Benjamin Zala 

26 February 2019 


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  • January’s long-awaited Missile Defense Review (MDR) unshackles the United States from its prior rhetorical commitments to limiting the size and scope of its defensive system, explicitly references missile threats from Russia and China, and commits Washington to further investment in ground- and space-based technologies.
  • The MDR thus eschews the concept of mutual vulnerability that has underpinned nuclear stability, no matter how fragile, since at least the 1960s. Likely consequences include stimulating further Russian and Chinese investment in developing alternative nuclear and conventional offensive weapons as well as their own defensive capabilities.
  • The simultaneous development of multiple strategic non-nuclear weapons (conventional programs that can compromise an adversary’s nuclear capabilities) will exacerbate the destabilising effects of missile defence technologies. These include conventional precision strike missile technology, anti-satellite and anti-submarine weaponry, and cyber and artificial intelligence technologies.
  • Proliferation of missile defence technologies, as well as alternative forms of offense, is highly likely and may see the US advantage erode over time. Nuclear-armed great powers and their allies now face a new era of complex arms racing in which questions of stability and crisis management will be as important to the avoidance of nuclear conflict as they were during the Cold War. However, the nature of the arms race is likely to be significantly different this time.
  • The normalisation of missile defence, despite the enduring problems it poses, should be resisted and challenged. A renewed debate over missile defence should focus on the a priori question of whether it lowers or raises the risks of nuclear weapons being used, not be limited to questions of financial cost and technical challenges.

Image credit: Stratcom/public domain. 

About the Author

Dr Benjamin Zala is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School and a Research Fellow in the Department of International Relations at the Australian National University.