Beyond AEGIS: Strategic stability and emerging technologies

Aegis missile launch

This blog has been co-authored by Nancy Ehrenberg-Peters and Eva-Nour Repussard, research team members at SCRAP Weapons.

On January 21, 2021, the Biden Administration announced that the United States would agree to a five-year extension of the arms control New START Treaty with Russia. Thereafter, the Russian Duma ratified the Treaty, which was due to expire on February 5, 2021 if an agreement could not be met between the two largest nuclear-possessing states in the world. As such, New START, in addition to being outdated, cannot be legally extended past February 2026. This means that the Russian Federation and the United States have five years to come up with a new treaty that could firstly be agreed upon by their administrations, despite conflicting security interests, and secondly can effectively rise to the new challenges posed by emerging technologies.

Emerging technologies have played a major role in framing the current dynamics and parameters of global security. The rivalry behind developing these sophisticated technologies has reached such a level that the frontrunners in the ‘race’, the US, Russia and China, provokingly claim to possess hypersonic missiles or nuclear missiles capable of attacking each other’s homelands in under an hour. 

Critically, the modernization of Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD)- counter opposing forces designed to destroy incoming missiles- poses a further destabilising threat to strategic stability. In other words, these powerful technologies directly challenge the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), which requires mutual vulnerability. Since the Cold War era, MAD has contributed to limiting states’ competitive accumulation of weapons and absolute military advantage, and therefore diminished the threat of an accidental nuclear war.

The concept of MAD was adopted by the United States and the Soviet Union as early as 1972, when both states signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. The arms controlling treaty prohibited the two powers from deploying defenses against strategic ballistic missiles. The ABM Treaty was thus considered critical in managing political and military instabilities between the two powers under the umbrella of mutual deterrence, and preventing an offensive-defensive arms race. However, since 2002, marking the US withdrawal from the Treaty, the US has sought to buttress its Anti-Missile Defense therefore contributing to a renewed arms race with its adversaries who are desperately trying to ‘catch-up’. In November 2020, however, strategic stability was arguably put to its most challenging test to date.

On November 16, 2020, a US warship equipped with an Aegis BMD System intercepted and destroyed a threat-representative Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) on its descent in a planned test. The Aegis Combat System launched a SM-3 Block IIA missile, destroying the incoming target with the guidance of a sophisticated tracking system. This watershed moment arguably proves what the nuclear community has previously only had reason to fear: that the US ships equipped with BMDs are capable of shooting down a long-range ICBM. This US test is allegedly in part also a reaction, as well as an attempt to demonstrate that the US defence is impenetrable, to North Korea’s modernizing ICBMs.

For example, Pyongyang claims that its Hwasong-15 has a 13,000km range and is capable of attacking the US homeland with a nuclear warhead. This Aegis Test, known as FTM-44, may be regarded not just as a defensive move against North Korea but also as an offensive and provocative one. Indeed, the US has 44 and counting of these war ships, of which are equipped with this sophisticated and seemingly unparalleled technology, not to mention its Aegis Ashore Systems deployed in Romania and Poland and Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) intercepting systems in Alaska.

Whilst the US BMD system was developed in part to contain North Korean threats, Russia and China have long expressed concerns that the US developments of its BMDs directly undermine their ICBMs capacities against it. Arguably the US has abandoned strategic stability as a means to ensure its security, which led both Moscow and Beijing to work towards countering the US commitment to developing its defensive systems. They have been attempting to challenge this threat in part by advancing their own technologies. For example, Russia’s hypersonic missile, the RS-28 Sarmat, or China’s DF-17 are particularly concerning. This further questions whether China is indeed departing from its no-first-use policy, a policy some argue as being an approach based on MAD, whereby it would only possess nuclear weapons to deter other countries from a nuclear attack. The increasing risk that a nuclear war starts by accident, miscalculation or false alarm ascribes to all of these developments.

In conclusion, the advances in BMDs has proliferated a renewed arms race. If this trend is not stopped by arms control treaties which effectively incorporate restrictions over these new technologies, there is the potential for disastrous consequences for international security.

This will all be discussed further in SCRAP Weapons’ webinar taking place today, 3rd February at 17:00 GMT with experts from the field. Sign up here.

Nancy Ehrenberg-Peters is currently pursuing her MSc in Violence, Conflict and Development and is a research team member at SCRAP Weapons

Eva-Nour Repussard is a research team member at SCRAP Weapons

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