The case for missile defence
In the 1964 movie Dr Strangelove, theories of nuclear deterrence were darkly satirised. Today, it makes absolute sense for the United States to develop missile defence systems to protect itself from erratic regimes
It’s almost impossible to grasp now. Back in 1962 live nuclear bomb tests were an actual thing. The nuclear powers tested their weapons and raced to develop new ones.
There were 178 nuclear explosions around the world that year. Almost one nuclear explosion every other day. On land. At sea. At high altitude. Radioactive fallout floated around the planet.
In 1964 the movie Dr Strangelove darkly satirised the theories and logic of nuclear deterrence. In a famous scene General Turgidson and President Muffley argue the merits of launching a huge first nuclear strike against the Soviet Union:
If we were to immediately launch an all-out and coordinated attack on all their airfields and missile bases, we'd stand a damn good chance of catching 'em with their pants down! We would therefore prevail, and suffer only modest and acceptable civilian casualties
General, it is the avowed policy of our country never to strike first with nuclear weapons
Now, the truth is not always a pleasant thing, but it is necessary to choose between two admittedly regrettable, but nevertheless distinguishable, post-war environments. One where you got 20 million people killed. And the other where you got a 150 million people killed
I will not go down in history as the greatest mass murderer since Adolph Hitler!
Perhaps it might be better, Mr. President, if you were more concerned with the American people than with your image in the history books!
Fast forward 55 years to the ravings of the North Korea regime and its own missile tests. Have the underlying issues changed? Not so much. General Turgidson had a grim point. What are "modest and acceptable civilian casualties" when weapons of mass destruction may be used?
This is especially acute in the Korean peninsula itself. Can any military action against North Korea not involve horrendous losses in South Korea? It seems unlikely. So North Korea effectively holds South Korea hostage and blackmails the rest of us as it develops long-range nuclear missile capabilities.
It’s not unreasonable for the United States (and indeed anyone else including Japan who might be the target of North Korean missiles) to want to protect itself against any Pyongyang missile attack (or clumsy misadventure).
One way for the United States to defend itself against Pyongyang is the classic ‘deterrence’ model: “Any attack on us will cost you your country.” It’s hard to gauge how far that ostensibly simple if not compelling idea weighs with the North Korean leadership. They serenely point out that if North Korea goes up in smoke, so does South Korea. Then they do more missile tests.
Another way is to deploy missile defence systems that can shoot down any North Korean missile before it reaches American soil: “Even if you try to hit us, you can’t. So stop it.”
These systems are at the far frontiers of technology:
“A warhead is about the size of a desk, and you're trying to hit a desk from distances like 7,000 or 8,000 km away. To hit a desk flying at upward of 8, 9, 10 km a second, where if you're off by one second you miss by 10 or 12 km, that's fairly amazing”
It’s not just that, amazing indeed as that is. The "live" warhead may well be accompanied by dummy warheads whizzing through the atmosphere, to compound the difficulties of identifying and destroying the correct target.
There are three basic questions with missile defence:
What if it works?
What if it doesn’t?
What if it might work up to a point?
What if it works?
If US missile defence looks likely to work against both North Korea’s missiles and the biggest fastest ballistic missiles (ie something far beyond anything North Korea can develop for the foreseeable future), the whole post-Cold War theory of mutual deterrence arguably takes a direct hit.
Russia has no reason to attack the United States if Moscow thinks that Russia will be blown up by the United States in all-out retaliation. It doesn’t matter here if neither side trusts the other: the threat of mutually assured destruction gives everyone an incentive to err firmly on the side of safety first.
But what if Moscow thinks that the Americans can blow up Russia and not be blown up themselves? Doesn’t that leave Moscow open to US blackmail? Can Moscow trust Washington not to use this advantage? If not, what? This situation seems far less psychologically ‘balanced’.
What if it doesn’t work?
If these systems don’t work they’re a waste of money (bad) and upset the world’s strategic balance (dangerous).
What if it might work up to a point?
This is where we seem to be now. US tests and the distances involved suggest that any North Korean missile hurtling at the US mainland might well be intercepted and destroyed, but far bigger ISBM missiles of Russia and China would still hit their US targets. Any countries that might also be targeted by North Korea are looking hard at what works to defend them.
All this boils down to deep negotiation psychology at the level of national self-identity. Issues of national pride, (in)security, resolve and leadership are all in play.
As we have seen over the years, it’s possible for the United States and Russia (as the two states each with far more nuclear warheads than all other countries combined) to negotiate sensibly about reducing these stockpiles and tackling other WMD security issues.
However, Russia’s blundering illegal interventions in Ukraine and all the goings-on over alleged Russian interference in the US elections process currently make the political context for doing that far more difficult.
And weapons systems are expensive. Since 2012 the U.S. GDP has grown by some $3 trillion to a dizzy $19 trillion; Russia’s has fallen towards a puny $1 trillion. Russia simply can’t afford the defence systems the United States can pay for. This rattles Moscow.
Nonetheless, the hard realities of all those warheads on both sides still give plenty of scope for hard-nosed cooperation, including over new North Korea economic sanctions. And while Russia publicly rails against any increased missile defence moves by the United States, it knows that they’ll never be so reliable as to make Washington feel completely safe from all-out Russian retaliation.
Other countries with nuclear weapons capabilities, avowed or otherwise, likewise operate within parameters that allow life to proceed normally. Whatever they may or may not do by way of missile defence, by taking part in all the normal processes of international diplomacy they add manifold layers of mutually assuring reasons to cooperate calmly enough.
Difficult issues arise when a state chooses to position itself outside accepted ‘normal’ boundaries of behaviour. Once most states are rubbing along in predictable ways, a market niche opens for ‘rogue’ regimes such as in Tehran and Pyongyang that opt not to do that.
Even then North Korea stands alone. Its leadership tolerates nothing like free public life and operates with exaggerated brutality towards its own people while holding millions of South Koreans hostage and ranting against the key ally of South Korea, namely the United States.
It therefore makes absolute sense for the United States to develop its missile defence systems to protect itself from erratic regimes such as Tehran and above all Pyongyang (“Even if you try to hit us, you can’t. So stop it.”) while at the same time doing its best to manage the strategic nuclear issues with Beijing and Moscow (and New Delhi and Islamabad).
Only the United States can afford to develop and deploy a multilayered (sea, ground and space) missile defence system to protect itself, albeit imperfectly, against different types of nuclear missile threats from almost anywhere on earth. Who can blame them for making that effort?
Former Ambassador Charles Crawford retired from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at the end of 2007 after nearly three decades in the UK’s Diplomatic Service. He is a founder partner of The Ambassador Partnership LLP
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