Brad Roberts, the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense and head of the nuclear posture review, warned June 28th in a speech at the Carnegie Endowment that regional conflicts could very well see the use of nuclear weapons against the United States. The reason is that superior U.S. conventional capability forestalled Chinese and Russian objectives in Ukraine and the South China Sea.
Ten days earlier, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German Foreign Minister echoed such concerns as well, but warned that, “it would be fatal to search only for military solutions and a policy of deterrence.” He added, “what we shouldn’t do now is inflame the situation further through saber-rattling and warmongering.”
How serious is the current geostrategic balance? Are we in danger of any number of crises escalating to open conflict? And how should the U.S. respond? Should we deploy better military capabilities or ramp up our diplomacy, or both?
Certainly the Russian government has openly declared its willingness to use nuclear weapons against the United States and its European allies should NATO militarily step in to stop Russian aggression in Ukraine or the Baltics. On July 4th, RT published an essay — “U.S. Military Strategy Could Culminate in Nuclear Conflict” — warning that any armed conflict in Ukraine or the South China Sea would not be confined to those regions. The RT essay went on to note while the U.S. remained relatively unscathed in World War II, today’s military capabilities of China and Russia left no guarantee that the U.S. homeland would remain a sanctuary.
Brad Roberts, now with Lawrence Livermore, spoke directly to this problem as he explained that a conventional conflict over Ukraine or the South China Sea might very well escalate to the use of nuclear weapons by China and Russia. But he noted the aggression would be coming from Moscow and Beijing, not Washington, while the RT propaganda essay put the entire onus for any future conflict on what it complained were American and NATO “neocon” plots and designs.
What then should the U.S. posture in Europe and East Asia with respect to deterring conflict be? As Roberts sees it, the U.S. seeks to deter conflict and assure our allies that we have their back. This involves both conventional and nuclear capabilities, as our allies do not believe that non-nuclear capabilities as well as missile defense and conventional strikes can be substituted for nuclear deterrence. These capabilities are complements not substitutes.
Our adversaries such as Russia, China, and North Korea, says Roberts, worry about being encircled by U.S. and allied military bases whether in Eastern Europe or the Western Pacific. If a military conflict breaks out in these regions, the three nations are concerned with how to defeat what they see as a “conventionally superior nuclear armed major power” in the United States.
To fix such a dilemma, Roberts believes these nations will widen the conflict, and threaten the American homeland with nuclear strikes, and thus in a crisis or conflict induce us to “back down.” Such a strategy he notes involves “blackmail, brinkmanship and coercion” and a willingness to use “nuclear weapons on a very limited basis.” As such this significantly raises the nuclear dangers we face.
Given this environment, perhaps it is now time to revisit our missile defense strategy adopted in the post ABM treaty period which was to avoid exposing ourselves militarily to rogue regimes like North Korea and Iran, without upsetting the strategic balance with Russia and China.
Missile defense in the regions in question — Eastern Europe and the Western Pacific — consists of relatively limited deployments in Romania and Poland, and sea and land based deployments in Japan and the Republic of Korea. If future conflicts in these regions are where the use of nuclear weapons is most likely, then the U.S. and its allies have some choices. We could improve our regional nuclear capabilities, strengthen our conventional capabilities, or deploy more missile defenses.
The last option, deploying better and greater numbers of missile defense systems, poses no offensive threat, would enable the U.S. to exercise restraint in a crisis, and would enable the U.S. to de-escalate a possible conflict by blunting offensive attacks. The example of Israel using Iron Dome missile defenses to shoot down some 90 percent of the missiles from Gaza aimed at its populated areas is instructive in that it helped bring the rocket wars to a stop without the need for wholesale offensive operations that could have sparked a wider conflict.
American and allied missile defense options would better protect the U.S. homeland from missile attacks, consistent with Roberts’ warning that our adversaries might escalate a conflict by threatening America’s cities. Deploying such missile defenses at home and in the European and Asian theater, if done artfully, is a policy of restraint, enhancing U.S. and allied security while providing policymakers with more options in responding to such a threat.