Thursday, April 03, 2008

Missile Defense---Then and Now

The Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty was a good idea in its day. Signed in 1972 during a thaw in the Cold War, the treaty's principal goal was to reduce the likelihood of a first strike by either the U.S. or the Soviet Union. Without missile defense, each side understood that launching a first strike against the other's ICBM silos would be disastrous, because the other side would launch a retaliatory strike with its surviving nukes, including submarine-based and bomber-based nukes. But missile defense would create an asymmetry: A reasonably successful first strike might sufficiently weaken the enemy that its reduced arsenal could be handled by a less-than-perfect missile defense. Consequently, with missile defense, each side would be more likely to launch a first strike if it feared the other was considering one. Thus, via a logic that may seem paradoxical, banning a purely defensive option was thought to make each side safer.

President Reagan did not accept this logic, preferring the more straightforward idea that defending the country by shooting down missiles was more peaceful and less morally fraught than by threatening to nuke tens or hundreds of millions of civilians. Thus he launched a research effort known as the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and popularly dubbed "Star Wars."

SDI didn't make it far enough out of the lab during the Reagan or Bush 41 Administration to violate the ABM Treaty, but by the time the Bush 43 Administration came into power, the ABM logic had changed considerably. The Russians were no longer considered the main threat to launch a nuclear missile at the U.S. or its allies. Instead, the main threat came (and comes) from rogue states and non-state terrorist organizations. The latter especially are not subject to the logic of deterrence, and so any missile defense against a potentially nuclear-armed terrorist seems better than none. So thought the Bush Administration when it withdrew from the ABM Treaty in 2002.

Indeed, even before Bush 43 came into office, the U.S. was actively moving in this direction. The National Missile Defense Act of 1999 states: "It is the policy of the United States to deploy as soon as is technologically possible an effective National Missile Defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack (whether accidental, unauthorized, or deliberate) . . . ." You can find that policy statement and more at the Missile Defense Agency's website.

The big news in missile defense today was the agreement by NATO to build a missile defense system for Europe, apparently accepting the same post-Cold War logic. Whether Bush and NATO are right that the Cold War logic no longer applies is unclear. Certainly the fact that Russia strenuously objects to European missile defense suggests that the Russians perceive the defense as aimed at Russia, which is itself destabilizing.

But even if Russia could eventually be brought around to accept NATO's benign intent, one objection to missile defense would appear to have survived the Cold War: Missile defense is likely to be porous and costly. Relatively cheap measures, like decoy missiles, can overcome the best currently available technology, and in an arms race between offensive and defensive weapons, the offense would appear to have a great advantage. The best that one could possibly hope for is a very expensive impermeable missile defense that would lead a determined enemy to seek other delivery options.

Does that mean that missile defense remains a bad idea? Not necessarily. A speech last September by NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer identifies the end of the Cold War and the proliferation of both nuclear technology and missile technology as reasons to go forward with missile defense. But it would be foolish in the extreme to think that missile defense is anything more than a small piece of the security puzzle. Like the Maginot Line to which missile defense has been compared, at best it will slow the enemy down or lead the enemy to take a different route.

Posted by Mike Dorf


egarber said...

One thing to consider is the opportunity cost of spending a bazillion dollars on missile defense. You mention that such an approach will drive enemies down alternate paths, but as we know, such potential attackers are *already* playing by unconventional rules.

We've seen how mismanagement of finite resources can cause distraction in the way the Iraq war diverted our attention from unfinished business in Afghanistan.
The risk with missile defense is that the domestic front line will continue to experience neglect -- here I mean our ports, first responders, chemical plant safety, etc.

On top of that, there's the risk of falling into a false sense of security as missile defense systems evolve into more "successful" models.

MK said...

Proliferation of missile technology to terrorists is a red herring. It serves to conflate the trauma of 9-11 with an opportunistic desire to servce certain financial interests that have much to gain from missile defense.

While terrorists may conceivably obtain sufficient fissile material to create a small scale nuclear weapon, that scenario is leagues away from any sort of ballistic missile technology that could be defended against by a missile defense shield. You can't secretly build missile silos without anyone noticing in this age of constant satellite surveillance. The infrastructure for ICBMs is way outside of what any terrorist network is capable of.

The best defense against nuclear tipped terrorist is still to help Russia and other nuclear nations safeguard their nuclear stockpiles - something that is gravely being neglected - and to more closely monitor all sources of fissile material.

But the missile defense shield has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with defending against terrorism. Its only use is against an enemy with a large arsenal of ICBMs like Russia.

Michael C. Dorf said...

In response to mk, I should say that while I share the overall skepticism, the pro-missile defense argument (as laid out in the speech I linked) focuses more on nuclear-armed states such as Iran and North Korea. It's also not entirely clear to me that a well-armed non-state actor couldn't use rockets to deliver small nukes. That would be especially true if the non-state actor had the backing of a state (e.g., Hezbollah backed by Iran).

MK said...

Dear Prof. Dorf,

But that argument, too, is based on trumped-up ideas about supposedly irrational "rogue states". There is no reason why states like Iran or North Korea should not be subject to the same rules of mutually assured destruction. The hawkish elements want us to believe these are suicidal regimes posied to destroy the wolrd. In reality, they want nothing more than to preserve their own rule. Indeed, their main motivation for seeking nuclear weapons is not for first use, but as an invasion deterrent. The fate of the Saddam Hussein regime in Bush jr.'s invasion of Iraq has in fact hastened the urgency for such regimes to obtain some sort of nuclear deterrent in order to render the costs of invasion unnaceptable for the US. When the US embraced preemptive military action, obtaining some sort of deterrent to US invasion became an imperative for non-allied countries. Pyongyang's hasty nuclear test in Octoboer 2006 was a direct outgrowth of the invasion of Iraq.

On your other point - terrorist groups like Hezbollah using nuclear weapons supplied by a "rogue" state like Iran - this too is a) unlikely, and b) to my knowledge not a threat that can be effectively dealt with by the missile defense shield. MAD applies whether or not a state uses a weapon directly or through a proxy. Fissile material can be traced. If Iran supplied Hezbollah with a nuke and Hezbollah detonated it, Iran would do so in full knowledge that Tehran would be wiped out very shortly thereafter. It's just not very realistic that Iran would do this.

Secondly, as far as I can tell from available sources, the current missile shield is designed to shoot down warheads while those warheads are in space on a ballistic trajectory. It is designed only to combat long range ICBMs. From what I can tell, it is utterly useless against short and medium range missiles that do not reach such high altitudes. You're back to using Patriot missiles against those threats, and the Patriots had a less than convincing success rate even against the large lumbering Scuds Iraq used against Israel and Saudi in the 1991 war (though admittedly they have undergone some upgrades since).

Finally, you're back to the problem that a nuclear bomb is fairly heavy and therefore requires a sizeable rocket as a delivery vehicle. It's not something that an entity like Hezbollah can deploy in a theater like Southern Lebanon or the West Bank which are under constant surveillance by Israel. The missile shield simply isn't designed to fight anything short of a full-scale ICBM.

This whole thing is a lot of fearmongering while setting the world up for another potential arms race.

BTW, I was amused by the fact that the American press headlined their reports from the NATO summit with Bush's "success" at getting the Czechs to agree to the missile system, while the European press headlined with Bush's "colossal foreign policy failure" at convincing NATO to admit Ukraine and Georgia.

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