Structure & Strangeness


: American Missle Defense : Flirting With Disaster

: We live in memorable times, that is for certain. The American plan for building
: a 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 of
: mutually 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. A background briefing (from Structure & Strangeness) will give you the
: relevant understanding of the historical context.

: 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 acquiessing 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 seems
: so 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.

: © 2001, Aaron Clauset

: References :

: [1] Anti-Ballistic Missle Treaty (1972)

: [3] "Dropping the Bomb", Newsweek © 2001

: [7] Non-Proliferation Treaty (1968)

: [11] Carnagie Non-Proliferation Project

: [12] Driver 'Comfort Zones'

: [13] The End of the Star Wars Era (DoD News Briefing, 1993)

: [14] Rumsfeld Commission report (1998)

: [15] Robert Wadpole (CIA) on North Korea's Taepo Dong missile

: [16a] New York Times with French President Jacques Chirac (1999)

: [16b] John Isaacs on Missile Defense (2000)

: [17] Interview with Dr. Richard Garwin (2000)

: [18] Op-Ed by Dr. Richard Garwin, member of the Rumsfeld Commission (1998)

: [19] Dr. Richard Garwin, "The Wrong Plan"

: [b] Possible Soviet Responses to the US Strategic Defense Initiative (declassified)

: [c] National Missle Defense


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© Aaron Clauset

updated 7.22.01