The Atlantic Council asked General Michael Carns, USAF (Ret.), Dr. Jacques Gansler, and Walter B. Slocomb to visit Asia to conduct in-depth discussions with political, military, and business leaders on all aspects of missile defense, including threat assessments, strategic implications, and the likely consequences of missile defense developments for the future security environment and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.  After meetings in Beijing, New Delhi, Seoul, Taipei, and Tokyo, they released this report.

Several factors contributed to the decision to draft this study.  The U.S. decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty, foreshadowed by several years of intense debate within the United States, ushered in a new phase of the nuclear age after the 40-year dominance of the idea of assured destruction. This change of strategic approach resulted from several factors, including notably the continuing spread of nuclear and missile technologies and the end of the Soviet-U.S. nuclear rivalry. It has forced U.S. allies and potential rivals alike to review long-held ideas. In particular, they have had to consider the implications for their own policies of the new U.S. priority for deploying missile defenses.

Key Judgments

The prospect of North Korea developing both nuclear weapons and long-range missiles has been at the core of the U.S. rationale for early deployment of a missile defense and of Japan’s interest in defense for itself. In the face of North Korea’s missile programs and its acknowledgement of an active program to develop nuclear weapons, the problem of defense against those weapons assumes new urgency – as does the question of how defenses affect the broader dynamic of security in Northeast Asia.

Beyond the North Korean threat, the degree to which the United States builds defenses for itself and assists others in the Asia-Pacific region in deploying such defenses is linked to the long-term question of the role of the United States in Asia-Pacific security, of its continuing commitment and presence, of the degree to which missile defense is a central factor in that role, of the durability of U.S. bilateral alliances, and of the posture of the United States and China toward each other.

The long lead times for developing and deploying missile defenses, combined with the transparency of programs and regular briefings abroad by U.S. officials, suggest that deployment of missile defenses need not be destabilizing. Most of the systems currently in research and development will probably not be ready for fielding for several years and, even when they are deployed, China should be confident that they do not pose a threat to its deterrent capabilities. Indeed, limited missile defense capabilities should not be seen to threaten the regional military balance, although they would provide an important measure of defense against the North Korean threat and blackmail by North Korea and others, as well as against errant missile launches.