Strategic Weapons: August 11, 2001


: Doomsday Logic-Supporters of missile defense have raised an interesting argument. It is folly to ignore a catastrophic result just because it is unlikely. Businessmen know that while a 25% chance of losing $4 and a 50% chance of losing $2 is mathematically equal, it is more likely that the company would be seriously injured by the $4 loss so it gets a higher priority in risk assessment. Supporters of missile defense note that NASA ignored the chances of the explosion that destroyed Challenger, the Navy accepted risks that a major warship would be attacked in an Arab harbor, and the FBI dismissed the chances that one of its hot shot counterspies might turn on his country. All of these incidents proved that catastrophic possibilities must be addressed, even if unlikely. Even a crude nuclear bomb hitting a major city would cause far more devastating results than Hiroshima because cities are now much larger and more densely populated. Such a bomb would cause a million dead, a trillion dollars in damage, and have long-term health and business consequences. 

Several countries have ongoing ballistic missile and weapon of mass destruction programs, including North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, and India (along with Russia, China, Britain, and France). Skeptics of missile defense, while ignoring the consequences if they are wrong, based their opposition on several arguments:

1. The US nuclear arsenal would deter any missile attack. This argument has a flaw in that a nation facing defeat by the US might launch such a weapon as a revenge attack. Another flaw is to assume that the US would not face any political condemnation for responding to a single missile attack with ten or even 100 missiles of its own.

2. A US missile defense system would destabilize the world by provoking an arms race. This argument also has flaws. China is building intercontinental missiles as fast as it can and there is no evidence that it would slow down if there were no US defense, since its stated goal is to deter a US attack by causing as much damage to the US as the US could cause it. The minor and rogue nations started their programs (and have run them at maximum speed) before the US seriously considered deploying a defense. Russia, the only country that could in theory engage in a serious arms race, is broke and is current missile force will deteriorate to the point that by 2010 Russia and China will post an equal (and relatively small) threat, both well within the capabilities of the defense intended by the Bush Administration. Arguably, if the US had deployed a missile defense in 1985, the various rogue nations would have no interest in developing missiles that might hit the US as they know it would be a waste of time to try. 

3. Any country wanting to hit the US with a nuclear weapon would be more likely to do so by having spies smuggle it across the border. While this is also possible, the fact that there are two possible attacks would seem to require two complimentary defense strategies rather than abandoning any idea of defense. Efforts to block the smuggling of people and drugs into this country have not been particularly successful but have inspired greater watchfulness, and the US has been very successful in tracking terrorist groups trying to cross the border. Arguably, any terrorist group trying to bring in a bomb would include at least one person who knew that the US would pay any amount of cash for information about such a plot. 

4. The system simply doesn't work. This argument, so far, may be valid, but military technology often (not always) improves with research, experience, and testing. It would certainly be stupid to spend billions on a system that has not had a good test record. The point is that more testing is needed, and at a faster pace. The Clinton testing program launched on test, then spent months analyzing every detail. While cheaper, this also could take forever, and the threat (however small) is growing. The Bush plan is to conduct more tests in a shorter time, even at the risk that the problems that are to be found in the data of Test #6 might not have been identified before Test #7 also fails and for the same reason. The counter-argument is that with two (or more) test all providing data on the same design flaw, that flaw may ultimately be easier to correct.--Stephen V Cole




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