Missile Defense: Understanding the Issues

George Monbiot has a piece in the Guardian this week (“The US missile defense system is the magic pudding that will never run out“) explaining the financial motivations behind the US policy of promoting missile defense systems. His observations are fine, so far as they go, although they are limited by his own prejudices.

But enhancing strategic missile defense is more than just an endless barrel of pork. It is also a profoundly destabilizing policy that is essentially strategically aggressive. To understand how enhancing a “defense” capability can be an aggressive strategy, it is necessary to comprehend the Cold War issue of mutually assured destruction that most people under the age of 30 have probably had little cause to consider.

The hard reality of mutually assured destruction was probably the reason the USSR and USA did not initiate a nuclear third world war that would have destroyed the world. After a certain point, it became clear that both sides had such substantial arsenals of nuclear weapons that both would certainly be destroyed utterly (probably along with human civilization in toto) by any full exchange. What is crucial here is that this was feared to be the case even if one side succeeded in getting a jump on the other, and launched its missiles before the other side was ready. In other words, each side was thought to have the capability to substantially destroy the other, even with whatever was left to it after a successful nuclear strike upon it by the other (this latter, reduced capability was termed “second strike“).

Immense thought was given to ways to maintain stability in this situation, for obvious reasons – these were not neocon dilettantes, but men and women who really believed their lives and those of their families depended upon devising successful strategies to control the risk of nuclear destruction. Among the outcomes was an agreement known as the ABM Treaty, which was intended to tightly limit the development of missile defenses in order to promote stability. This counterintuitive approach was based upon two key publicly recognized insights, and one unmentioned reality.

First, missile defenses promote inflation of nuclear arsenals by causing the enemy to increase the size and sophistication of its nuclear weapons in order to overcome the defenses. One of the best ways to beat a missile defense system is to flood it with targets and thereby swamp its targeting mechanisms. Apart from the inherent undesirability of a nuclear arms race, such activity also destabilizes attempts to counter nuclear proliferation. Some might be surprised to learn (in the light of subsequent inaction on this count) that the key basis for the global agreement constraining nuclear proliferation (NPT) was a promise (dishonestly made and not surprisingly ignored subsequently) by the nuclear weapons states to work towards reduction of their own nuclear arsenals.

Second, missile defenses make nuclear war more likely, not less. They do so by undermining the iron reality of mutually assured destruction. Despite the practical ineffectiveness of missile defense systems so far (as highlighted by Monbiot in the above article), the existence of such systems gives politicians and military leaders the possibility of thinking they might survive a nuclear war. In particular, since missile defenses would be much more effective against a reduced second strike than against the full first strike capability of a superpower, the possession of a missile defense system encourages decision-makers to think that they could “win” by launching a surprise first strike. Nobody who has observed recent events or followed the paranoid and aggressive pronouncements of the US regime and elite should be in any doubt that the US is more than capable of launching such a first strike in the guise of “preemptive” defense.

The third, unmentioned reality that explains why mutually assured destruction kept the peace throughout the latter years of the Cold War is the unprecedented situation it created whereby the decision-makers on war and peace actually themselves, personally (and their families), had to face the consequences of the wrong decision. In this situation, suddenly the usual testosterone surges and jingoist urges that in previous eras had sufficed to cause national leaders to sacrifice other people in their millions doubtless seemed less overwhelming. Anything, therefore, that undermines mutually assured destruction strikes at one of the core reasons for the successful avoidance of global war.

All these realities remain as true as they ever were, but in the climate of the post-Soviet period, the worst consequences of US abrogation of the ABM treaty were not immediately felt. Russia was in no condition to compete with the US, and indeed was probably quite ready to concede broad US global leadership, if the US had chosen to treat Russia with respect in turn. In these circumstances, a nuclear arms race was not forthcoming, and there was no real threat of a war between the US and Russia. Although the Russians pointed out the well known problems of missile defenses (see for instance Foreign Affairs, September/October 2000: “The Missile-Defense Mistake: Undermining Strategic Stability and the ABM Treaty” by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov), their objections were brushed aside.

Things have now changed, however. The US proved unable to simply be the most powerful state in the world without rubbing the rest of the world’s collective noses in the situation at every opportunity. A universalist ideology of globalist democratization, combined with American exceptionalism and Israeli nationalist domination of US politics, produced endless interference in other countries’ affairs and an open pursuit of “full spectrum dominance." In the case of Russia, the US seemed to go out of its way to humiliate and antagonize its former rival. On missile defense, Kosovo, NATO expansion and the flouting of the UN Security Council over Iraq, the Russians were insulted time and again, and US and allied military encroachment on Russia became ever more menacing. (“Menacing” is, of course, a matter of perspective. The fact that Americans and their apologists and allies don’t see that their own actions could be construed as such merely reflects their own limited capacity to see from other perspectives).

With the Georgia fighting and the US response, we now see, for the first time since Gorbachev, the real possibility of a direct strategic confrontation between the US and Russia, over issues that are “red lines” for Russia. While the Georgia issue will rumble on and provide pretexts for US and allied action against Russia, it is over the Ukraine that a real dispute is likely to arise.

With this return to the Cold War situation of a direct confrontation between two states with substantial nuclear arsenals, the old unassailable logic of mutually assured destruction and missile defense reasserts itself. In this context, the introduction of US missile defenses to Poland and possibly even Ukraine can be seen for the foolishly provocative acts of aggression they really are. As outlined above, these developments create the potential for a US first strike that Russia simply cannot afford to ignore, in the hands of a state that has launched wars of aggression in Yugoslavia and Iraq, threatens one against Iran, has interfered in the politics of numerous countries through “color revolutions,” and propagandizes against the Russian “threat.” In order to deter a US preemptive strike, Russia will feel the need to reinvigorate its military generally, but in response to the installation of US missile defenses, technological enhancement and numerical increases to Russia’s nuclear weapons manifest will be vital.

Given the nature of the US regime (and of the hierarchies of both US political parties of power), there is little prospect now of avoiding a drawn out (if we are lucky!) confrontation. Anyone who wishes to understand the underlying truths of the situation, though, must begin with a proper understanding of the strategic missile defense issue, and not the kind of superficial or even outright mendacious propaganda nonsense that passes for “analysis” in our complicit media.

First hashed out on the Boondocks.org forum.

Read more by Randal Mark