Archive for the ‘missile defense’ Category

Missile shield to be scrapped!

September 17, 2009

It’s a great day. This piece of news makes me feel extremely gratified as I am sure it does many others. Missile defense against ICBMs has been an eternal bug that has bitten almost every President since 1960. The Bush administration had aggressively pushed plans to implement a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. There has always been evidence that the efficacy of such a shield will ultimately be severely limited by the basic laws of physics, and that the adversary can essentially and cheaply overwhelm the defense with decoys and countermeasures.

I have written about these limitations and studies about them several times before (see below). The best article arguing against the European missile shield is a May 2008 article by Theodore Postol and George Lewis in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (free PDF here).

And as arms expert Pavel Podvig succinctly wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists only three days back, it’s not just about the technology, but it’s about a fundamentally flawed concept:

“The fundamental problem with the argument is that missile defense will never live up to its expectations. Let me say that again: Missile defense will never make a shred of difference when it comes to its primary mission–protecting a country from the threat of a nuclear missile attack. That isn’t to say that advanced sensors and interceptors someday won’t be able to deal with sophisticated missiles and decoys. They probably will. But again, this won’t overcome the fundamental challenge of keeping a nation safe against a nuclear threat, because it would take only a small probability of success to make such a threat credible while missile defense would need to offer absolute certainty of protection to truly be effective…It’s understandable that people often talk about European missile defense as one of the ways in which to deal with the missile threat posed by Iran. Or that someday missile defense could provide insurance for nuclear disarmament–this is the vision that Ronald Reagan had. When framed in this way, missile defense seems like a promising way out of difficult situations. But this promise is false. If a real confrontation ever comes about (and let’s hope it never happens), we quickly would find out that missile defense offers no meaningful protection whatsoever”.

Now the Obama administration has decided to scrap the unworkable shield and has decided to replace it with a much more realistic defense against short-range missiles. I cannot imagine how gratified this must make the scores of scientists, engineers and policy officials who have long argued against the feasibility of the shield. It also signals a huge shift in Bush-era foreign policy. Notice how the administration has diplomatically and shrewdly avoided mentioning the basic failures of the earlier system.

Unfortunately, the sordid history of missile defense and the inherent satisfaction that seems to stem by arguing in favor of a “shield” to protect the population makes me skeptical in believing that the concept is dead forever. But for now, there is peace in our time and this is a significant breakthrough.

Past posts on missile defense:
Made For Each Other
Missile Defense: The Eternal Bug
Holes in the Whole Enterprise
Czechs halt missile shield progress

What would a missile defense system for India achieve?

March 18, 2009

Manasi alerts me to this Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists article on a possible Indian missile defense system developed with help from the US. As always, the questions to be asked are; Would it work? and What would it achieve?

I have often talked about the recurring problems with conceived US global missile defense systems as pointed out by various experts over the years and the fact that missile defense in one form or the other has been an unrealized dream for US presidents for 40 years. In India missile defense acquires a very different character from the proposed US missile defense systems against supposed ICBMs from Iran or North Korea. Pakistan is a stone’s throw away from the Indian border, and as Gopalaswamy in this essay and Mian and others in a more detailed 2003 Science and Global Security article explain, flight time for a missile to reach New Delhi from Pakistan would be about 4-7 mins. What would the Indian authorities do in such a short time? Detecting any such signal and confirming it as a true one would consume all the time needed for authorities to determine it as a hostile missile launch from Pakistan. The detection would be done by the Arrow system that India acquired from Israel that’s located about 200 kms from Delhi. But because of this very short flight time, there would be no time for further deliberation and any response would have to be a predetermined one.

As Mian and his colleagues state in their article, there are two forms which predetermined response could take; civil defense and/or retaliation. Retaliation if at all possible in such a short time would have to be very quick. Retaliation against nuclear-tipped missiles would be very difficult in the boost phase (right after the missile lifts off, which gives the defense about 90 seconds to destroy the missile) and extremely dangerous in the terminal phase (the phase before the missile hits the target during which its destruction could nonetheless cause great damage to the home territory). As both articles state, with such predetermined responses the threat of false alarms and nuclear conflict increases, an assertion borne out by several close calls during the Cold War even when the response time was much longer.

As the articles state, the prospect of talks on missile defense between the US and India is definitely a welcome sign of relations between the two countries, but we should think twice before spending taxpayers’ money and scientific and human capital on a system that may not really work, but which may encourage the adversary to build more offensive weapons; after all a single one getting through would be enough to cause havoc. As Gopalaswamy says, ultimately technology will decide the operational capability of such a system. Perhaps more attention should be paid to civil defense, a gesture both prudent and practical, and perhaps less threatening.

Mian, Z., Rajaraman, R., Ramana, M.V., “Early Warning in South Asia-Constraints and Implications”. Science and Global Security, 11: 109-150, 2003

Obama on Bill O’Reilly

September 11, 2008

Not that I need to give any blog-time to that obnoxious weasel, but when he asked Obama about the missile system in Eastern Europe, the good Senator agreed with him that the Russians don’t seriously believe that their ICBMs face a threat from American missile interceptors so nobody needs to worry about it.

But that’s of course not the point. It’s about unnecessarily messing up relations with Russia and all for installing a system for defending the country from non-existent Iranian/N.Korean missiles. But most importantly, why, why didn’t Obama cite all those studies saying that the missile defense is technically not feasible. Won’t it be the easiest way to demolish the slanderous O’Reilly’s arguments?

I just feel sad that when it comes to missile defense, Obama doesn’t enumerate the essential problems, or perhaps is not aware of them.

Made for each other

May 3, 2008

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.

Response to Adityanjee: Arms race in space

April 4, 2008

My past post on outer-space arms conflict has been published as a letter in the latest issue of the magazine Pragati. In that post I had commented on a piece by Adityanjee in the previous issue of Pragati that encouraged development of ASAT (Anti-Satellite) capabilities by India. Mr Adityanjee responds to the letter and hence to my post in the same issue of Pragati by saying:

“Nuclear Dreams presents some cogent arguments for early successful negotiations for preventing an arms race in space. This is indeed a laudable goal for all the space-faring nations. However, of the six space-faring nations (US, Russia, China, Japan, European space agency and India) currently, three nations (the US, Russia and China) already have demonstrated ASAT capabilities. In reality the race has already started. Nuclear Dream’s arguments do not consider India’s strategic interests. States negotiate international treaties not from an altruistic point of view but to further their interests. In fact, Nuclear Dreams contradicts himself when he justifies a space weapons ban so as to permanently freeze US superiority in space-warfare capabilities. A space weapons ban might arguably be in US interests—and analysts such as Ashley Tellis argue that it is not—but India should avoid being cast out of the league of ‘legitimate’ space powers”

Since I am a little short on time this week, let me respond briefly to some of Mr Adityanjee’s objections. I will try to pen a detailed response later.

Mr Adityanjee says that I contradict myself when I justify a space weapons ban so as to permanently freeze US superiority in space. I don’t think I do. First of all, the US has had superiority in space technology and assets for a very long time now. And even if a ban freezes US space superiority, so what? The question is whether that superiority will endanger India’s strategic interests, something which Mr Adityanjee thinks I am not considering. For answering these questions, we have to also look at US interests. This is related to Ashley Tellis’s article cited by Mr Adityanjee on how the ASAT ban proposed by China and Russia may not protect US interests as it only applies to space-based ASAT weapons.

What is Tellis’s rationale for this opinion? As I understand it, he says that because the ban will not cover land or sea-launched ASAT weaponry, it would not be in the best interests of the US since it will leave the way open for other nations to develop such weaponry. But there is a second explanation which I don’t find improbable; the US opposes the space-weapons ban because it wants to leave open the possibility of developing space weapons itself in the future. This is not inconceivable, given the long history of US attempts to try to design and implement space-based weapons; Reagan’s Star Wars being the most famous example of this. In fact it’s instructive to remember that Star Wars was supposed to defend against ballistic missiles, an idea that the US is clearly still wedded to, given its recent developments in missile defense. The Bush administration might be as or more concerned about not being able to develop space-based ASAT weapons in the future as it is about other countries developing land-based ASAT weapons. Simply put, the ban is really not against US interests, but against those of the Bush administration. While the distinction is unfortunately inconsequential right now, there is a fair chance that the next President might find it compelling. As Mr Adityanjee rightly says, it is a truism that every country thinks about its own strategic interests. In reality, the US opposing the ban is actually contrary to its strategic interests. This is because any space-weapons or ASAT race might harm the US more than it harms other countries, since the US has the most number and the costliest of assets in space. Plus, space-based weapons have already shown to provide little if any defense against ballistic missiles. On the other hand, ASAT capabilities in space would be a good disguise for other countries to develop more ICBMs in the first place. In consequence, as was paradoxically the case in the early days of the Cold War (an opportunity the US lost), the US superiority in space weaponry and its strategic space interests would be best maintained by convincing other nations that this space capability would never be used. India does not need to fear a superiority that would not be functional.

Thus in my opinion, the US opposition to the ban while not entirely unwarranted, is more a product of traditional Bush administration policies than of cogent thinking about US strategic interests. Sadly, this is a further example of the administration’s misguided policies which are supposed to protect US national security, but which possibly might harm it in the long-term; recall that the administration has already withdrawn from the ABM treaty which actually makes its inertia to space-weapons bans more understandable.

Coming back to India’s strategic interests, I think it is fair to say that a country’s strategic interests should be a subset of its long-term and large-scale national security interests. These national security interests involve many peacetime activities which strengthen a country’s resources and manpower. Given the above situation, India’s strategic interests would be to do its best to prevent a space-weapons race, for basically the same reasons as it would be in US interests to do this. India more than many other nations has both the need and fortunately the capability to put satellites in space for vital purposes such as precipitation measurement and surveillance. Certainly the second objective and I dare say the first one is important for India’s long-term national security. In fact, of one thing we can be sure; any ambitious country- and ASAT-capable China and Russia would count in the forefront- would greatly value the benefits accrued from harnessing the power of satellites in space. It is in no developing country’s interests to render space hostile for its satellites. But if India aggressively pushes ASAT development, it may put off China and Russia from trying to advocate bans on such developments. The result most probably will be a space arms race with both space-based weapons and land-based weapons, clearly jeopardizing India’s further progress and interests.

The question naturally asked in this context is; shouldn’t India build up insurance against a possible shoot-down of an Indian satellite by the US or China or Russia. This is what I call the problem with planning for worst-case scenarios. Let me digress a bit. One worst-case scenario for India would be for Pakistan to carpet the country with nuclear weapons. What would be the best planning to forestall such a scenario? Defense would not do, because no amount of defense would be sufficient against a full-scale nuclear attack. In such a case, the logical conclusion is that only a full-scale preemptive nuclear attack on Pakistan would be the correct response by India to prevent a worst-case scenario. The horror of this situation reveals the absurdity of always thinking in terms of worst-case scenarios. A Churchillian admonition comes to mind- “It is not enough to do our best. Sometimes we must do what’s required”. The questions to ask are; under what realistic circumstances would the US (highly improbable) or China (conceivable but still improbable) shoot down an Indian satellite? How many satellites would need to be shot down? And perhaps the most important question is; is an ASAT capability the only way in which India could counter such an improbable transgression? India already has adequate military resources to threaten China if it wants to. But more importantly in this age of globalization, we again come to the question asked earlier; will it be in China’s interests to do something as eminently stupid as that, when its future depends on the preservation of a delicate strategic and economic balance in Asia and around the world?

Having said all of the above, let me note that I did not say that India should not spend resources on ASAT capabilities at all. But as in any other decision, it has to consider the balance of arguments which inevitably include complex and multi-factorial issues. What I am saying is that for India’s own future strategic interests as well as those of others, it still makes the most sense to try to push for a ban. While India can pursue rudimentary ASAT development on the side, its primary attitude should be conciliatory and advocate an anti-ASAT treaty. In this, it must take the lead and try to include China and Russia on its side. As Adityanjee notes, countries don’t negotiate bans for altruistic purposes. And neither will India.

No end to madness

April 4, 2008

Now it seems that NATO has also jumped onto the bandwagon of missile defense. I have no doubt that considerable weight was thrown around by American officials to achieve this goal. Looks like George Bush is doing an admirable job to cram as many misdeeds as possible in his last few months of tenure.

This surely cannot bode well for US security. No matter how many people write about it and rail against it, America is still living in the Cold War era. I have yet to understand exactly who is going to attack the US with missiles. North Korea? Iran? No matter how much the administration tries to convince the world, both these countries are not suicidal enough to risk annihilation by trying to attack the US or its European allies with such weapons.

In fact they are of course much cleverer than that. Low-level nuclear proliferation and terrorism has always been the most effective way they can damage US interests. If they really wanted to seriously affect US interests- and it’s not a foregone conclusion that they wish to- these countries would help terrorists smuggle in dirty bombs or similar weapons through the still largely unguarded US borders. And in fact the much-dreaded dirty bomb attack, when it comes (and several analysts chillingly think it is only a matter of time), will probably be found to not be connected to any one of these states. Then only will the citizens of this nation realise how George Bush was misleading them for the last seven years under the pretense of false security.

Much is made of how he has kept the country safe since 9/11 and how there’s been no terrorist attack on US soil. Maybe he has. But first of all it is all too easy to forget at what cost this has been achieved; while terrorists have not actually attacked the US since 9/11 many more have been created, forged by interventions in the Middle East and imbibed with hatred of the US, who could attack the country in the future. More importantly, we can be sure of one thing; if even a small nuclear attack occurs in a US city of any significant size in the next decade, the effects will be so horrible and so long-lasting that all the orange alerts and patriot acts of the last seven years will become a footnote to a footnote in American history.

The US continues to intervene and play games abroad and neglect its interests and borders in its own backyard. In spite of this being pointed out by a number of senior analysts, the administration is still making sure it roils the waters in foreign lands by waging invasive wars, spreading “democracy”, and putting missile defense shields against non-existent targets.

As they say, those who forget history will be condemned to relive it…again and again. What have the citizens of this great country done to deserve such a dangerous and gloomy future?

Space: The Violent Frontier?

March 9, 2008

A couple of days ago, the US sent up a missile to blow up a “rogue” satellite. China had also done the same thing a year or so ago. These actions seem like ominous preludes to a possible arms race in space, the last thing the world wants.

In the latest issue of Pragati, Adityanjee has an article that exhorts India to develop its own ASAT (anti-satellite) system in response to these actions by the US and China. While developing such a system might be good insurance and a future bargaining chip, the first and most important thing we all need to do is keeping pushing for an international treaty to ban weapons in space. Not only will a failure to do this lead to a possible new Cold War, but it can also render space inhospitable for peaceful technologies, an event that will be disastrous for countries that currently use satellites for weather forecasting and precipitation for example.

Mike Moore, who is a previous editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, has written a new book on the history and current status of attempts by the US to weaponise and militarise space. As in many other cases, the US- no friend of treaties for quite some time now- is unique in having vetoed and blocked attempts to forge international treaties to ban weapons in space. This is probably not too surprising considering the attempts by the US since the 19060s (when they were developing a purported system to oust Chinese ballistic missiles) to the 1980s (age of the infamous Star Wars) to the 2000s (the Bush administration’s obsession with National Missile Defense). True to other traditions, the US has constantly underscored its sovereign right to exceptionalism when the rest of the world thinks otherwise. The US satellite blowup comes close on the heels of renewed efforts of China and Russia to push for an international treaty to ban space weapons.

In his book, Moore documents how President Eisenhower made spirited efforts to stop an arms race in space. However, every administration since the Reagan administration has vetoed attempts by other space-faring countries to negotiate such treaties. The Pentagon’s love affair with GPS-guided precision weapons in the 90s fueled ambitions to weaponise space. Again, it’s the US that is leading the world into a dangerous era and is interested in unilaterally pursuing belligerent aims. It seems to be still living in Cold War mode. As Moore says, China and Russia (and presumably India) have many more important problems to tackle and spend money on than building a space weapons capability. However, they can, and will, build this capability if they see the US constantly trying to do so.

The US in fact has a golden opportunity right now to preserve its superiority in weapons technology. The situation reminds me of the early days of the arms race, when an exceptional opportunity to preserve the US superiority over Russia in nuclear arms was lost because of politicking by right wing hawks and threat inflation specialists. After that, Russia soon caught up and it was too late. Similarly, now is the time for the US to talk to other nations and sign a space-weapons ban, thus preserving and possibly sealing its current technological advantage.

One of the central points of missile defense that I have often made in other posts, is that it is almost assuredly going to fail against ballistic missiles, a point which should have been emphasized in the Pragati article. This points needs to be constantly emphasized because like some annoying virus, it keeps infecting and enamoring the minds of US and world officials in every successive administration, in spite of its proven lack of feasibility. Shooting down ballistic missiles realistically has always been a pipe dream harboured by zealous government officials, and the fallibility of this has been demonstrated time and time again by distinguished scientists and other officials. Any attempt to build an anti-ballistic missile system is a huge waste of money, time and talent, and as an added insidious side-effect, it breeds hostility in other nations, something that has already happened because of the US National Missile Defense system. Missile defense should rankle the hearts of democracy and peace-lovers, libertarians and economic conservatives.

Shooting down satellites is another matter, and unfortunately easier than shooting down ballistic missiles. But as Moore points out in his book, one of the many effects of such an exchange will be an amplification of debris in low-earth orbit, debris that will likely make it impossible to use satellites for peaceful purposes, including missions to other planets in the solar system. And of course, it will add perhaps irreversibly to the hubris-laden image that the US has in the world right now.

Every attempt should be made by all space-faring countries to push for an international treaty banning any kind of weapons in space. But sadly, it’s the US again that is posing the biggest impediment to the forging of such a consensus. The next President should make it a priority to sign such a treaty, and Obama has indicated that he might be interested. Any attempt by the US to develop a space weapons capability will lead to a dangerous arms race with Russia, China, India and others, involving huge expenditures and wasted efforts. It will contribute to an already deeply dividing feeling of international resentment and animosity. But perhaps most importantly, it will send out a signal that space, that ultimate refuge that is supposed to be the equal sovereign right of every human being on the planet, can be belligerently conquered and manipulated by a few nations. After that, everything will be up for grabs.