President Donald Trump’s plan to escalate efforts in Ballistic Missile Defense (BDM), including the introduction of space-based weapons, should not be viewed in isolation.
It comes on top of the Defense Department’s plan to execute an across-the-board modernization of all our nuclear strike forces. It comes on top of the expansion of NATO under three presidents, despite earlier promises (here and here) to the contrary. It comes on top of the unilateral decision by President George W. Bush to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in June 2002, on top of Trump’s threat to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and on top of Trump’s publication of a more aggressive Nuclear Posture Review. To argue that such a massive effort is directed at deterring Iran or North Korea is ludicrous. Russia and China know who these programs and policies are aimed at.
Viewed through the lens of the precautionary principle, any sensible strategic planner in Russia and China would have no choice but to see these efforts as being a consistent, integrated plan to harden the U.S. nuclear shield while sharpening the U.S. nuclear sword.
Consider that the makeup of the offensive modernization program—i.e., the nuclear sword—includes: 1) increased precision guidance; 2) improved command and control systems; 3) dial-a-yield warheads on nuclear gravity bombs; 4) new families of nuclear warheads for ballistic and cruise missiles; 5) new ICBMs; 6) new air launched cruise missiles; 7) new bombers; 8) new missile-launching submarines; 9) modernized SLBMs; 10) new sea-launched cruise missiles; and 11) new space-based C4ISR systems with the possibility of ASAT capabilities. Taking all of this into account, it is quite obvious that Russian and Chinese war planners will have no choice but to assume the worse about U.S. intentions. Russian and Chinese planners will be forced to assume that Washington is returning to the thoroughly discredited 1970s-era nuclear war-fighting theory of graduated nuclear escalation via the use of a series limited nuclear options, punctuated perhaps by diplomatic signaling. Application of the precautionary principle by Russian and Chinese nuclear war planners would force them to conclude that the U.S. believes it can fight and win a nuclear war regardless of any U.S. protestations about its sword-shield modernization plan being a defensive application of deterrence theory.
Perhaps more importantly, savvy Russian and Chinese political advisors will understand how the flood of money pouring into these sword/shield modernization efforts will paralyze the patronage-addicted U.S. decision-making system. The fact that the multi-billion dollar, failure-prone BMD program continued unabated after the end of the Cold War illustrates the paralyzing staying power of patronage addiction.
The flood of dollars to every congressional district will increase sharply, creating an even more powerful web of political patronage in the form of jobs, corporate profits, and domestic political power. This web will, like its predecessors, lock in the continued funding of these programs for reasons of domestic politics that have nothing to do with the needs of foreign policy. Future political leaders in the United States will be handcuffed into continuing these programs for the reasons President Dwight D. Eisenhower outlined in his Farewell Address—only this time, our future will be Eisenhower’s nightmare on steroids.
Even if Trump has the best of intentions, he and his successors will find it impossible to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, or their successors, that the U.S. political system does not want—or more accurately, does not need—a new Cold War. Given the current chaos in U.S. politics, our adversaries (and perhaps even our allies) may well think that hyping the domestic politics of pervasive unreasoning fear by starting and maintaining a new Cold War is the only way the U.S. political elite can bring order to the increasingly corrupt, chaotic, and dysfunctional political system of their own making.
And in such circumstances, it is hard to see how Trump could convince Putin and Xi that he really wants better relations, when his own government is unleashing uncontrollable domestic patronage forces that will shape U.S. foreign policy for the next 30 to 50 years.
Franklin C. “Chuck” Spinney is a mechanical engineer and analyst who worked as a civilian and military officer in the Pentagon for 31 years, beginning in 1968. He has spent the last several decades as a Pentagon reformer, watchdog, and writer.