Drifting Away From Reagan's 'Star Wars' Endangers US Space Defense

by Henry F. Cooper

As U.S. and Russian Ambassadors met in Helsinki to explore the future of the New START Treaty that expires in February, they did so in the shadow of the looming threat from China — with multilateral arms control implications.

U.S. Arms Control Envoy Marshall Billingslea originally argued that including China was essential for serious negotiations, and Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Rybakov rejected those demands — and Ambassador Billingslea noted that if President Trump wins reelection, the price for agreement "will go up." 

Following Monday’s meeting in Helsinki, Billingslea indicated that there had been "important progress," without elaboration and without confirmation from Russia. It would be interesting to learn details of what transpired — especially since the U.S. election is less than 30 days off.

Whatever happens in these ongoing negotiations with Russia, consider a few thoughts on what is at stake with China’s involvement in today’s strategic arena.

In the first place, China now is arguably a more potent strategic adversary than Russia — in economic and potentially military terms, and not only to its "near abroad."

The Pentagon recently reported that China now has the world’s largest Navy — and others say also the largest Army, and perhaps Air Force.

A new Air University study recently confirmed that China plans to use anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons to pose a national security threat, while using soft power and diplomacy to undermine U.S. interests.

China has tested reusable space planes to help extend its reach into space and is building rockets to go to the moon.

And China exploits the best of the best world’s advanced technology, much of which has been stolen, bought or developed from U.S. capabilities.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently stated that China is a greater threat than was the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

And while the United States once was a unique power center in its diplomatic relations with other nations in multilateral arms control negotiations, that condition has significantly changed — at least with respect to Russia and China, and in the context of other states with nuclear weapons.

These conditions, including related multilateral aspects, must weigh on the conditions for meaningful New START follow-on considerations.

Consider the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), currently chaired by Russia (in 2019-20) and made up of China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan—and, via their observer status, Mongolia, Iran, Afghanistan, and Belarus. "Dialog partners" Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Turkey and Sri Lanka further augment this source of international instability.

This multilateral forum offers opportunities for Russia and China to "team up" to influence others to undermine U.S. national security interests, while undermining any progress in multilateral arms control activities, in general.

Pakistan and India have nuclear weapons and well known, longstanding associated tensio — many troublesome scenarios could stem from those historical conditions without additional prompting. Iran has nuclear aspirations if not existing capabilities and is a major source of regional instability closely allied with North Korea, not a member of the SCO but a rogue nuclear state also associated with Russia and China.

Note that Russian authorities over a decade ago informed the Congressional Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack that Russia "accidentally" told China and North Korea how to build low-yield super-EMP nuclear weapons that could threaten regional and international instabilities. And the Iranian Parliament recently explicitly emphasized its interest in empowering its satellites with an EMP capability.

Moreover, Russia potentially could work with Iran and Turkey to undertake joint efforts to create havoc in the Mideast, as implied by Lewis Libbey and Hillel Fradkin in their interesting discussion on "The Wolves of Peace: Iran, Turkey and a Strategic Revolution in the Middle East."

Given such complexities, the United States doesn’t want to muddy the waters of "peer" party negotiations with Russia and China on nuclear weapons with such multilateral negotiations any more than we wished during the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations to confuse our bilateral negotiations with the Soviet Union and Russia.

During our bilateral negotiations in Geneva, the Soviets regularly sought to exploit concurrent multilateral negotiations, especially with the United Nation’s Committee on Disarmament (CD), which also met in Geneva, and sought to muddy the waters with its proposals to block our most cost-effective Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) systems —especially those based in space.

Those positions were also taken by some of our allies who opposed deploying missile defenses in space.

Unhelpful, but not determinative, in maintaining our alliances.

Indeed, in those days, the CD regularly echoed the Soviet/Russian position to "prevent and arms race in space," a phrase used so often that I shorthanded it as "PARIS" in the notes I took while following those developments in our Geneva Nuclear and Space Talks.

A major difference between those days and today is that President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) included efforts to prove out the important role of space-based Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) systems.

Indeed, it was these efforts that gave us our greatest negotiating leverage, leading to the 1988 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the 1991 Strategic Arms Reductions Talks (START) Treaty, the first treaties ever actually to reduce nuclear arms.

Moreover, those important treaties were achieved while the SDI was making significant progress in proving the viability of space-based defenses.

Unfortunately, efforts to develop those most cost-effective BMD systems ended when the Clinton administration "took the stars out of Star Wars," as claimed by then Defense Secretary Les Aspin . . .  and no administration since, including the Trump administration, has sought to revive that most important product of President Reagan’s SDI.

This delinquency leaves our negotiators without the benefits of leveraging that condition, while we are now playing "catch up" with key technologies being pursued by Russia and China. And based on known current U.S. Space Force activities, it’s not clear we are planning to compete effectively with them in space.

This is indeed a messy business.

Stay tuned.