The quest to escape from deterrence is as old as deterrence itself. Donald Trump unveiled the latest chapter of this recurring saga at the Pentagon on Thursday, where he declared, “Our goal is simple: to ensure that we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States — anywhere, anytime, anyplace.” This is a daunting ambition. A perfect defense against outliers like North Korea and Iran that have limited missile capabilities is hard enough; defending against major powers like Russia and China isn’t achievable.
But this won’t stop them from doing more. Trump has thrown down the gauntlet. Russia’s and China’s missile modernization programs predate Trump’s challenge in the form of new missiles carrying multiple warheads, advanced cruise missiles, and hypersonic missile/glide vehicles. Even ineffective missile defense programs can succeed at one thing: increasing the perceived need to do more to counter them.