Nuclear Pacific: Ballistic Missile Defenses Drive an Arms Race in the Pacific


American military leaders’ argument is simple: Pacific adversaries (particularly North Korea) have large and growing ballistic missile arsenals. To combat this threat, the United States should invest heavily in technology to destroy incoming missiles, rendering US assets immune to the impacts of a ballistic missile fusillade. 

In recent years, the United States has proved that two deployed missile defense systems can intercept intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) targets. One involves interceptors launched from US soil and the other from US Navy vessels. Though investing in long-range ballistic missile defenses to protect against North Korean attacks might appear prudent, this approach has expansive repercussions. 

As with any global strategic actions, American military investments beget international responses. Faced with American defenses that limit the viability of strategic weapons, Russia and China are choosing to build more advanced missiles in greater numbers. Though hawkish military officials and politicians insist that ICBM defense systems are a necessary form of protection, they may raise the risk of a catastrophic conflict.

At 7:50 pm Hawaii time on November 16, 2020, a simulated ICBM roared to life at the US base on the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. [1] As the missile arced toward the open ocean northeast of Hawaii, the destroyer USS John Finn launched an SM-3 Block IIA interceptor, designed to destroy ballistic missiles in exo-atmospheric flight using “hit to kill” technology. [2] According to the U.S. Missile Defense Agency and US Navy, the interceptor struck and eliminated the “threat representative” target. [3] The test was a complete success. Though this test, dubbed FTM-44, was the third successful American test against ICBM targets, it opened a Pandora’s box of sorts. The previous two tests against ICBM targets occurred in May 2017 and March 2019. [4] These exercises demonstrated the viability of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, which involves launching interceptors from bases in California and Alaska. FTM-44, however, showed for the first time the viability of sea-mobile ICBM defenses. 

FTM-44 was a congressionally mandated test planned after North Korea revealed significant ICBM advancements in 2017. According to American military planners, the sole purpose of the Pacific interceptors is to counter North Korea. The target used in FTM-44 likely possessed few of the countermeasures employed in advanced, contemporary missiles, such as multiple warheads, chaff, and decoys. [5] Still, the move was viewed as a major escalation by North Korea, Russia, and China. Even if US and NATO ballistic missile defense systems remain focused on Iran and North Korea, Russia and China are concerned their strategic position will weaken. Both nations fear that a substantial increase in the capability of US ballistic missile defense technology will threaten their ability to retaliate with nuclear weapons after an attack, granting the United States a major first-strike advantage. [6]

Planning based on worst-case scenarios, US adversaries will now assume that any American destroyer equipped with the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System (which launches the SM-3) has the capability to defeat ICBMs, including nuclear weapons. While the 44 GMD interceptors deployed in California and Alaska previously served as the sole US counter-ICBM threat, the introduction of a sea-based anti-ICBM system will undoubtedly usurp international focus.

American ballistic missile defense has not developed in a vacuum. Chinese experts often cite the development of US missile defenses as the largest driver behind China’s nuclear modernization efforts. [7] Russia has also adapted its strategy. In March 2018, Vladimir Putin announced an entire new generation of missiles designed specifically to evade US strategic defenses. [8]

As the pace of Chinese and Russia ICBM development and deployment quickly outpaces the expansion of US ballistic missile defenses, increasing American investments serve to spur an arms race. By 2023, the United States plans to deploy a total of 48 SM-3 Block IIA interceptors and 64 ground-based interceptors for GMD, a total of 112 counter-ICBM capable missiles. [9] 

This might greatly limit the effectiveness of North Korean attacks—the nation was estimated in January 2020 to possess 30-40 nuclear warheads. [10] Nonetheless, the quantity of interceptors pales in comparison to the expanding nuclear inventories of China and Russia, which possess totals of 320 and 6,375 warheads respectively. [11] The Department of Defense estimates that China will add 200 warheads to ICBMs in the next five years. [12] So long as the United States continues to invest in ballistic missile defenses, these nations will aggressively develop technologies to defeat these systems.

Despite the impending arms race fomented by the deployment of US counter-ICBM technology, hawks in Congress and the military have continued to push for the expansion of the programs, shirking calls for international strategic dialogues. In 2019, former National Security Advisor John Bolton cited China as a key reason for counter-ICBM technology development. [13] Current officials like Admiral Phil Davidson, the commander of US forces in the Pacific, have urged Congress to install ballistic missile defense systems in Guam to counter China’s intermediate-range nuclear and conventional ballistic missiles. [14] Besides the risk of worsening the arms race, this option appears impractical given that China possesses approximately 200 DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) launchers alone, around 120 of which were fielded between 2019 and 2020. [15] US ballistic missile defense deployment is growing at a fraction of that pace. The installation of counter-ICBM and IRBM systems in Guam would have little effect on mitigating the damage of a ballistic missile attack. 

As Ankit Panda of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace notes, “the consequences of the technical demonstration in FTM-44 will be challenging to reverse. This genie has left the bottle and the consequences for future arms control and strategic stability will be significant.” [16] 

At the very least, American leaders should strongly consider the effects of ballistic missile defense deployment in spurring arms races across the Pacific. Demonstrated American counter-ICBM capabilities will undoubtedly factor into future Indo-Pacific decision-making. A critical Cold War treaty—the 1972 to 2002 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty—dealt with the very issue of anti-ballistic missile escalation. Leaders recognized that defenses against strategic missiles could provoke an arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union which could lead to a first strike against the nation fielding stronger defensive systems. Thus, the nations agreed to limit the number of anti-ballistic missiles each deployed. 

Though today’s geopolitical landscape is vastly different than that of the Cold War, the United States should engage in dialogues with China and Russia about strategic missile defenses. Russia and China “have made little secret of their interest in addressing U.S. homeland missile defense capabilities in future arms control negotiations or dialogues on strategic stability.” [17] The United States has not always taken these concerns in good faith and continued to pursue ballistic missile defense as a core priority. Especially in the wake of FTM-44, American leaders should rethink this approach. Charging unilaterally into an arms race will not serve American interests.


[1] “U.S. Successfully Conducts SM-3 Block IIA Intercept Test Against an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Target,” United States Department of Defense, September 17, 2020,

[2] Ankit Panda, “A New U.S. Missile Defense Test May Have Increased the Risk of Nuclear War,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, November 19, 2020,

[3] “U.S. Successfully Conducts SM-3 Block IIA Intercept Test Against an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Target.”

[4] Jen Judson, “Homeland Missile Defense System Takes Out ICBM Threat in Historic Salvo Test,” Defense News, March 25, 2019,

[5] Panda, “A New U.S. Missile Defense Test May Have Increased the Risk of Nuclear War.”

[6] Panda, “A New U.S. Missile Defense Test May Have Increased the Risk of Nuclear War.”

[7] “How Is China Responding to U.S. Missile Defense? – Narrowing the U.S.-China Gap on Missile Defense: How to Help Forestall a Nuclear Arms Race,” Carnegie-Tsinghua Center, June 29, 2020,

[8] Stephen J Cimbala and Adam Lowther, “Putin and Missile Defense Malaise: Broadening US Options,” The Air Force Journal of European, Middle Eastern, and African Affairs, Summer 2020, 4.

[9] Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) Program: Background and Issues for Congress” (Congressional Research Service, February 6, 2019), 7; “Current U.S. Missile Defense Programs at a Glance,” Arms Control Association, August 2019,

[10] Shannon N. Kile and Hans M. Kristensen, “World Nuclear Forces” (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2020),

[11] Kile and Kristensen, “World Nuclear Forces.”

[12] “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020” (United States Department of Defense, August 21, 2020), 166,

[13] Ankit Panda, “Bolton: China Is One Reason US ‘Looking at Strengthening National Missile Defense,’” The Diplomat, March 19, 2019,

[14] “Statement of Admiral Philip S. Davidson Before the Senate Armed Services Committee on U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Posture,” September 3, 2021, 5,

[15] “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020,” 166; “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2019” (United States Department of Defense, May 2, 2019), 117,

[16] Panda, “A New U.S. Missile Defense Test May Have Increased the Risk of Nuclear War.”

[17] Panda, “A New U.S. Missile Defense Test May Have Increased the Risk of Nuclear War.”