A Waste of Time and MoneyComments
Last month, Jack Hitt had a fabulous article on missile defense in Rolling Stone. The article pretty much reaffirmed what I already believed; missile defense probably won’t work, and if it does work (in a technical sense) it won’t accomplish any strategic or political objective. Hitt:
Having abandoned its superpower mission, the shield has morphed under Donald Rumsfeld into an all-purpose defense for the Age of Terrorism. For the last few years, the Bush administration has promoted the shield as protection against rogue states like North Korea and Iran. But the State Department recently reached a diplomatic agreement with North Korea that would eliminate its nuclear weapons program, and Iran is years away from developing nuclear capabilities. So whose warheads will the shield protect us from? In August, during a lecture at a missile defense convention, one proponent of the system suggested the possibility of a new ballistic threat from a country that currently possesses no missiles: Venezuela.
Hitt has a lot of detail on the technical difficulties associated with the system, and of the absurdity of claiming that the defense is “up and running” when the bulk of the systems have never been tested in anything approaching real world combat conditions. Still, I’m inclined to think that if enough time and money are devoted to the technical problems, a certain kind of success can be achieved. It’s likely that, eventually, we’ll have a system that is reliable capable of shooting down most ballistic missiles fired at the United States. Even that’s not a sure thing; countries interested in having a capability for firing missiles at the United States are already working on methods for defeating, bypassing, or overwhelming the system. But even if we allow that a missile fired by an aggressor at the United States would be shot down most of the time, it’s worth considering just how little that means.
The utility of a missile defense system has to be evaluated based on its value added over a basic deterrent posture. At least one reason (and not the only reason) that nobody launches missiles at us now is that we would respond by destroying the offending state. The missile defense assumes that deterrence will fail, but its advocates offer no compelling reason for why it would fail; apart from indefensible claims about the suicidal tendencies of the North Korean or Iranian leadership, or very tendentious arguments about terrorists acquiring ICBMs (seriously, if Al Qaeda had a nuke, why would they bother to put it on an ICBM?), there’s just not much there. The most sensible case is the “hostage” argument; North Korea might invade the South, then attempt to deter US intervention by aiming a nuke at the West Coast. It’s the best argument they have, but it doesn’t amount to much; it still requires the North Korean (or Iranian, or whomever) leadership to be suicidal. But even if the argument were compelling, the missile defense would have to be 100% effective; what President would act if she seriously believed that there was a 10% chance an American city would be destroyed?
Why doesn’t this seem to matter to missile defense proponents? One reason is that the argument is kind of dense; it’s easy to tell people that they’re being protected and leave it at that. Another is that (as Hitt describes) a massive industrial infrastructure has developed around missile defense, employing workers and pouring money into states and districts all across the country. A third is ideological; Ronald Reagan favored missile defense, and it has become an article of faith among conservatives that one is needed, even if no other sensible argument can be martialed in its favor. The consequence is that much time and money will be wasted in an effort that’s likely to lead to an earlier expansion and modernization of the Chinese and Russian nuclear arsenals.
Cross-posted to TAPPED.