Ballistic Missile Defense and Strategic Stability in East Asia

Frank A. Rose
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance
Federation of American Scientists
Washington, DC
February 20, 2015


Thank you all very much, and a special thanks to Bruce and Chuck for having me here today to address this important workshop.

I’m told that this group is exploring China’s potential interest in and deployment of strategic ballistic missile defense and what that means for U.S. and allied security.

At the State Department, we’re taking a hard look at it as well, and in particular, the role of ballistic missile defense in achieving the overarching goal of strategic stability between the United States and China.

Overview of Strategic Stability with China

Before discussing China’s interest in developing a BMD system and the possible implications of such an effort, I’d first like to provide an overview of what the United States is doing to ensure a stable U.S.-China strategic relationship in the region.

As stated in the Nuclear Posture Review, the United States is committed to maintaining strategic stability in U.S.-China relations and supports initiation of a dialogue on strategic stability and nuclear postures aimed at fostering a more stable, resilient, and transparent security relationship with China.

During the Cold War, many associated strategic stability with what we called “mutual assured destruction,” the notion that the incentive to initiate nuclear use would be discouraged by the fear of suffering unacceptable retaliatory damage. This notion, of course, is ill-suited and too narrow to fully capture the U.S.-China relationship given our multifaceted and shared interests. In today’s world, strategic stability encompasses much more than just nuclear relations and reflects the fact that the U.S.-China relationship, which has both elements of competition and cooperation, is not adversarial.

The strategic relationship between the United States and China is complex, and we each view stability differently. Thus, it is important that we have frank and open dialogue about how our nations define and view strategic stability and how we perceive our nuclear postures and policies impacting this balance. As part of these discussions, the United States is willing to discuss all issues, including missile defense, space-related issues, conventional precision strike capabilities, and nuclear weapons issues, with the goal of improving the conditions for a more predictable and safer security environment.

A sustained and substantive discussion of our national approaches to maintaining effective deterrent postures and modernization of associated strategic capabilities can increase understanding, enhance confidence and reduce mistrust.

Overview of China’s BMD Activities

As you’re all aware, China is continuing to develop its BMD capabilities.

Although China does not say much about its BMD programs, China publicly announced that it conducted ground-based mid-course BMD tests in 2010, 2013, and 2014. I’ll say more about the 2014 “BMD” test later. Chinese state media has stated that such tests are defensive in nature and are not targeted at any country.

I was in Beijing earlier this month, and the message I delivered was clear: It is important that our governments have a sustained dialogue on the role that our BMD systems have in our respective defense policies and strategies. We would welcome an opportunity to learn more about how BMD fits into China’s defense policy and strategy.

More broadly, a sustained dialogue would improve our understanding of China’s strategic perspective and enhance China’s understanding of U.S. policy and strategy. Institutionalizing discussions of strategic issues is a prudent long-term approach to strengthening strategic stability and exploring means for strengthening mutual trust and risk reduction.

To encourage that dialogue, we have taken and will continue to take steps to keep China informed about developments in U.S. BMD policy.

Potential Chinese BMD through the Lens of the U.S. Experience

The U.S. experience with BMD and specifically with our Ground-based Midcourse Defense System, or GMD, provides a useful lens for examining the challenges the Chinese would face in developing a BMD capability to threaten our nuclear deterrent.

We have been clear that our homeland BMD capabilities provide for defense of the U.S. homeland from limited ICBM attack, and are purposely not intended to affect Russia’s or China’s strategic deterrent. The GMD system is designed to support that policy, and it is not scaled, intended, or capable of defending the United States against the larger and more sophisticated arsenals of Russia and China. GMD is designed to protect the U.S. homeland only from limited ICBM attacks from states such as North Korea and Iran.

The U.S. experience with BMD suggests that attempting to develop a comprehensive homeland BMD system to defend against ballistic missile attack from China or Russia would be extremely challenging – and costly - given the size and sophistication of Chinese and Russian ICBMs. This owes to several factors, including the relatively low number of GMD interceptors and the sophistication and large numbers of Russian and Chinese missiles.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stated this publically on May 18, 2010, in testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when he said that trying to eliminate the viability of the Russian nuclear capability would be “unbelievably expensive.”

Given these factors, we could potentially expect a notional Chinese equivalent to the GMD system to provide at most a limited defense of the Chinese homeland, which would not counter the U.S. strategic deterrent and therefore would not undermine strategic stability.

This is for the same reason that GMD does not impact strategic stability: the number of interceptors is low and they are not designed to deal with complex threats, and developing a comprehensive system to cope with a full-scale attack from another nuclear-armed great power would be expensive and ultimately unsuccessful.

Relationship to ASAT Testing

There is a another important aspect of China’s BMD program that bears discussing, which is its connection with China’s anti-satellite, or ASAT, weapons program.

On July 23, 2014, the Chinese Government conducted a non-destructive test of a missile designed to destroy satellites in low Earth orbit. However, China publicly called this ASAT test a “land-based missile interception test.”

Despite China’s claims that this was not an ASAT test; let me assure you the United States has high confidence in its assessment, that the event was indeed an ASAT test.

The continued development and testing of destructive ASAT systems is both destabilizing and threatens the long-term security and sustainability of the outer space environment. A previous destructive test of the Chinese system in 2007 created thousands of pieces of debris, which continue to present an ongoing danger to the space systems—as well as astronauts—of all nations, including China.

The destructive nature of debris-generating weapons has decades-long consequences: they can increase the potential for further collisions in the future, which only create more debris. A debris-forming test or attack may only be minutes in duration, but the consequences can last for decades. It is for these reasons that the United States believes testing debris-generating ASAT systems threaten the security, economic well-being, and civil endeavors of all nations.

Space systems and their supporting infrastructures enable a wide range of services, including communication; position, navigation, and timing; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; and meteorology, which provide vital national, military, civil, scientific, and economic benefits. Other nations recognize these benefits to the United States and seek to counter the U.S. strategic advantage by pursuing capabilities to deny or destroy our access to space services.

The use of such ASAT weapons could be escalatory in a crisis.

China’s ASAT program, and the lack of transparency accompanying it, also impedes bilateral space cooperation. While we prefer cooperation, it will by necessity have to be a product of a step-by-step approach starting with dialogue, leading to modest CBMs, which might then perhaps lead to deeper engagement. However, none of this is possible until China changes its behavior with regard to ASATs.


As many of you know, one of my biggest priorities as Assistant Secretary is to look over the horizon a bit and begin to structure our Bureau to address the emerging security challenges of the 21st Century.

For me, that means an increased focus on developing a stable strategic relationship with China, while at the same time reassuring our Allies.

Managing the U.S.-China relationship will take a lot of time and effort, and we won’t always be successful. It’s a challenge. But as Secretary Kerry likes to remind us, it’s important for us to get caught trying, and that’s what we intend to do.

Thanks very much.