There are many lessons from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine. Among the most concerning is that nuclear coercion worked against the Biden administration. Lest Moscow inspire copycats in Beijing, Pyongyang and elsewhere, we must seek to devalue nuclear saber-rattling. If we do not, Beijing will surely resort to similar threats in its determined effort to incorporate Taiwan.
Russian officials threatened nuclear employment to pressure Kyiv and intimidate countries providing it support. In response, the Biden administration barred vital weapons and targeting assistance that it believed would risk escalation to “World War III.”
This was exactly the intent of Putin’s bullying. By ruling out reasonable support to help Ukraine launch a counteroffensive and perhaps achieve early victory, the Biden team gave Russia time to consolidate in the east and south, where it is now prevailing.
Rather than communicating resolve to demonstrate our nuclear deterrent in the face of Russian threats, the Biden administration canceled long-planned ballistic-missile tests and zeroed out funding for the nuclear sea-launched cruise missile, a move senior military leaders opposed. While the administration insists that its acts reflect the behavior of a “responsible” nuclear power, they have not impressed Putin — who in response went forward to test his own power. For someone who sees the world in terms of raw power, restraint looks like weakness.
Russia has been investing heavily in its nuclear forces for two decades, and China is rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal — which the US Strategic Command chief has termed “breathtaking.” To make our deterrent more credible, we must be able to both punish the attacker through offensive retaliation and deny his objectives through active defenses.
This requires us to adapt our nuclear forces to deal with threats from two peers and rogue nations. Given the huge disparity in theater-range nuclear weapons relative to Russia and China, we must expand our options through such means as the low-yield warhead on our strategic submarines and the nuclear sea-launched cruise missile.
In addition, missile defenses must be an integral component of deterrence and allied assurance. This applies to deterrence against not only North Korea and Iran, for whom we have sized our homeland-defense capabilities, but for the more likely threats to our homeland posed by Russia and China.
Both theater and homeland missile defenses undermine the adversary’s confidence that he can achieve his policy goals using force. No missile-defense architecture should require a “zero leak” standard. As with any defensive capability, that is impossible and unnecessary. What is required for deterrence is sufficient capability to disrupt the expected success of the aggression.
To deter and defend against missile threats from Russia and China as well as the accelerating threats from Iran and North Korea, we must deploy space-based capabilities. Ground-based and sea-based systems, while useful, can’t be scaled to meet these growing threats. A space-based kill capability is the necessary evolution to the layered defense architecture. Moving to space is the only way to get the boost/ascent-phase missile-defense capability essential to defeat current and future threats. There is no other feasible option.
Space-based missile defenses are achievable. Engineers have made major progress in every needed tech sector, as seen in technologies SpaceX and other private-sector enterprises employ. Space Force and Space Command have active space-control portfolios that can also be used synergistically with a space-based missile defense.
Skeptics have argued that space-based defenses will “militarize” space, but space is already a highly contested environment in which we face growing threats from Russia, China and others. In fact, US space-based missile defenses will help protect existing and planned US space assets, making another contribution to strategic stability.
The Biden administration is ideologically opposed to space-based missile defenses, wedded to the outdated notion that defenses are destabilizing. We must therefore think in terms of how a new Congress can set the stage for a new president.
Moving forward with a space test-bed is the modern parallel to Congress seeding missile-defense programs with the commitment to build on their progress. This let President George W. Bush unshackle the United States from the Cold War Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and field the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system against rogue-state threats. Today’s parallel is to begin building the infrastructure needed for deployment, such as sensors and command and control.
Only when the United States adapts to the rapidly changing threat environment can we confidently deter our adversaries. This requires a clear-eyed assessment of the dangers and a commitment to defend the American people.
Lt. Gen. Henry Obering III, ret., is former director of the Missile Defense Agency. Robert Joseph is former under secretary of state for arms control and special envoy for nonproliferation.