« The Democratization of the Academy | Main | Reality Distortion Fields »

January 19, 2005

On Missile Defense (part I)

During the summer of 2001, I became extremely interested in the debate over National Missile Defense, formerly known as Star Wars, that was being mentioned with some frequency ("non-debate" is a better description - the US media continues to believe that Americans cannot digest sophisticated arguments and instead relies on posturing, implication and punditry in lieu of more inspirational reporting). In response to these, and my complete ignorance on the topic, I set out to understand the issue.

This entry contains the first of those articles, a historical perspective on the US's interest in national (as opposed to theatre) missile defense. Note that this article was written before September 11th, 2001. Given the Bush administrations recent backing-off of their promise to have a fully functional NMD in place by the beginning of 2005, but the military's continued love affair with the delusion of safety from ICBMs and insistent on Bush-style insanity, this article remains both relevant and important today.

Holding a loaded gun : Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D.)

With the development of the nuclear bomb during WWII, the international stage took its first step into a new paradigm of unparalleled potential for destruction. Douglas Hofstadter, writing in 1985 [2], provides an illustrative example by Jim Geier and Sharyl Green, comparing the total destructive force of WWII with the force in 1981:

In a grid 11 x 11 squares, each square, save for the center one, has 50 dots in it; the center square has one dot. That center square represents the entire destructive power of World War II: 3 megatons (if translated into terms of nuclear warheads). The rest of the grid (120 squares, each with 50 dots) represents the destructive power of the world nuclear power in 1981: 18,000 megatons.

In Hofstadter's example, we note that in 1981 the world destructive power was 6,000 times (almost 4 orders of magnitude) that of WWII. The arsenal today is even larger. A recent Newsweek article [3] reports that the US alone has more than 18,820 nuclear warheads (each capped with perhaps tens of megatons), while the rest of the world clocks in perhaps half of that, including Russia's deteriorating complement. All in all, today's total destructive power, and the M.A.D. strategy [4], ensures that were nuclear war to happen, humans have the capability to destroy the world population an estimated 94 times over.

Putting the US destructive capability into perspective, although they have eighteen of them currently in service, a single American Ohio class submarine [5], with its complement of 192 warheads, could destroy most of Russia's population centers.

Building a bigger gun

As is universally known, much of the world's nuclear armament was developed during the Cold War, when the Soviet and American militaries perceived that an opponent with a greater arsenal would be a threat to the national defensibility. Thus, the historic arms race.

Yet even while the tit-for-tat arms race was continuing, the world's powers recognized the destructive potential being developed. Beginning in 1963, with the Limited Test Ban Treaty [6], 108 (about half) of the world's nations began negotiating several key treaties to limit the proliferation of nuclear arms, and established the M.A.D. paradigm as the chief deterrent for use of nuclear weapons. Although the treaties were essentially an honor code agreement that nations would not pursue the development of nuclear arsenals (if they did not already have them, which limited the nuclear powers to mostly western nations), the code has become the accepted paradigm for balancing nuclear power. In recent years, that code has been hedged (most notably by Pakistan and India), primarily by eastern nations wanting the status and respect accorded a nuclear power.

The nuclear arms situation in the Cold War can be thought of as a Mexican Standoff, in which two men, both armed with loaded guns or un-pinned hand-grenades, are forced to share a confined space (Earth). Regardless of niceties, spats or any desire to break out the can of whoop-ass, both recognize their own mortality, and thus they do nothing with their lethal weapons. Self-preservation rules this day.

Other people occupy the room as well (the rest of the world), and most of them tend to divide themselves into two groups: the East-side, and the West-side gangs. Conflict naturally arises between the two gangs, but self-preservation still keeps the lethal weapons out of play. Much posturing and many displays of strength, but generally, no one gets terribly hurt.

The gentleman's agreement

The 1972 ABM Treaty [1], an agreement between the USA and the USSR, restricts both nations' development of defenses against nuclear missiles (ballistic missiles). The treaty insured that M.A.D. would continue to deter the use of nuclear weapons. Specifically, the USA and the USSR agreed that neither would build a missile defense system which would protect the entire nation against the other's attacks. It did allow for the construction of small-scale missile defense in two agreed-upon locations (restricted to one in 1976) in each nation where a local missile defense could be constructed.

In our model of the nuclear balance, the ABM Treaty is an agreement between our two lethally-armed men to not develop Kevlar, bullet-proof vests or whatever which would fully protect against the other's weapons. The minor allowances for 'partial' defense amounted to allowing each man to wear a bullet-proof helmet; this maintains the standoff, while affording a small degree of protection for a vital organ.

While the Soviets elected to build a missile defense system around Moscow, the Americans deactivated their system at Great Forks, North Dakota in 1976 [1].

A second gentleman's agreement, in the form of the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), divided the world into nuclear and non-nuclear countries, and required countries in different categories to not share nuclear arms-related information or resources with each other; thus, the NPT is the honor code that maintains the steady-state of the nuclear landscape. As of early 2000, it had been signed by all but four of the worlds nations (Cuba, Israel, India and Pakistan). Additionally, the Middle East was agreed to be a nuclear-free zone under a recent Treaty resolution [7].

The 'missile defense' trump

The balance of nuclear power in the world today was almost entirely determined by the development of nuclear power in the United States and the Soviet Union, who hold perhaps 90% of world's nuclear power, with the remaining 10% largely held by Europe. The Cold War, with its West (Us) vs. East (Them) mentality, is responsible for the current distribution of nuclear power. Both the US and the USSR nuclear strategies were designed with this simple bi-polar nuclear threat in mind.

As evidenced by national security documents in the Eisenhower administration, the United States has always been uneasy with the nuclear standoff [8]. There began the discussion about a national missile defense, although the primary goal was still to amass the larger arsenal. Still, there appeared never to be a commitment to the ABM Treaty for an indefinite period of time - rather, both the US and the USSR felt it a necessity of diplomacy until a time came when a full missile defense system could be put in place. That time never came for the Soviet Union as its economic and political turmoil was, in the end, the greater enemy.

In 1982, Reagan, still deep within the Cold War mentality, announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which included the much-lambasted Star Wars space-based interceptors [9]. This initiative was partially in response to the Soviet's cutting corners with the ABM Treaty, deploying a forbidden radar system. Reagan wanted to make nuclear missiles "obsolete" by creating a global missile defense system and breaking with the ABM Treaty.

The end of the old paradigm

SDI never came to fruition, and in 1993, the unnecessary program was abandoned as a result of the demise of the Soviet Union and the apparent ending of the bi-polar paradigm. However, the Clinton administration continued funding anti-ballistic missile research, transmogrifying SDI into a less research-based program called the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO) [10].

There are three types of missile defense: global missile defense (Star Wars/SDI), theater missile defense (Patriot missiles) and national missile defense (protecting a nation's people alone). The latter two were to be the primary goals of the Clinton Administration's BMDO. SDI was designed to resist a full surprise attack from the Soviet Union, now a quite unlikely event. Theater and national missile defense are envisioned to protect against smaller nuclear/missile forces, such as those in nations unfriendly to the West (Pakistan, India, Iraq, etc.). Most notably, the Patriot missile defense system was used to protect UN troops during the Gulf War of 1990. The Bush administration has not raised the NMD program from the corpse of SDI, but has actually just 'fast-tracked' a Clinton-era program.

With the deterioration of the Soviet Union as a world super-power, the United States (along with its allies) has been placed unopposed at the top of the heap. It's scary at the top, too - everyone else (who is not at the top) is probably not being entirely honest with you, and possibly plotting to take your place. One might develop a healthy sense of paranoia, as a result. In the world stage, this is perhaps more true, as international politics can be even messier than the mud-fights in American politics.

The new paradigm

In the Newsweek article, the Bush Administration claimed that "Missile defense is intended not to de-fang Russia but to deter rogue states (Ed. North Korea, Iran, Iraq, etc.) from trying to blackmail the United States with a nuclear-tipped rocket or two." But how much of a threat are such rogue states? And is upsetting the current balance of nuclear power an acceptable consequence for the development of such a system, trashing the ABM Treaty in the process?

The Carnagie Non-Proliferation Project [11] projects that 34 world countries either have or are developing ballistic missile capability. While not all of them are nuclear-capable, they still complicate the Mexican stand-off situation.

In our simple model, instead of simply a pair of men, we have close to two dozen, each carrying a weapon (gun, grenade, french-tickler). We still have our West-side and East-side gangs as well, although they're slightly less well-defined now. For the West-side gang-leader (that would be the US), the possibility of one of the other people in the room breaking the nuclear honor code and launching a snipe attack is maddening. The comfort of the bi-polar, black and white, world of the Cold War has been replaced with the complicated reality of a more democratic world stage. Additionally, with the East-side gang disassociating, it is possible that a single agent in the room might decide to be stupid, procure or develop a lethal weapon and attempt to use it.

How much threat?

Perhaps a NMD is warranted, if only to sooth the paranoia of the United States, and to protect itself in the uncertain post-Cold War nuclear landscape. However, before accepting the argument that rogue states warrant a NMD, some significant questions must be answered:

1. How will a US NMD change the international nuclear playing-field?

2. What constitutes a rogue state?3. Do any states of concern currently have both nuclear warheads and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) technology (both required to nuke the US)?

4. Do any states of concern have the potential of developing/acquiring both technologies?

5. How do current NMD technologies perform against ICBMs with standard standard counter-measures.

6. Would deploying a NMD deter rogue states from nuking the US?

7. What alternatives to a NMD are there for preventing a rogue nation from nuking the US?

© July 2001, Aaron Clauset


[1] Anti-Ballistic Missle Treaty (1972) http://www.fas.org/nuke/control/abmt/

[2] Metamagical Themas, by Douglas Hofstadter. ©1981

[3] "Dropping the Bomb", Newsweek © 2001 http://www.msnbc.com/news/588538.asp?cp1=1

[4] Mutually Assured Destruction http://www.uwec.edu/petersgd/research/MPSA00.html

In the 1983 movie entitled "War Games" [a] explained the danger of the M.A.D. strategy by showing that an artificial intelligence could understand the futility of the zero-sum game of nuclear war - i.e. that for me to win, you must lose. With nuclear war, however, the sum becomes negative as both sides actually lose, hence the mutual assurance of destruction.

[5] Ohio class ballistic submarine, United States Navy http://www.chinfo.navy.mil/navpalib/factfile/ships/ship-ssbn.html

[6] Limited Test Ban Treaty (1963) http://www.fas.org/nuke/control/ltbt/

[7] Non-Proliferation Treaty (1968) http://www.fas.org/nuke/control/npt/index.html

[8] National Security Policy: Eisenhower Administration http://www.fas.org/spp/starwars/offdocs/ike/index.html

[9] Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), early version http://www.fas.org/nuke/space/c06sdi_1.htm

[10] The Rise and Fall of SDI, by Alex Tonello (1997) http://members.tripod.com/~atonello/sdi.htm

[11] Carnagie Non-Proliferation Project http://www.ceip.org/files/projects/npp/resources/ballisticmissilechart.htm

[a] "War Games", directed by John Badham (1983) http://us.imdb.com/Title?0086567

posted January 19, 2005 09:00 AM in Political Wonk | permalink