Who’s afraid of missile defense?

Missile defenses are most likely to continue to fulfill a prominent role in Israel’s strategic approach to both conventional and nuclear threats.

Who’s afraid of missile defense? (photo credit: Nehemia Gershuni-Aylho)
Who’s afraid of missile defense?
(photo credit: Nehemia Gershuni-Aylho)
Missile defense systems are geared to protecting a state’s civilian population and/or strategic targets from a missile or rocket attack; they are designed to detect, track, intercept and destroy in flight rockets and missiles fired by the enemy.
With Hamas and Hezbollah threatening the country with short and medium range rockets, and with the threat of a nuclear Iran still far from being neutralized, Israel’s need for such systems seems obvious. Israel’s defense strategy, at least regarding conventional threats, is twofold: Enhancing its missile defense umbrella and ending any future military clash as quickly as possible through heavy retaliatory strikes.
Still, from their inception, missile defense systems have been the target of heated debate. For example, over their effect on the Cold War US-Soviet Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) dynamic: Did the systems help to bolster mutual deterrence or, on the contrary, fuel the nuclear arms race? And, in general, do they undermine deterrence by sending a message that the state is actually preparing to deal with some level of attack? How reliable and effective are they? And, of course, what about their cost?
Arguments for and against missile defenses play out very differently in the conventional and non-conventional realms. When it comes to conventional weapons, missile defenses have been used with a degree of success, and will continue to be deployed to protect states, like Israel, that face missile threats. Assessments of their utility focus largely on the question of their cost effectiveness.
In Israel, some argue against the use of very expensive anti-missile systems for shooting down rockets that cost only a fraction of the missile defense (and that the enemy can replenish in short order), especially when success rates fall short of 100 percent. But while passive defense – like bomb shelters – might be more cost-effective, the psychological benefits of a population that feels protected by an anti-missile ‘shield’ cannot be underestimated.
Clearly, when it comes to weapons of mass destruction, the calculus is very different. In the past, discussion focused primarily on the role of missile defense visà- vis nuclear deterrence and stability in the bilateral US-Soviet (and later US-Russian) contexts. But in light of Iran’s nuclear advances and the danger that it may ultimately become a nuclear weapons state, this debate is becoming increasingly relevant to the Middle East.
The Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972, which regulated the deployment of missile defense systems to two sites only for each superpower, was designed to stabilize the Cold War dynamic of MAD. It sought to temper a volatile situation in which each missile defense system deployed by one side was viewed by the other as something that must be answered in kind, a dynamic that was fueling a dangerous nuclear arms race between the superpowers.
However, the bilateral superpower relationship is no longer the defining characteristic of the global system. New world powers – especially China – have come to the fore, and the challenge of new nuclear proliferators has become much more significant, especially from Iran and North Korea. These developments have created increasingly multipolar deterrent relationships, severely complicating state calculations. With global and regional agendas intertwined, plans for missile defense must now take into account a far more complex global context.
Such is the case with US plans for deploying a missile defense system in Europe to confront emerging threats from rogue states, like Iran. Russia’s objections to the planned defensive system, however, continue to be fueled by Cold War thinking, with the Russians claiming that the system gives the US an advantage which weakens their deterrence. Nevertheless, the Obama Administration is determined to continue with missile defense even at the cost of upsetting Russia, and despite the fact that it is trying to negotiate a deal that would roll back Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
This suggests that the Americans are seriously concerned about the possibility of their nonproliferation effort vis-à-vis Iran ending in failure. Indeed, this implicit message rings louder than the guarded public optimism about stopping Iran through diplomacy. It could also suggest the US may not be ready to take military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities if negotiations fail.
Indeed, developing missile defenses in preparation for the possible failure of diplomatic efforts has very negative implications for US deterrence vis-à-vis Iran. If diplomacy fails, it would signify that the US had failed to convince Iran that there would be serious consequences – of a military nature – if it were to develop nuclear weapons.
In fact, preparation for a failure to stop Iran indicates that it is actually Iran’s deterrence that has carried the day, and that Iran has been able to deter the US from taking military action by convincing it that the cost would be too high. Nevertheless, one should be wary of drawing a direct parallel between the strength of US deterrence in a negotiations situation, and what might be expected from the US in a scenario in which Iran actually contemplates the use of nuclear weapons.
Israel must also consider its options for missile defense and nuclear deterrence when contemplating the prospect of dealing with a nuclear Iran. Some advocate total reliance on declared nuclear deterrence in this scenario – that is, Israel dropping its nuclear ambiguity and stating exactly what it has in its nuclear arsenal – because missile defense (the Arrow system) cannot be expected to be 100 percent successful and Israel cannot afford even one nuclear missile hitting its territory. Others favor the layered approach – quiet deterrence and missile defense – hoping for as much protection as possible.
The fact that Israel has the Arrow system and presumably a second strike capability means that Iranian planners would have to take into account the theoretical possibility of their nuclear-tipped missiles being intercepted – and Israel, and possibly the US too, then responding with nuclear attacks. If Iran is ever allowed to go nuclear, that layered combination could create a strong deterrent effect.
Finally, a word on Israeli missile defense in conventional scenarios. Israel’s response to the missile and rocket threat from Hezbollah is normally also characterized by a layered approach. At a recent conference on missile defense held at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), former national security adviser Yaakov Amidror spelled it out, explaining that in any future military confrontation with Hezbollah, Israel would adopt a three-pronged strategy. It would attempt to destroy launchers in Lebanon from the air and through ground operations; it would rely on “active defense” through missile defense systems; and this would be supplemented by “passive defense,” like bomb shelters and protected rooms.
Although clearly not a foolproof or standalone solution, missile defenses are most likely to continue to fulfill a prominent role in Israel’s strategic approach to protecting the country from both conventional and non-conventional missile/rocket threats in the years ahead.
Their role is first to deter, and if deterrence fails, to protect and to facilitate an overwhelming response.
Dr. Emily Landau is Director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies