14 February 1997 - 16 February 1997

Defence Against Ballistic Missiles: Options and Implication

Chair: The Honorable Harold Brown

We recalled, as we began our conference, that the question of direct defence against ballistic missiles (BMs) had been around for something like forty years. But the end of the Cold War had radically changed the environment, with the Western debate’s prime focus shifting away from the great-power stand-off towards other sources of threat, possibly more diverse, less predictable and less manageable within established structures of war-prevention. Thousands of ballistic missiles had been used in conflict during the past fifteen years, and many were in, or might well fall into, the hands of states not dependably wedded to the status quo and to general international norms of behaviour and calculation of advantage.

Against this background there were evident arguments - already accepted and reflected in United States programmes and budgets - for acquiring systems for theatre missile defence (TMD) to ward off attack on deployed forces by BMs of, typically, up to about 1,000-kilometre range. We heard occasional scepticism voiced about the strict military significance of bombardment by missiles carrying high-explosive munitions of the very poor accuracy achievable by the most likely adversaries. It seemed moreover, at least to many participants, that the likelihood of BM attack with chemical or biological warheads could not be other than very low, given alternative methods of bringing such agents to bear and the international opprobrium and fierce retaliation which the BM delivery route (of unconcealable origin, as well as perhaps some technical difficulty) would attract. All that said, we recognised that if TMD protection could reasonably be made available public opinion, above all in the United States, would scarcely regard it as tolerable to deploy forces without it, at risk of avoidably losing lives. It might then be politically more difficult for the United States, even in coalition, to undertake the military interventions which its de facto responsibilities in the international system might make desirable at least in its own and the Western eyes; and deterrence of future Saddam-type behaviour might be impaired accordingly.

This basic assessment needed to be qualified - though it was not, most of us thought, invalidated - by a number of factors. By no means every international actor would be happy to see the interventionist application of US power facilitated. Direct BMD was not the only, nor necessarily the most efficacious, way of heading off a BM challenge. Quite aside from political options like strengthening the Missile Technology Control Regime to slow down the development of threat, deterrence by threat of retaliation could still in many settings have a place, even if (as we were minded to suspect) military pre-emption would rarely be feasible. We noted also that the implications of acquiring and deploying US TMD capability would vary widely with the scenario, for example according to whether deployment had the effect - incidentally or deliberately - of providing a countrywide defence shield to regional associates.

National missile defence (NMD) of the United States itself posed a different set of issues, as current US policy plainly recognised. The deployment of any substantial new such defence, even if configured against a modest scale of attack, would be seen by Russia, and perhaps also by China, as endangering the stability of strategic relationships; and there seemed anyway no near-term capability of threat from any states other than those two. Broad agreement, moreover, was apparent in our discussions about the importance of not damaging the Anti-Ballistic-Missile Treaty (ABMT) regime.   Aside from its direct strategic impact (which was of interest to Britain and France as well as “non-Western” powers), the preservation of this regime was of wide political significance internationally, as the present US Administration fully acknowledged. Its erosion would be apt to damage the whole pattern of US/Russian cooperation in the nuclear field, for example in furthering more secure control of armouries and deeper cuts in them. The United States, we heard, was confident that all its current programmes complied with the Treaty, even though Russia - perhaps understandably - had usually been reluctant to offer specific endorsement of that view. The current US approach to NMD envisaged maintaining a research-and-development effort such that, if the scene darkened, operational deployment against a limited threat level could be initiated in three years and completed in a further three; and given continued Treaty compliance that seemed to most participants a fairly-judged insurance stance, though we were reminded that Congressional pressures often sought to move rather farther and faster. We believed that careful dialogue with and sensitivity towards Russia – perhaps even extending to some cooperation over TMD - remained a necessary element of policy; and though China might be a more difficult interlocutor, her potential reactions also needed to be weighed.

We could attempt no more than a general survey of the technical components of the issues. It seemed clear that the more extensive was the protection required - in particular, the further it rose up the capability spectrum from TMD against short-range missiles towards NMD against inter-continental ones - the stronger the military and technical case for a layered intercept system comprising action close in, at high altitude and in the boost phase (for example through attack by airborne laser or by missile) immediately following launch; but we noted in addition that these three components were generally in rising order of cost, of technical difficulty or uncertainty, and of international political repercussion including impact on the ABMT regime. It was of course evident also that any set of intercept capabilities must rest on highly-developed structures of early warning, communication and control; but it was suggested that such structures, though they might pose issues of command and of engagement rules, were not nowadays likely to pose especial technological difficulty.

Perhaps inevitably, our discussion had in large measure revolved around the options, implications and intentions of US policies and choices, since it was pre-eminently the United States that had the resources for action about BMD. But what choices would fall to the main West European countries, and to others such as Japan? For Europeans to undertake no BMD effort would deepen their reliance (already evident in some key categories of military capability) on US partnership in major interventionist deployments, and so might intensify issues of burden-sharing and dependence. But no European country currently had budgetary provision for a significant BMD programme. What such a programme might cost would vary widely with its character - for example, whether it was designed to provide a free-standing national capability or an interoperable contribution to a collective enterprise and (if the latter) whether in a European or a NATO framework; and whether it could be provided by proportionately modest enhancement of systems already programmed, or likely to be, on air defence account. But any substantial effort would be likely to run into billions of investment dollars; and the current political realities of European defence budgets meant that the opportunity cost in other military capabilities foregone must be expected to be severe. There were therefore hard choices about priorities to be faced; and in the general absence - which several participants vigorously deplored - of informed public debate to expose and test these choices, it remained obscure what path European decision-taking would or should take. The conference as a whole left an impression of US policy-shaping that had arrived - whether or not we agreed with it - at a reasonably coherent set of concepts and programmes; and of much distance left for most others to travel before they could claim as much.

 This report reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Chairman: The Honorable Harold Brown
Secretary of Defense, 1977-81


Professor Robert O’Neill
Chichele Professor of the History of War, University of Oxford

Dr James Fergusson
Deputy Director, Centre for Defence and Security Studies, University of Manitoba
Mr Paul Heinbecker
Assistant Deputy Minister, Global and Security Policy, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade
Dr George Lindsey OC
Senior Research Fellow, Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies
Professor W Donald Macnamara OMM CD
President, Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies

Madame Thérèse Delpech
Adviser on Politico-Military Affairs to the Prime Minister
Colonel Jean-Louis Georgelin
Adviser on Military Affairs to the Prime Minister

Dr Claude Roche
Vice-President (Space and Defence Systems), MATRA Hautes Technologies

Dr Hubert Feigl
Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, Ebenhausen
Ambassador Dr E Jürgen Pöhlmann
Deputy Commissioner for Disarmament and Arms Control of the Federal Government

Professor Stefano Silvestri
Vice President, Istituto Affari Intemazionali

Dr Alexander G Savelyev
Vice President, Institute for National Security and Strategic Studies

Mr Mark Allen
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Professor Neville Brown
Academic consultant to the MoD’s Pre-Feasibility Programme on Ballistic Missile Defence
The Rt Hon The Lord Chalfont OBE MC PC
President, All-Party Defence Group, House of Lords
Mr Michael Charlton
Writer and broadcaster, BBC World Service
Rear Admiral Richard Cobbold CB
Director, Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies
Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Craig of Radley GCB OBE
Chief of the Defence Staff, 1988-91
Mr Humphry Crum Ewing
Research Fellow, Centre for Defence and International Security Studies, Lancaster University
Mr David Fairhall
Defence Correspondent, The Guardian
Lady Kennet
Mr Bruce Mann
Director of Defence Policy, Ministry of Defence
Professor Sir Laurence Martin DL
Director, The Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1991-96
Air Commodore Tony Nicholson
Director of Operational Requirements (Air), Ministry of Defence
Mr Roland Smith CMG
Director (International Security), Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Mr Nick Stoppard
Deputy Business Development Director, MATRA BAe Dynamics UK Limited
Mr Peter Varnish OBE
Director, International Business Development, Defence Evaluation and Research Agency
Lord Williams of Elvel CBE
Opposition Spokesman on Defence
Air Chief Marshal Sir John Willis KCB CBE
Vice Chief of the Defence Staff

Brigadier General James R Beale
Director of Space and Nuclear Deterrence, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition
Dr Albert Carnesale
Provost, Harvard University
The Hon Dr Lynn E Davis
Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs
Dr John R Harvey
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Forces Policy
Mr Paul Leventhal
President, Nuclear Control Institute, Washington
The Honorable Hans Mark
Professor of Aerospace Engineering, The University of Texas at Austin
Dr J David Martin
Deputy for Strategic Relations, Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, Department of Defense
The Honorable Joseph S Nye Jr
Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, 1994-95

Dr Robin Ranger
Leader, project on Missile Threats and Responses, Centre for Defence and International Security Studies, Lancaster University