Strategic Weapons: July 17, 2000

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The Perfect Contract; Do we need missile defenses? Maybe, maybe not. And that's where things get interesting. The drive for a perfect missile defense may or may not produce the intended result, but it will produce the perfect defense contract. 

The only way anyone can attack Americans at home is with ICBMs. That's been a fact of life for over three decades. Russia was the only one with missiles pointed at us. But missile technology is no longer rocket science, it's now old technology that even third rate nations can use to produce ICBMs. At least in theory. For twenty years there have been predictions that, within ten years, some rouge nation would build ICBMs and threaten America with them. Just because it hasn't happened yet doesn't mean it won't. Eventually smaller nations will have ICBMs. For decades Pakistan was reported to be a few years away from producing a nuclear weapon. In 1998 they did. So never say never, but don't hold your breath waiting for when. 

During the cold war, America and Russia negotiated several treaties to tone down the nuclear arms race. This included restrictions on developing defenses against ICBMs. Even if missile defenses worked, everyone agreed that the other side could just build more missiles or put more warheads on each rocket to overwhelm the defenses. But in the 1980s, the U.S. began a massive research project on a missile defense system. Russia protested, and were especially fearful that American technology would be up to a task that Russian scientists admitted was very difficult, and equally expensive. When the cold war ended, so did enthusiasm for the "Star Wars" missile defense system. Star Wars never came close to actually zapping incoming warheads, so there was no great outcry when the project was shut down. Actually, it was just scaled way back, but for all practical purposes halted. Then came the rogue state scare. North Korea, Iran and Iraq were all seen eager to build nuclear weapons and ICBMs, and use them on America. 

Here's where the prefect contract comes in. If any of these nations build a few ICBMs, and nuclear warheads, what would happen if they used them against the U.S.? Well, we know that ICBMs are complex and unreliable beasts. Test firings are done periodically to confirm that problem, and there have been incidents were hundreds of U.S. or Russian ICBMs were out of action because of design or maintenance flaws. Moreover, any rogue nation that fires one or more missiles at the U.S. is revealing itself as the attacker. American satellites and radars can detect such launches, and where the missile is coming from. If the attack succeeds, retribution would likely be in the form of several U.S. nukes. In other words, making such an attack on the U.S. will not destroy America, but will likely obliterate the firing nation. Most religious or ideological fanatics are not suicidal. The one exception so far has been the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo, which made a 1995 nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway in an attempt to trigger a nuclear Armageddon. But no one expects another bunch of suicidal Buddhists to build and launch ICBMs. That only happens in the movies. But we are expecting the same unlikely and over the top behavior from rogue nations. While such attacks are possible, so are the chances of a large asteroid hitting the earth. But there is no outcry for an "Asteroid Shield." Not yet anyway. So why the enthusiasm for anti-missile systems? The reason has little to do with national security, for the chances of a "rogue nation" creating and ICBM and then successfully using it are remote. If any group wanted to deliver a nuke to America, without getting dozens in return, they would take advantage of the millions of cargo containers that enter the U.S. each year. These containers are not checked carefully, and would make an ideal vehicle for an untraceable nuclear attack. We already spend billions on intelligence and long range aircraft. Why not pay more attention to that and just bomb the missiles, or nukes, before they can be used? This is more of a sure thing. Not good enough, some say, as there's always the chance of an accidental launch from Russia or China. Never happened, and the chances of an accidental launch are quite remote, right up there with stray asteroids. But by concentrating on the less likely rogue ICBM problem, defense contractors get a huge pile of money for a system that never really has to work. If you try real hard, you can get it to work in tests. But the chances of it being tested under realistic conditions are very remote. A very comfortable way of doing business. And, of course, all in the public good. That's the perfect defense contract.

 


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