« The Dark Underbelly | Main | On being interdisciplinary »

January 28, 2005

On Missile Defense (part II)

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.

The extension of this entry contains the second of those articles, a discussion of the merits of the US's current attempt to create a working national (as opposed to theatre) missile defense. Note that this article was written before September 11th, 2001.

Flirting with disaster

The American plan for buildinga national missile defense (NMD) system to protect the American people and our allies from nuclear and biochemically equipped ballistic missiles is a frightening flirtation with disaster, and the plan will surely shift the paradigm of nuclear safety world-wide. Standing in the way of any new system is the 1972 Russian-American Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty [1] which has played a central role in defining the current era of nuclear arms control by cementing deterrence, the policy ofmutually assured destruction, as the primary defense against nuclear and biochemical conflict.

The mainstream media has covered the Bush administration's speedy steps toward missile defense quite faithfully. However, they completely fail to describe the government policy of recent years which set the stage for the today's controversy. They have also largely ignored the nagging, and important question about what is truly at stake with the NMD plan, and whether it is the best way of achieving the goal of American security. How will having a missile defense system upset the tenuous international balance of power? Why is the Bush administration putting the NMD on a fast-track? And will the NMD truly protect the United States against the much touted 'rogue nations'? What alternatives are available to the NMD?

The importance of history

Before we can understand what the consequences of the new nuclear-arms paradigm, it is critical to understand the current one, and why nations are reluctant to leave it. See my historical perspective.

Treading on dangerous ground

In a world with multiple nuclear powers and an entrenched policy of deterrence, there are two principle dangers associated with a nation building a national missile defense, functional or not. (For this argument, we'll largely focus only on the nuclear threat, world-wide still the primary weapon of mass destruction, but bio-chemical agents may replace the warhead's payload. In terms of analysis, there is only a small difference between the two in the overall impact to international stability.)

First, having a NMD reduces the danger of engaging in a small-scale nuclear conflict as perceived by the nation bearing the shield. With the ability to neutralize a small volley of warheads, such a nation would have the prerogative to involve itself in conflicts which it previously avoided due to nuclear deterrence. It also reduces the importance of international diplomacy as the primary mechanism for maintaining a balanced and stable nuclear playing field. As has been shown in automobile driving, when a driver has more safety features protecting him, he tends to take more risks - that human risk-taking occurs within a well-defined 'comfort zone' [12] and installing safety measures widens the range of danger with which the driver is comfortable. Nuclear arms, in some sense, are nothing more than driving at the international level: by intentionally keeping everyone's comfort zones at a minimum, everyone drives a little more safely.

Second, with one nation possessing a national missile defense, all other nations with nuclear capability, and especially those who desire that ability, are encouraged to escalate their nuclear arms programs to surpass/overwhelm said missile shield. Technologically, it is significantly easier to make a missile harder to hit, than it is to get better at hitting them (e.g. hitting an ICBM is harder than trying to shoot a bullet out of the air with another gun). As early as 1983, when SDI was announced, the American military recognized that implementing any anti-ballistic missile system would likely provoke a technological competition of counter- vs. counter-counter-measures [11], so why is it suddenly acceptable to enter into a new world-wide arms-race?

Arms-races themselves are circular in nature. Because all nations resist an un-level playing field, any new weapon which gives a single player or group of players a distinct advantage obligates others to re-level the playing field by developing counter-measures which eliminate the advantage. Nuclear arms have been the single exception to this rule of war, most significantly because of the gentlemen's agreements embodied in the ABM [1] and NPT [7] Treaties. Why? Because a nation who does not recognize the danger of nuclear conflict will not be around very long to learn from the experience. Particularly with regard to the US's arms stockpile, any nation engaging in a nuclear exchange would be completely wiped from the face of the planet.

Thus, in a world balanced by the threat of nuclear retaliation (M.A.D.), peace is maintained by appealing to the human instinct of self-preservation. This reliance worked throughout the bi-polar Cold War, but in the new multi-polar world, doubt has been raised as to whether all nuclear, and more particularly, ballistic missile-enabled states will continue to work within this uncomfortable, but life-preserving peace.

Rogue states

The Clinton administration BMDO's 1993 charter actually called for it to develop and acquire missile defense systems for theater and national defense. It was thought that the delicate balance of nuclear deterrence would be easily toppled by an accidental launch or by an irrational nuclear-capable 'rogue' state [13]. This uncomfortable potential for the current Mexican standoff to be broken unexpectedly has been the keystone argument in justifying renewed attempts at developing a missile defense.

Imagine, for instance, if the Afganistan Taliban and/or Osama bin-Ladin became nuclear- and ICBM-capable (both required to nuke US soil). The United States government has been terrified for the past decade that the threat of all-out nuclear retaliation would not prevent such extremist groups from using their new-found nuclear power.

Before accepting this conjecture, we must ask what exactly constitutes a 'rogue' state? So far, the US government has only supplied examples: North Korea, Iran and Iraq. Other lesser threats include Libya, Syria, Cuba and Sudan [14]. A cynical appraisal measure's a nation's 'rogueness' by how little influence the U.S. holds in said nation. Said another way, rogue nations simply don't respect the US dominance in the world theater. Let us simply call them 'unfriendly' states, whose national interests conflict with the United States' national interests.

In 1993, however, there were no unfriendly states capable of launching a nuke-enabled ICBM that would reach US soil, nor did any appear to be able to develop such technology in the near future. In the CIA's 1995 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) report estimated that within a 10 - 15 year period, there might develop one such agent [13]. Did that agent materialize? The Clinton administration was in charge for 8 years - why did it not pursue the NMD vigorously within the established time table and negotiate the appropriate changes to the ABM Treaty in preparation for its deployment in anticipation of a rogue state becoming nuclear? Clinton, it seemed, was uncomfortable with acquiescing to the Congressional hawks who had been calling for a NMD since the 1970s. Rather, he preferred diplomacy and continued arms-reduction as an arms policy.

Enter Donald Rumsfeld

In response to the NIE report, US Congressional Republicans, convinced that the danger was much closer than 2005 - 2010, created a 1998 bi-partisan commission, chaired by then former Secretary of Defense (under Gerald Ford) Donald Rumsfeld to file a more thorough report on the danger to US soil by ballistic missiles. The Rumsfeld Commission's report has become the guiding document for US NMD policy, and it doesn't seem to be a coincidence that Rumsfeld has returned as Bush Jr.'s Secretary of Defense.

The report's critical finding was that an unfriendly nation could, via in-house development and, more importantly, international assistance, become nuclear- and ICBM-capable in just 5 years. Additionally, such a nation could do this largely undetected by conventional US intelligence [14]. The report did not, however, advocate a NMD as a solution as it did not analyze any options of addressing the shortened time-table for nuclear proliferation.

Because of the Rumsfeld report and the uncertainty it indicated about the future nuclear landscape, Clinton reluctantly began to put more money behind the BMDO but refrained from making a decision about actual deployment. However, Clinton's preferred method of national security was diplomacy, not military power. In a world more economically interdependent, and more (internationally) democratic than that of the Cold War, military power is perhaps not as reliable a strategy was formerly true. Diplomacy, certainly, is a more reliable method of maintaining a status quo.

The Status Quo?

The NPT Treaty was intended to keep the division between nuclear and non-nuclear nations fixed. The US, Russia, China, Britain and France are the de facto nuclear powers (as in 1968 with the treaty's creation), and all but four other world nations have agreed to preserve that order. Lately, however, the Rumsfeld report claims that the NPT is failing. Isreal, Pakistan and India, three of the four nations who hadn't signed the treaty by 2000, are now all nuclear-able, in part because of systems and knowledge acquired from China and Russia in violation of the NPT [14].

However, Isreal, Pakistan and India are not classified as unfriendly nations. North Korea, Iraq and Iran, are implicated as principles in unbalancing the nuclear peace. What are their capabilities with and intentions for ballistic technology?

Iraq has apparently acquired some forbidden weapons materials, and is certainly a potential future aggressor, but for now is a minor threat with international weapons inspections and economic sanctions. North Korea, with its Taepo Dong-2 ballistic missile however, is capable of hitting US soil in Haiwaii and Alaska. North Korea has the greatest potential of acquiring the ability to target a larger portion of US soil in the future, too. You can imagine that the term 'rogue states' now primarily refers to North Korea.

But North Korea and Iran have both recently both become more amenable to the West, which in turn may reduce their potential for future ballistic aggression. Despite the Rumsfeld report's worst-case scenario time-table of 5 years between a foreign country's desire for and deployment of ICBM technology, the 1998 CIA response to the Rumsfeld report, and events to date, indicate that North Korea's BM program has followed a longer, by 5-10 years, schedule than the worst-case [15].

So why the continued parade about the danger of rogue states? The Rumsfeld report's description of the danger relies heavily upon playing up the 'uncertain transitions' within Russia, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Iran. By their measure, that uncertainty is uncomfortable because ballistic/nuclear systems, materials and/or knowledge is less well-controlled. To put it perhaps bluntly, the West is sane and stable, but everyone else might possibly become irrational and suicidal in the future. Additionally, China and Russia are implicated as major instigators of nuclear proliferation by allowing their systems and knowledge to be purchased on the international market [14]. The politicians, mostly Republican, concluded this situation necessitates a NMD for continued US security.

Full-speed ahead

In 2000, Clinton said he would make an executive decision regarding the deployment of an American NMD based on four criteria: the threat, the cost, the impact on U.S.-Russian nuclear arms reductions, and whether the system works [16]. Clinton decided against deployment under those criteria; however, Bush has stated (guided by Mr. Rumsfeld himself, now the Secretary of Defense again) that he plans to move ahead with NMD based merely upon the first criteria: the threat [3]. Politically, this kind of unilateral action will do nothing more than cement the growing international opinion of the US as an arrogant bully who believes that normal modes of diplomacy are subordinate to US security. Part of this disregard for the international court is linked to the Republican's desire to retain for the US options and flexibility for an uncertain future.

Dr. Richard Garwin, a member of the Rumsfeld Commission and an advisor to the US government for over 50 years on nuclear-arms matters, notes that the current US NMD is not scaled with respect to a threat from North Korea, but rather a threat from China [17]. Why is that? In his analysis, the NMD will prompt China to more quickly modernize its nuclear weapons, deploying them on mobile, sea-based launch vehicles so as to circumvent the US NMD. This fact complicates the apparent motivation for the NMD significantly. It would seem that China is worrying the US a little more than the US would like to admit. Additionally, it hits right upon the fundamental flaw of any NMD - the arms escalation and relative easy with which a nation so intent can circumvent the shield.

The path not taken

The Rumsfeld Commission report has become the justification for deploying a NMD, breaking with the ABM Treaty and forging ahead into unknown nuclear-arms territory. Bush and the Pentagon seem confident that the military's NMD will be able to protect the nation from any unknown surprises in the future, be they from North Korea, Iraq or even China. The few hundred interceptors planned would still be a small threat to Russia's immense arsenal.

The NMD initiative however, is likely destined to fail for several reasons. French President Jacques Chirac puts it rather succinctly in an interview with the New York Times, saying: "If you look at world history, ever since men began waging war, you will see that there's a permanent race between sword and shield. The sword always wins. The more improvements that are made to the shield, the more improvements are made to the sword." [16a,b]

Garwin states that the Rumsfeld report absolutely does not call for or justify the deployment of a NMD [18]. In the Bulletin for the Atomic Scientists, he asserts that any nation capable of ICBM technology, and not just the current nuclear powers, would necessarily also have the sophistication to employ the simple counter-measures necessary to completely defeat the American NMD. Biological weapons, employing 'bomblets' would be virtually impossible to destroy once the warhead separates from the ICBM carriage [19].

In place of the NMD, Garwin suggests a 'boost-phase interceptor' (BPI) which destroys a ballistic missile before the warhead (and counter-measures) can be deployed. BPIs must be stationed close to the launch site (a few hundred miles), and would be useless against missiles launched from inside Russia or China [19]. Russia has previously expressed support for a BPI program, and such a cooperation (as BPI stations on Russian soil would necessarily be jointly operated) may even improve shaky Russian-US relations. Lacking such international cooperation, BPI could still be installed on naval vessels close to potential unfriendly states.

Why is the Bush administration continuing to pursue an initiative that seemsso unlikely to achieve the publicly stated goal of ensuring US security? I can't offer an clear statement on that matter, but will instead offer the hypothesis that the Republican administration fears diplomacy and would prefer the self-reliance of a military solution.

To NMD or not to NMD

At its heart, national missile defense is a fatally flawed initiative. Its capacity for defending the United States against any nuclear attack is small considering the likely failure due to simple counter-measures. Additionally, its potential for igniting a new arms race among the nuclear powers, both old and new, is frightening. The threat to US security from such an arms race seems greater than that of cooperating internationally to contain nuclear proliferation in multi-polar world.

There still remains the potential that the US could be attacked by another nation at some point in the future. One worrying factor, and one which should be addressed immediately and diplomatically, is Russia and China's role in nuclear-proliferation. The Rumsfeld Commission's worst-case scenario estimation of a 5-year delay in a country wanting and getting working ICBM technology is a piece of knowledge worth chewing on, but it's not a sufficient justification for hastily deploying an expensive, easily circumvented and politically dangerous NMD.

A vigorous program to reduce the world's nuclear (world-wide, roughly 30,000 war-heads) and biochemical arsenals would do much to allay the US desire for ballistic protection. Also, by cooperatively working (with Russia, Britain, France and China) to develop and operate BPI programs, the US could breathe new life into the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the status quo it represents. Diplomacy, not the military, would seem to be the only national missile defense that has no counter-measure and which technology or political development will not render obsolete.

© July 2001, Aaron Clauset


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

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

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

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

[12] Driver 'Comfort Zones'http://www.smartmotorist.com/tes/tes.htm

[13] The End of the Star Wars Era (DoD News Briefing, 1993) http://www.fas.org/spp/starwars/offdocs/d930513.htm

[14] Rumsfeld Commission report (1998) http://www.house.gov/hasc/testimony/105thcongress/BMThreat.htm

[15] Robert Wadpole (CIA) on North Korea's Taepo Dong missile http://www.cia.gov/cia/public_affairs/speeches/archives/1998/walpole_speech_120898.html

[16a] New York Times with French President Jacques Chirac (1999) http://www.clw.org/pub/clw/ef/nmdleaders.html

[16b] John Isaacs on Missile Defense (2000) http://www.bullatomsci.org/issues/2000/ma00/ma00isaacs.html

[17] Interview with Dr. Richard Garwin (2000) http://www.fas.org/rlg/000508-cen.htm

[18] Op-Ed by Dr. Richard Garwin, member of the Rumsfeld Commission (1998) http://www.fas.org/rlg/28garw.html

[19] Dr. Richard Garwin, "The Wrong Plan" http://www.bullatomsci.org/issues/2000/ma00/ma00garwin.html

[b] Possible Soviet Responses to the US Strategic Defense Initiative (declassified) http://www.fas.org/spp/starwars/offdocs/m8310017.htm

[c] National Missle Defense http://www.fas.org/spp/starwars/program/nmd/index.html

posted January 28, 2005 02:56 PM in Political Wonk | permalink