China’s weaponization of coronavirus has underscored the existential threat that Chinese tyranny poses. President Trump deserves credit for long repudiating the delusional thinking among elites of both parties that accommodation and trade would tame China’s swelling ambitions. In “The America We Deserve,” published in 2000, private citizen Trump warned that China “doesn’t’ aspire to a strategic partnership” but “sees us as a rival in its ambitions to dominate Asia.”
Since his inauguration, the president has backed up his words with deeds. The summary of the Administration’s National Defense Strategy, published in January 2018, defines America’s number one priority as thwarting China’s goal to supplant the United States as the world’s preeminent power. The president considers it imperative to restore American military preponderance that was dangerously eroded due to an insidious combination of China’s relentless, three-decade military buildup and 8 years of President Obama’s slashing of the defense budget.
As part of a comprehensive plan that increases defense spending prodigiously, the administration has emphasized the importance of ballistic missile defense. Then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ 2019 Ballistic Missile Defense Review, which the president and the Republican-controlled Congress directed him to undertake in 2017, warns that our adversaries “seek to use offensive missile threats to coerce us, our allies.”
Vigilance in pursuing robust missile defense will be critical, however, as opponents can be found even where you might not expect them. For example, an important element of a robust missile defense for example is keeping the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) fully funded. Yet in 2019, there was a move at the Pentagon to end this program. Cooler heads prevailed in this instance, fortunately, but threats will always remain.
China’s massive buildup in offensive missiles and burgeoning anti-satellite capability constitute an essential component of Beijing’s strategy to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific and “reorder the region to its advantage,” thereby making the world safe for the perpetuation of Chinese tyranny. China currently fields 75 to 100 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), some with multiple warheads. The Chinese Navy also has begun to deploy Intercontinental submarine launched ballistic missiles capable of striking the continental United States. China’s technically sophisticated and large array of conventional missiles endeavor to prevent the United States from credibly protecting allies and partners in the region, lowering the barriers to China’s aggression and belligerence that has intensified since it unleashed Covid on the world.
Witness, for example, China’s no longer veiled threats to European countries that criticize China for its criminal negligence and malevolence in creating and spreading a worldwide pandemic. Witness China’s menacing behavior toward a decent, democratic Taiwan or the PRC’s brazen and illegal claims to sovereignty by militarizing the East and South China Sea. Witness China’s remorseless determination to crush Hong Kong’s freedoms in violation of what the regime promises — a bitter foretaste of what may come if China ever achieves its aspiration to become a regional, then global, hegemon.
Likewise, an increasingly authoritarian, anti-American, revisionist Russia identifies the United States as the primary obstacle to realizing its ambition to destroy the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and reconstitute some version of a Russian authoritarian empire in Central Europe. As the 2019 Missile Defense Review soberly observes, Russian military doctrine and force planning rely heavily on the actual or potential use of nuclear weapons. Currently, Russia fields a total of 700 ICBMs and SLBMs, some with multiple warheads, amounting to 1500 nuclear warheads capable of striking the United States. Both China and Russia envisage their missile programs playing a critical role of deterring our deterrent, hence eroding our credibility as an ally in the Indo-Pacific and to NATO in Europe.
The Trump administration, to its credit, has made progress fulfilling its vow to expand national and regional missile defense.
- Increasing funding substantially above President Obama’s, which restricted our missile program designed primarily to counter the threat of rogue regimes such as Iran and North Korea. Congress approved President Trump’s 2018 program calling for $11.5 billion for ballistic missile defense — an increase of 46 percent over the Fiscal 2017 spending.
- Broadening the role and scope of ballistic missile defense to include other types of ballistic missile threats.
- Devoting more attention to technologies that could destroy missiles in the boost phase, when such missiles are easier to destroy and before a missile potentially launches multiple warheads, after which interception becomes more difficult with a lower ratio of success.
- Allocating more resources for regional missile defense primarily to counter China’s plan to neuter American alliances by denying – through launching swarms of conventional missiles – America’s ability to project power across the Indo-Pacific.
- Abrogating a deeply flawed START Treaty that constrained America’s development and deployment of ballistic missile defense and required the U.S. to build down substantially, all while allowing the Russians to build up.
What the administration has done in the realm of missile defense is necessary, but not sufficient.
The gathering danger of Russia, China and other rogue regimes deploying missiles to deter or destroy us, dictates that the administration accelerate the pace and scope of research, development and deployment of missile defense. Although we should welcome the Trump administration’s more proactive policies and greater sense of urgency, the administration has yet to rescind formally the Obama administration’s restrictive definition of missile defense as excluding the intercontinental nuclear capability of China and Russia, where officially at least we will rely on mutually assured destruction for deterrence. This is imprudent. Whether we recognize it or not, China and Russia are already engaged in an arms race. They will build whether we do or not.
As Ronald Reagan did with the Evil Empire of the Soviet Union, we should rely on American technology and resolve rather than the forbearance of our adversaries to vindicate the national interest. So the Trump administration should take the next step of formally broadening the role of our missile defense program to include protecting the United States from the intercontinental ballistic missile threats emanating from China and Russia.
The risks of an arms race we are bound to win if we are determined pale in comparison to waking up vulnerable to the nuclear blackmail of a Chinese regime aiming to do us in with no compunction or remorse.
Ultimately, investing in missile defense is purchasing freedom insurance.
Robert G. Kaufman is Professor at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy, author of Dangerous Doctrine: How Obama’s Grand Strategy Weakened America. He is currently working on a new book, The “Principled Realism” of President Trump—Two Cheers.