WASHINGTON ― Ahead of President Joe Biden’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin this month, more than 60 advocates, former military officers, lawmakers and government officials are asking Biden to put missile defense reductions on the agenda.
The letter targets, for one, the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, which saw a plan to upgrade its interceptors cancelled amid technical problems in 2019. Since, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman were selected to compete for a next-generation interceptor to be fielded in 2028, and the Missile Defense Agency’s FY22 budget request last week included $926.1 million for the program.
But advocates see a potential off-ramp from a burgeoning arms race.
“This presents an opportunity to halt the current arms race between U.S. missile defense systems and new offensive systems being built by Russia and China to overcome U.S. defenses,” they wrote in a letter to Biden on Thursday.
Since the U.S. withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 ― a move Biden opposed as a senator ― “the GMD system has proceeded in a rushed, chaotic and ultimately counter-productive manner that has resulted in a failed test record, wasted billions of dollars, and accelerated an arms race with Russia and China, leading both adversaries to expand their offensive nuclear weapons programs to counter U.S. missile defenses,” the letter reads.
Notable signatories include former Defense Secretary Bill Perry; Obama-era Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes; former Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Thomas Countryman ― and several former lawmakers who served with Biden in the Senate, including Tom Harkin and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.
The Council for a Livable World organized and released the letter.
The signatories argue the Navy’s successful test interception last year of a SM-3 Block IIA missile against an intercontinental ballistic missile, from a ballistic missile defense-capable destroyer at sea, “has threatened Russia’s and China’s confidence in their strategic deterrent.”
They urge Biden to delay new work on the Navy Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system by capping production of the Aegis SM-3 Block IIA interceptors and BMD-capable vessels, “as a first step to restoring strategic stability and stopping a nuclear arms race.”
The Biden budget proposal included $1 billion for the Lockheed-made Aegis BMD and $647 million for the sea-based interceptors.
The letter flags a 2001 speech from then-Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Biden that blasted the absurdity of a “theological allegiance to missile defense” in Washington. “You were right then, and you have the power to walk us back from the brink now,” the letter reads.
How this appeal lands when the Biden budget proposal appears headed in the opposite direction is unclear, but Republicans in Congress and perhaps some Democrats would likely oppose it, according to Rebecca Heinrichs, a missile defense analyst at the Hudson Institute.
Heinrichs argued that there’s nothing provocative about building a defensive system, meant to focus on threats from rogue states like North Korea.
“It makes no sense to put on hold the U.S. homeland missile defense system to try to please Putin when the immediate effect would be to leave Americans exposed to Kim Jong-Un’s always-improving missiles,” she said.
“The argument to drop our defenses to placate our enemies by giving them a wider open shot at us has always been foolish, but it’s hard to overstate the madness of making that argument at a time like now when the result is to give Pyongyang that wide open shot.”
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.