Made for each other

In spite of being technically infeasible and politically misguided, why have successive US administrations been so besotted by missile defense, with George Bush’s latest generous act being to essentially strong-arm NATO into agreeing to his demands for installing such defense systems in Eastern Europe, clearly an act that is if anything going to instigate even more antagonism against America?

Lawrence Korb writing in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists nails down the phenomenon- Republicans have been having a love affair with missile defense since their patron saint Ronald Reagan embraced the ideal in the pseudo-delusional confines of his idealistic mind. In fact so did Reagan believe in this coveted ideal that he even went to the length of offering to share this technology with the Soviets. In his belief in missile defense Reagan displayed the classic qualities of delusional religious thinking- thinking that something that isn’t actually there is going to save us all. In spite of there being not a shred of serious scientific evidence that any such system could work in practice nor a demonstrated need for it, Reagan made up his mind that it was necessary and would work splendidly. He, Ronald Reagan, would then be known as the great prophet of peace. Through his fantasizing Reagan bequeathed an ignominious legacy to his Republican successors. Now in his rebirth as George Bush, Reagan has returned with a vengeance. He still haunts the deep recesses of space, looking for sites to install x-ray lasers, perhaps telling jokes to the little angels gently guiding CIA spy satellites.

As Korb notes, at least some Republicans may have trouble supporting some of the sacred pillars of the party for fear of losing votes; abortion and gay marriage for example. But no Republican has to fear slighting his voter base by supporting missile defense

It has become a litmus test of loyalty to the Reagan legacy. President Reagan has assumed the same iconic place for Republicans that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had for so many years for Democrats. For example, John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, often refers to himself as a foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution, as did his former opponents Mitt Romney and Rudolph Giuliani. This revolution was based on three pillars–pro-life as opposed to pro-choice; government as the cause of society’s problems as opposed to the solution; and a robust national missile defense as opposed to arms control negotiations or disarmament. Some Republicans have difficulty completely supporting the first two pillars: The majority of Americans want to place only a few restrictions on a woman’s right to choose and view government as a solution to many of our economic and social problems. But there is no political downside for a Republican to embrace missile defense.

To me that says as much about people’s apathy about this issue as it does about Republicans’ love for it. As Korb says, most Americans either don’t care about missile defense, consider it necessary by default, or assume that they already have it. All three beliefs are fatalistic. The US has already engendered much ill-will even among potential allies such as Russia by planning to install missile defense systems in Europe and now that he knows that he is going to leave soon, Bush seems to be obsessed with putting everything in place before the end of his regime. He and his associates are finely honing their long-acquired skills of causing the maximum damage in the minimum amount of time. Just like RAND theorists in the 1950s pleasured their intellectual apparatus by imagining global thermonuclear war, so do the current denizens of the Pentagon spend their twilight hours fantasizing about hordes of non-existent North-Korean and Iranian ICBMs. And they spend hundreds of billions of dollars on this treasured dream, more than on any single goal. As I have mentioned before, libertarians should be up in arms against this gratuitous diarrhea of taxpayer dollars.

And all this when even the basic technical feasibility of missile defense is questioned. The bottom line is simple. Almost every ABM system imagined in the US since the 1960s has focused on midcourse interception, that is trying to intercept and destroy a missile as it makes its way down through the atmosphere. Simply put, this is almost impossible to do since countless decoys dressed up in the missile’s visual and thermal signature will be making their way down at the same speed, making it more than a nightmare for any interceptor to distinguish missile from noise. Using such cheap decoys, the offense will quickly overwhelm the defense. This fact has been demonstrated time and time again, ad nauseam for the last 40 years, most notably by Richard Garwin (see Garwin’s presentation on the proposed European “shield”). So not only is the proposed system politically and internationally misguided, but it won’t even work. Many compliments to the brilliant officials at the Pentagon.

But it is wrong to feel frustrated, and prudent to understand. We should know that minor kinks like “feasibility”, “facts” and “international goodwill” have never thwarted the wishes of the current administration. So it’s probably not surprising that they would follow the path to hell inaugurated by their illustrious predecessor. But as far as foreign policy goes, this issue is as good a reason for Democrats to take power as any other. And it’s high time that Americans take as much cognizance of and express as much outrage on this issue as they do on healthcare or the war in Iraq. This issue will have as deep and perhaps more long-lasting significance for the national security of the US as anything else. Meanwhile, defenses against terrorists smuggling dirty bombs across borders remain weak.



  1. 1
    DV82XL Says:

    While I agree totally with your take on ABM’s I have some issues with the last line of the post.

    The dirty bomb has been portrayed by the press as an extraordinary weapon that would kill thousands of people, and in the process, they made the hidden enemy even more terrifying. But in reality, the threat of a dirty bomb is yet another illusion. All studies of such a possible weapon have concluded that the radiation spread in this way would not kill anybody because the radioactive material would be so dispersed, and, (providing the area was cleaned promptly), the long-term effects would be negligible. In the past, the American, British and the Iraqi military tested such devices and both concluded that they were completely ineffectual weapons for this very reason.

    It is doubtful that one would kill anybody by radiation exposure and I think you’ll have trouble finding a serious report that would claim otherwise. The U.S. Department of Energy set up such a test and they actually measured what happened, and the resulting measurements were extremely low. They calculated that the most exposed individual would get a fairly high dose—not life-threatening, but fairly high—and checking into how the calculation was done you find they assumed that after the attack, no one moves for one year. One year. Now, that’s ridiculous.

    The truth is the danger from radioactivity from this sort of device is basically next to nothing. The danger from panic however, is horrendous. That’s where the irony comes. Instead of the government saying, “Look, this is not a serious weapon; the serious danger of this is the panic that would ensue, and there is no reason for panic, they give credence to this nonsense by taking it too seriously themselves.

  2. 2

    From my own perspective, there are two really big problems with missile defense:

    1. It can’t work well enough to foil even very simple countermeasures
    2. It infuriates the Russians

    I have a number of books about antimissile defense published in the USSR in the 1960s. Soviet research on the topic under Khrushchev was probably more advanced than its American counterpart–the Soviets always took air defenses against nuclear attack more seriously than we did. But as it turned out, MIRVs and decoys made ABMs unworkable. I personally interpret the ABM Treaty as a realist calculation on the part of the superpowers that missile defense was likely to result in an expensive, destabilizing new phase of the arms race while not actually working well enough to justify the risk. As such, it made sense to agree to forgo full-scale deployment of the technology. At the same time, it allowed small-scale deployment and research. And the various arms treaties signed by Nixon and Brezhnev allowed the deployment of ABM-thwarting technologies, like MIRVs, that also fed into the arms race. Indeed, the later stages of the arms race could probably be characterized as a “MIRV race”–remember the endless discussion of the SS-18 and the “throw weight gap” back in the late 70s?

    In considerable part, SDI was a brilliant domestic political ploy by the Reagan Administration. Reagan’s nuclear policy drew serious fire in both Congress and the general population, and by 1983 the Freeze movement had gained serious political traction. The fantasy of SDI offered Americans the chance to have their cake and eat it too; it wished away the consequences of nuclear war and promised to replace MAD by making nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete.” SDI helped sap support from Reagan’s opponents, and between it and the internal contradictions within the Freeze movement, the domestic political threat to the arms race was largely neutralized–so much so, that even the disintegration of the USSR failed to bring the arms race to a decisive end.

    The Bush Administration’s choice to withdraw from the ABM Treaty was ill-considered because of the damage that it did to US-Russian relations. Given how upset I believe the Kremlin was about it, they were really quite conciliatory. I’m not quite sure what Bush was thinking, but from the Russians’ perspective this choice reflected an utter lack of respect for them.

  3. 3
    nucleardreams Says:

    This is also a reply to your comment on Sovietologist’s blog.
    I guess there are prominently two sides when it comes to assessing how likely a nuclear attack is on US soil. I usually think that we should err on the side of safe thinking. Allison and Joseph Cirincione both think that the borders are ill-protected enough to not be able to prevent a dirty bomb attack and that fact itself could give impetus to terrorists. That does not mean we should be paranoid about nuclear terrorism, but it does mean that we should at least acknowledge that our borders are not well-protected enough to safeguard against it. A dirty bomb does not have to be limited to nuclear material. One can pack anthrax or Sarin in it. It does not need to be a highly complex weapon. I think that terrorists will usually try to use whatever they can. As you know a sub-kiloton weapon could be enough to cause a lot of damage. While the presence of uranium or plutonium is unlikely (and U is a silly material for a dirty bomb), one can pack Cs-137 or Sr-90 in it. Also, cases like the Litvinenko case show that materials like polonium can become part of an effective dirty bomb. While the way the press handles the topic of dirty bombs is quite exaggerated, as you rightly pointed out, the panic that such an attack would cause could for various reasons prove extremely consequential. It is prudent not to inflate the threat of a dirty bomb, but I don’t think it’s an unrealistic illusion. The goal of terrorists is to spread terror, whether by killing or otherwise, and a dirty bomb would accomplish that. I do agree that the government always has a field day exaggerating such threats, but then it does that for much else.

  4. 4
    nucleardreams Says:

    Sovietologist: I completely agree with both the problems you cited. Rhodes in his new book narrates how problematic SDI was for negotiation with the Soviets. While domestically it was pretty astute, what galls me is how Reagan went ahead with his grand dream without making serious inquiries about its technical feasibility. Reagan was a pretty smart guy, but he was inexperienced in foreign policy and relied on people like Richard Perle for advice. In spite of being intelligent I also think he did not have much patience or use for nuance. Both these qualities are exemplified to an admirable extent in Bush. Missile defense in Eastern Europe has upset US-Russia relations even more. I do hope the Kremlin doesn’t hold a grudge for too long and warms up to the next president, hopefully a democrat.
    A question for you: how seriously did the Soviets look into the feasibility of SDI-like technologies? I would be interested to know how much research was actually done in this area in the USSR.

  5. […] Daniel Ruwe wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptFor example, John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, often refers to himself as a foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution, as did his former opponents Mitt Romney and Rudolph Giuliani. This revolution was based on … Read the rest of this great post here […]

  6. 6
    DV82XL Says:

    I know this is a thread on ABM and I don’t wish to hijack it, however I really with to disabuse you and anyone else of the idea that a radiological dispersal device (RDD) is a credible threat. This also holds for chemical and biological weapons CBW.

    This whole concept centers around the belief that somehow these are crude weapons that are within the technical grasp of a terrorist. The truth is that these are not that easy to fabricate and deploy effectively. Examples of attempts like the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway show, that while there are casualties they are very small for the effort.

    There was a good reason that the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were selected as targets, and aircraft were used as a weapon – it was a very simple mission that did not rely on iffy technology and ideal conditions to execute. If there are further attacks on U.S. soil similar targets and similar weapons of opportunity will be used.

    Cs-137, Sr-90, Co 60 may find there way into the wrong hands, but these are very powerful emitters would likely kill anyone working with it long before they could make trouble. As for the polonium hit, that was carried out by professionals, with the full backing of a State apparatus; it cannot be used as an example of what a terrorist could do.

    In the end, while this sort of attack plays well in the press and leverages the irrational fear of radiation and nuclear weapons that festers in the public’s imagination, the possibilities of such an attack are effectively nill, yet anyone that flies on a regular bases knows that despite efforts to the contrary, it would still be posible to pull off another 9-11. I would be way more concerned about that.

  7. 7

    Although it’s not perfect (and certainly isn’t academic scholarship), the most complete narrative I’ve seen of Soviet space-based missile defense research can be found on Encyclopedia Astronautica:
    As a caveat I should mention that the Russians DO NOT declassify information about this sort of thing, as a rule.

    My general understanding was that research in the area continued in the USSR throughout the period, but the idea of trying to match potential US space missile defenses was rejected in favor of deploying small, mobile ICBMs like the canceled American “Midgetman.” In some sense this is actually the course Russia ultimately took with the deployment on mobile Topol-Ms under Putin. One variant of the Topol-M is designed to thwart directed energy weapons, and another to overcome ABMs with a hypersonic maneuvering warhead. In short, their research on how to defeat SDI has been translated into working hardware.

  8. 8

    Interesting, thanks

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