the ability to successfully attack targets in Europe. Rather than hurling precious missiles against American defense systems, Iran would choose not to strike at all.

Were it to cross the Rubicon and actually assemble a nuclear weapon, Iran would have a relatively small arsenal. Having invested vast resources into developing its weapons, it is unlikely Iran would use them without a reasonable expectation that an attack would be successful. The only way to beat American missile defense systems is to swarm them with more missiles than Iran could probably produce. Compare this to the Soviets’ ability to produce tens of thousands of nuclear weapons during the Cold War. Such a vast arsenal assured the Soviet Union that enough missiles would penetrate American defenses and hit their targets. Uncertainty of success deters Iran.

If European-based US missile defense is intended to deter Iran, then why did Russian Chief of General Staff Nikolai Makarov threaten to attack NATO sites earlier in May? The answer is the same as McNamara’s from fifty years ago—defense is immoral because it destabilizes deterrence. From the Russian perspective, NATO, which has expanded to include a number of former Soviet satellites, has deployed missile defense right on its border. According to a RAND report from 2011, Russian military planners are keenly afraid of an American surprise attack. General Makarov’s bellicose statements, though disavowed by his government, indicate how urgently Russians want to resolve the issue and restore strategic balance.

In Los Cabos, Mexico, last June, President Obama and President Putin expressed interest in cooperative missile defense, but no agreement has been reached so far on what that collaboration would look like. Without such an agreement, deterrence in Europe will become more tenuous, but that misses the point. Missile defense catalyzes arms races and creates a cycle of vulnerability and opportunity that makes the world more dangerous, not less.

Are there lessons we can learn from the Cold War that will help solve the problem of Iran? Yes; just as the US deterred the Soviet Union using credible threats of retaliation, so too can it deter Iran. Should Iran develop nuclear weapons, the U.S. has other means—both nuclear and conventional—to deter their use. In this sense, the Cold War experience provides a solution. Neither the U.S. nor Russia struck first because each feared devastating retaliation. A combination of fear and threat of punishment would have a similar effect on the Iranian regime. Iran’s potential targets in Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are covered under the American nuclear umbrella, and American retaliation to an Iranian attack on these countries would be devastating. This fact alone would deter Iran—all without the destabilizing effects of missile defense.

Travis C. Stalcup is a George and Barbara Bush Fellow studying national security policy at the George H.W. Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. He is currently an intern at U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii. His comments are his own.