It’s one of the great paradoxes of nuclear power politics.
Strategic missile defence was meant to make inter-continental nuclear warfare obsolete, creating a protective shield that negates an enemy’s first strike advantage. The idea is that one side won’t even bother launching nukes if they know their missiles can be shot out of the sky en-masse. And the deadly logic of nuclear warfare hopefully collapses once a first-strike becomes an impossibility for one side.
But that might not actually leave the world any safer. It’s impact can be just the opposite. It’s conceivable that missile defence could actually make the world less safe.
A recently declassified paper from Studies in Intelligence, the CIA’s internal journal, looks at how Moscow reacted to US missile defence efforts during the Cold War and the decade or so following the breakup of the Soviet Union. The paper’s author, whose name is redacted, found that the Soviets, and then Russia, were desperate to undercut the advantages of a future US missile defence system — an objective that led them to act in potentially destabilizing ways. The paper’s publication date is redacted as well, but it includes a quotation from Russian President Vladimir Putin from 2000, so it must have been written after that date.
In the early 1980s, the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) was a centrepiece of Ronald Reagan’s defence policy. It would have relied upon technologies that are still unproven, like space-based Star Wars missile interceptors. The Soviets were worried about what such a tilt in the balance of global power could mean for them.
“In response to SDI, Moscow threatened a variety of military countermeasures in lieu of developing a parallel missile defence system,” the paper states.
Moscow wanted to improve its negotiating position with the US in order to force Washington to suspend the project. And according to the paper, Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov considered several options for countering SDI, like “increasing the number of missiles, reinforcing missile silos to increase their survivability, using decoys on missiles to make intercepts more difficult,” and “developing and deploying an underwater missile that would not be affected by the space-based missile shield.”
Most worryingly, Andropov considered employing a “‘forgotten division’ concept, whereby Moscow would secretly forward-deploy an SS-20 intermediate-range missile unit only to allow it to be ‘discovered’ and bargained away in SDI negotiations.”
All of these potential Russian responses to an SDI would have brought dangerous uncertainty to the Cold War’s ever-fragile balance of power.
A 1987 CIA assessment cited in the paper concluded the Soviets had in fact been researching technologies in preparation for an operational SDI of their own. The SDI never became a reality and the paper implies that one of the initiative’s more tangible consequences was forcing a cash-strapped and slowly-collapsing Soviet Union to dedicate scarce resources to an as-yet conjectural problem.
Though it turns out Moscow might not have had the resources to make missile defence a reality, the dilemma the paper identifies is still a real one: by trying to make itself more safe the US might have altered the strategic environment in a way that actually made the country less safe. Strategic defence didn’t end the arms race and instead it threatened to begin another and radically different one, only with dynamics and an internal logic that were unknowable to both sides.
This was most starkly on display during the US-Soviet “war scare” of 1983, when concerns over SDI might have caused the Soviet military to go on a heightened and possibly quite dangerous state of alert.
“The argument against [missile defence] is that it disrupts the balance of deterrence,” Nate Jones, a scholar at George Washington University’s National Security Archive and an expert on the 1983 war scare told Business Insider. “Russia was worried that if there’s nuclear parity and one side is suddenly at a disadvantage because of so-called missile defence, it would upsets the decades of money and resources that they put into deterrence.”
This disruption wouldn’t even come with the advantage of added security for the US, given how unproven strategic missile defence technology still is.
“These systems don’t provide absolute security,” says Jones “and the destabilizing effects quite possibly outweigh the stabilizing effect.”
The Studies in Intelligence paper closes with a quote from Andropov that gets at the troubling flip-side of the advantages that missile defence could offer.
“All attempts at achieving military superiority over the USSR are futile,” the Soviet leader said in March of 1983. “The Soviet Union will never allow them to succeed.”
On SDI, the Soviet Union of the 1980s didn’t have the means or the initiative to follow through on this kind of threat. But that doesn’t make the mindset behind it any less alarming.