China's push to develop intermediate- and medium-range missiles is a growing security concern for nations in Northeast Asia.

Meeting this challenge is among topics being discussed by defense officials of Japan and the United States in the context of increased bilateral cooperation.

Brad Roberts, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy under U.S. President Barack Obama, was asked his views about the effects of China’s missile threat on the bilateral alliance.

As deputy assistant secretary, Roberts also served as policy director of the Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review and Ballistic Missile Defense Review and had lead responsibility for implementing decisions.

Excerpts of the interview follow:

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Question: Looking at the security environment in Northeast Asia, how do you assess the current missile capabilities of China and North Korea?

Brad Roberts: North Korea is improving slowly, but steadily to develop a traditional ballistic missile. I think North Korea is a very long way from having an advanced hypersonic capability. But it's got the capability to reach, of course, all of Japan and probably some or all of the United States. And China has a small force of intercontinental range missiles. But it has a triad (consisting of strategic bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles), which it did not have before. It has a modern command and control system, which it didn't have before. And it's developing an early warning system.

But when it comes to (land-launched) short- and intermediate-range missiles capable of striking Japan and U.S. bases elsewhere in the region, and U.S. forces at sea, the approximate current ratio is that China has approximately 1,900 such missiles and the U.S. has zero.


Q: North Korea’s missile technology is getting more sophisticated, while China is developing its own missile capability. Do you believe the current U.S.-Japan missile defense system is still effective?

A: Yes. It is not reasonable or necessary to ask of our missile defenses that they could defeat every missile launched at us. The value of missile defense is in protecting us from limited strikes. Because very large-scale strikes by North Korea or China would be the beginning point of general war.

They should be deterrable by our capability to fight a general war. But it's the attack with one or two or three, or some small number that's aimed at avoiding general war, that can make missile defense. They know that firing 500 would start a big war. And having missile defense allows us to stand up in time of crisis and not back down. For this, missile defense can remain effective.

Q: Some U.S. and Japanese defense experts contend that Japan needs to consider possessing a conventional strike capability. What is your reaction to that?

A: Historically, the United States has been very reluctant to see its allies acquire significant strike capability. For example, the Tomahawk cruise missile is exported to only one country, Britain. I believe this is changing. And I think it's in American interests to have allies who are capable of defeating A2/AD or helping us to defeat A2/AD (anti-access/area denial strategy of China designed to prevent access by U.S. forces and other adversaries to its particular region or to contest their freedom of operations in the area).

And the willingness of allies to take these risks is good for deterrence. The benefit would be in reducing the confidence of enemy leaders that they could strike Japan or U.S. forces in Japan without the risk of a strong Japanese response.

Secondly, it would send a message to potential enemy leaders that Japan is willing to run risks in time of crisis to defend its shared interest with the United States.

Q: If Japan decides to possess strike capability like Tomahawk and other long-range cruise missiles, how would that impact regional stability and how do you imagine Chinese would respond?

A: Well, we all imagine that the Chinese would respond badly. There are specific Chinese concerns about any step we take together as allies to strengthen our alliance.

So, would there be some instabilities associated with a Japanese pursuit of independent strike capabilities? Yes, of course. These have to be weighed against the instabilities of Japan not pursuing these, and the rising Chinese and North Korean confidence in their ability to separate Japan and the United States from each other in a time of crisis. I think that's the core idea.

Q: In your report, as you pointed out, there could be some risk if Japan decided to follow that course. How do you assess the risk of Japan possessing strike capability?

A: I think it depends on the kind of strike capability. Imagine the possibility that Japan might choose to acquire 100 intercontinental ballistic missiles. Imagine at the other extreme that Japan would choose to develop only one fighter with one long range missile. Two very different force postures. And a Japanese strike force that's primarily capable only against a small North Korean threat would be received differently in the region from a buildup of missiles capable of operating at long-range against targets in China, especially if those missiles were possessed in large numbers.

The design of Japan's strike capability would be a key factor in the regional reactions to it. And closely related of course would be the degree of integration of Japan's strike capabilities with U.S. strike capabilities. I mean, in Europe the fact that NATO coordinates planning for strike operations helps to reduce the concern about any one country having strike capability.

Q: However, in the context of Japan's Constitution and the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, as well as Japan's focus on a protective shield as a purely self-defense posture, should we rely on the U.S. capability of strike as a spear? Do you think we should re-examine that structure? Shield and spear?

A: Well, I think the basic concept is still sound. But some spear would be helpful to deterrence. But a big spear or many spears would be counterproductive. In the Cold War deterrence was all a part of the sword, the spear. And it was provided by the United States. Now the deterrence is something that both Japan and United States look at as something we do together. And this is true. And it calls into question the value of that old way of thinking with a clear differentiation of roles between the defense and the offense.

Our deterrence posture requires that we be stronger in both. And in space and counter-space. And missile defense, is it a tool of offense? We say no. The Chinese say yes, you can hide behind your defense and punch us. In all of these new domains, this simple dividing line between offense and defense is really getting very blurry.


Q: Secretary of Defense Esper said he favors placing a new type of INF-range missile, middle range or short-range missiles in Asia to counter-balance Chinese missile capability. What will become of the strategic stability in East Asia now that the United States has formally withdrawn from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty?

A: In East Asia, as in Europe, we have adversaries who have developed strategies for deterring and defeating the United States and its allies. And a major part of their theory is that they would be able to separate allies from the United States and cripple American power projection, A2/AD.

We are today in a situation of strategic instability. Not just because of the number of intermediate-range forces they deployed, not primarily because of the number, but because they have strategies and they have capabilities that line up with the strategies. And we depend on nuclear deterrence and the risk of a long conventional war to negate their strategies.

But these are not very reliable. Our threat to make a nuclear war in response to a very limited use of missiles in this region is not credible. To your question, we already exist in a situation of instability. If we do nothing about it, it's going to become even more unstable. Missile defense alone does not address all of the instability.

It's an important part of the solution, but not the entire solution. We must have some ability to impose costs and risks. And the INF treaty did not prevent us from doing sea-based or air-delivered capabilities, but it did forbid ground-based. If we were having the option to bring in intermediate range non-nuclear missiles and deploy them on the ground, this would strengthen deterrence in a number of ways and thus reduce instability.

Now, would it be politically popular? No. Do the circumstances exist to do it today politically? No. So my thought is that we should approach this the way we approach the nuclear part of our deterrence, our regional deterrence architecture, which is we have the ability to bring into the region in times of crisis with our dual-capable aircraft and nuclear bombs.

So, we should have the ability in time of crisis to bring into the region INF, non-nuclear, and maybe in the future nuclear in a real crisis. And we should have allies who have committed to accepting those capabilities in time of crisis.

Q: How should U.S.-Japan respond or adjust to the new security circumstances and their posture?

A: We should take the opportunity to strengthen our deterrence posture because right now we're overly reliant on nuclear deterrence and missile defense, which may not be credible (as deterrence) in the scenarios that most concern us. Whereas the threat to use non-nuclear intermediate-range missiles may be credible and effective. But the shortest answer to your question is we should see this as an opportunity to take some useful steps to strength our deterrence posture.


Q: You said the meaning of extended deterrence and strategic stability is changing now, as compared to the status quo that existed with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Could you elaborate on the difference between the situation today and the Cold War?

A: First of all, Russia and China have developed different ideas. The core Cold War ideas were really two. Strategic stability was all about the nuclear relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. And in the nuclear relationship, there were really two possible problems.

One was that one side might believe it could use an arms race to gain a decisive advantage over the other. And the second problem was that one or both sides might build nuclear forces of a kind that might not survive the first attack by the other side. And thus, they might conclude that they would have to go first in a crisis.

So, this is arms race instability and crisis instability. Now Russia and China have introduced a different way of thinking about this. Their argument is that strategic stability relates to the distribution of power in the international system. And the United States is the primary source of strategic instability. Because what we are, in their eyes, what we are trying to do is to gain Absolute Security.

They define this as being the freedom of the United States to attack anybody and the United States being free of attack by anybody. And their view is that so long as they can keep America vulnerable and its allies vulnerable, America won't be tempted to exercise its power. Of course, this is a way of thinking about strategic stability with which we disagree.

Well, America is not seeking Absolute Security as they define it. But if any of us of the three were seeking Absolute Security, that would be dangerous. There are two other important factors in this discussion of strategic stability. One is that we had that old idea that was about a bilateral relationship, but we're moving into a multi-polar world. More complicated. And secondly, the old idea with its focus on nuclear issues has given way to a world in which the nuclear problem remains, but we've got all these other strategic capabilities.

Missile defenses, non-nuclear strike capabilities, cyberspace, outer space, artificial intelligence. All of that affect strategic stability, but we're not yet sure how.

Q: The United States founded its Extended Deterrence Dialogue with Japan in 2013. I believe you played a great role in that. What was the background or motivation of creating EDD, Extended Deterrence Dialogue?

A: There were two primary motivations. One was the 2009 Nuclear Posture Review process, in which we conducted international consultations with all interested stakeholders. And I conducted more than 70 such meetings. But some of the most substantive and important were with the government of Japan. And we mutually concluded that continuing would be beneficial.
So, the second factor was we then looked around and discovered that there really was no mechanism to continue this kind of dialogue. In the U.S. transatlantic relationship, we have inside NATO the Nuclear Planning Group. And it is supported by the High-Level Group. The Nuclear Planning Group consists of defense ministers, so the High-Level Group is a lower level.

And there was no such institution in the U.S.-Japan alliance, so we had to create one. The Nuclear Posture Review report reflected the judgment of President Obama and the rest of the administration that it was necessary to strengthen extended deterrence. We all agreed, we and the interested U.S. allies, all agreed that there was a need to strengthen extended deterrence.

And this was because of developments in the external environment, North Korea, China, Russia. The focus of discussion was less on a deficit than on opportunities to strengthen extended deterrence. In the dialogue we, the Obama administration and our Japanese counterparts, wanted also to promote a stable strategic relationship with China.


Q: When we talk about countering China on nuclear deterrence, I heard the term “stability-instability dilemma.” Could you explain that?

A: Stability-instability paradox is much the same as security dilemma. You take steps to improve stability by strengthening your position and you end up in a less stable situation. Well, where this idea came from was South Asia where we observed India and Pakistan both acquiring nuclear weapons. And then what happened, they both felt confident enough to start regional conventional wars because they believed that they could prevent the other side from escalating.

And a more stable relationship between them at the nuclear level produced instability below the nuclear level. And this is the big debate about China's nuclear modernization. Is it simply going to produce a more safe and secure China that is willing to reduce tensions or is it going to embolden China to do new things at the conventional level?

And the evidence so far is that a China with more confidence in its nuclear deterrence is also more willing to press for advantage in the gray zone.

Q: At the conventional level, how do you estimate the current Chinese military capability?

A: I think China has gained confidence through its nuclear modernization program that the United States will not be able to strike first and eliminate, so China has a credible threat to retaliate through nuclear means. Now the problem with this argument is that China also has improving conventional forces. And China also perceives a moment of political weakness between the United States and its allies, and thus the ability to drive a wedge. It may be that a more assertive China right now has nothing to do with this nuclear posture. We don't know.

Q: How about in the context of North Korea?

A: Well, it's the same basic question. This is our deep fear that a North Korea that's become confident in its nuclear deterrent will return to conventional provocations such as we saw in 2010. And perhaps even more destructive in an effort to create the political conditions to achieve a political settlement on the peninsula that it would prefer.

Kim Jong Un is a revolutionary actor who wants to change the power arrangements on the Korean Peninsula. And he seems interested in nuclear weapons not just for self-defense but for something more.

Q: When you were in the Pentagon, what did you discuss about the stability-instability paradox with your Japanese counterparts, especially in the context of concerns the Japanese side expressed?

A: Well, I don't want to give away the details of government discussions. But in the extended deterrence dialogue, we had very wide-ranging discussions about the security environment and emerging deterrence challenges. Policymakers don't really speak the language of academics. A few of us spoke about the security dilemma and the stability-instability paradox.

But mostly we spoke about the developments in North Korea and China, their possible implications for our security, and the actions we should take to preserve our security and try to encourage them to make choices that would be better for all of us.


Q: Pope Francis came to Japan last year. And our media reported that the pope said not only using but even possessing nuclear weapons is immoral during his stay in Japan. From a realistic perspective or a strategic perspective, what's your response to his criticism on nuclear deterrence?

A: Well, from a moral perspective, he raises the same moral question that the disarmers raise. The use of nuclear weapons, again, would be immoral. And thus, the threat to do so must be immoral. And the possession of them to support the threat must be immoral. This is a very clear moral logic with which I disagree.

Of course, it's the case that the employment of these weapons was a humanitarian tragedy and a moral tragedy, as it would be again. But how can it be immoral to greatly reduce the risk of war among major powers? And if war occurs, to be able to save lives in the millions? I think deterrence does have a moral value. And if I believe that we could replace nuclear deterrence with conventional deterrence, then I would support his moral argument.

But conventional weapons alone cannot replace the deterrence effects of nuclear weapons. And the Japanese people should understand that there is a deep moral discussion about nuclear weapons.

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Brad Roberts is director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s Center for Global Security Research.