Missile Defence: Trends, Concerns and Remedies

Author/s (editor/s):

Desmond Ball

Publication year:


Publication type:

Working paper

At the 14th Roundtable here in Kuala Lumpur in June 2000, I argued that: 'It is time for another debate about missile defences, but the arguments (both positive and negative) will be very different from those which obtained during the mutual nuclear deterrence situation of the Cold War. That debate has now been vigorously joined, prompted by the decision of the Bush Administration to proceed with development and deployment of ballistic missile defence systems€‘ both national missile defences (NMD) and theatre missile defences (TMD). But the debate is very confused. The issues are difficult and complex, involving the interplay of technological, strategic and geopolitical considerations, and compounded by great uncertainty. The arguments are frequently self-serving, often ill-informed and mostly not conducive to constructive dialogue.

The proposed US NMD system is of dubious technological feasibility and problematic strategic purpose. It is officially supposed to defend the US against relatively small numbers of inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) launched by 'rogue states' such as Iraq or North Korea, but it is widely interpreted to be directed against the expanding Chinese ICBM force. Although the eventual shape of the NMD is yet to be decided, its basic components include fixed, land-based non-nuclear anti-missile missiles and a space-based missile launch detection and early warning system. Half a dozen tests of interceptors against target missiles have been conducted since 1997, but most have been failures.

There are concerns that the NMD program could stimulate a renewed nuclear arms race€‘ this time with both Russia and China determined to enhance their offensive missile capabilities in order to offset the US defences. It could also lead to abrogation of the 1972 Anti-ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, one of the few successful strategic nuclear arms control agreements. Many US allies remain unpersuaded regarding the wisdom of the US NMD program, but they are also very interested in theatre missile defence systems for themselves, and hence have subdued their concerns about NMD in order to preserve access to the US technology.

This paper describes the proposed US NMD system, at least insofar as its essential components can be clarified, as well as the currently operational Russian ABM system. It discusses some of the principal implications of ballistic missile defence (BMD) developments for strategic stability and arms control, including the prospects for the 1972 ABM Treaty and for a nuclear arms race in Asia. It also discusses several attendant concerns, such as the proliferation of ballistic and cruise missiles in Asia, and the development of battlefield and theatre missile defence systems, which greatly complicates assessment of NMD developments. There is some discussion of possible arms control initiatives, as well as of various proposals for cooperative ventures with respect to missile defence activities. It argues that the US NMD program is detrimental to regional stability and security, but little is being done to address the negative political and strategic consequences

  Desmond Ball, 'The Military Balance in the Asia-Pacific Region: Trends and Implications', in Mely C. Anthony and Mohamed Jawhar Hassan (eds.), The Asia Pacific in the New Millenium: Political and Security Challenges, (ISIS Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, 2001),


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