Friday, April 27, 2007


Some bugs never seem to die, especially those of the Presidential type. The missile defence bug is surely one of these. It has bitten almost every President from JFK to GWB, sapped away billions of taxpayer dollars from the nation's coffers, and regularly evaded the attempts of dozens of eminent experts to declare it futile and ominous.

It started in 1957, when Sputnik blazed across the sky. For the next thirty years or so, US Presidents projected a false 'missile gap' to the nation, and devoted manpower and an immense amount of money to building bigger and better missiles that could carry thermonuclear warheads across continents and initiate global nuclear conflict. This was inspite of the fact that the perceived missile gap was never a gap in the middle days of the Cold War. By banning the development of ballistic missiles as well as nuclear weapons, the United States could have retained a clear advantage over its opponents. But bugs as we know can be all-pervasive and recalcitrant. In the 60s, the Cold War reached new heights with the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the testing of many new missiles. Mercifully, nuclear tests in the atmosphere, underwater, and in space were banned in an important 1963 test ban.

The Chinese had been engaged in nuclear weapons research since the 1950s, and affairs had come to a head in 1950 during the Korean War. In 1964, China had detonated its first atomic bomb. After the Soviet Union, it was seen as the biggest threat to the US. Sometime in the 1960s, the bug caught the imagination of Washington, and plans were made to employ a huge anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system that could deflect a potential Chinese nuclear attack. The plans were first conducted in secret, and then, even before China really had the requisite technology to engage in such attacks, were heavily publicised by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, thus giving the Chinese carte blanche to go ahead.

Missile defense can be a tricky concept. On the face of it, it seems to guarantee a nation's safety from first nuclear strikes. But this sense of safety is misleading, for several reasons. First of all, technical ones; it was shown repeatedly, most strikingly in 1968 in a Scientific American article by the great physicist Hans Bethe and Richard Garwin, that almost any countermeasure that the US could take against such an attack could be defeated by 'countercountermeasures' by the enemy. This could include the use of any number of decoys, from aluminium foil to fake explosions and warheads, to mislead defensive missiles. On a very local scale, missile defense could be partially successful, but the authors showed that the marginal expense necessary for deflecting missile attacks was much more for the US than for the enemy. In other words, it was relatively easier for the enemy to thwart defensive missiles than for the US to thwart offensive ones.
The more important problem with missile defense is political. By employing such a defense, the US gives out a signal to other countries that since it is now securely defended, it may not have a problem launching a first nuclear strike itself. The result of such an impression is predictable; the enemy would put even more resources into developing more and better missiles and weapons to penetrate the system. If there is a good way to initiate another nuclear arms race, this way would be close to the top of the list. For example, in 1968, one could not have blamed the Chinese for accelerating their own missile development after hearing of US plans to develop such a defense system. In fact, it would have been a nice excuse for them.

In any case, the 1960s system fortunately did not work out, but not before millions of dollars were spent on it. A respite came in 1972, when Richard Nixon signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, that limited the numbers of deployable ballistic missiles on both sides. But like other treaties, this treaty also contained a slippery slope, because it said nothing about developing more sophisticated missiles, simply about deploying them. Also, it did not say anything about the number of nuclear warheads that a single missile could carry. This loophole (probably intentionally left in) led to one of the most dangerous developments of the Cold War; Multiple Independently targeted Reentry Vehicles (MIRVs), in which a single missile such as the Minuteman could carry upto 10, independently targetable warheads. This probably was not much better than the situation before the treaty.

But the icing on the cake was laid by the charismatic Ronald Reagan, with his espousal of a really ridiculous, unfeasible, and prvocative system- the famous "Star Wars", or Strategic Defense Initiative. Star Wars envisioned hundreds of missiles and weapons based in space. It got rescued from early demise by a new invention, the X-ray laser, which could shoot its gigawatt beam across miles of space and supposedly blow out missiles and thermonuclear warheads into oblivion.
However, after Reagan enthusiastically took up the gospel, it began to become apparent that the project had been oversold, and scientists who worked on it had been pressured into remaining silent about its limitations. While hawkish Edward Teller lobbied for it, the resourceful Hans Bethe and his colleagues again rose to the cause, and published another article in Scientific American on the same lines as before, arguing yet again that the enemy could always emply suitable decoys and defeat the system, and that it would lead again to an accelerated arms race.

Nuclear weapons have been brought in check somewhat by various treaties since then. But needless to say, George Bush has inherited the mantle from his esteemed Cold War predecessor and has gloriously validated it. In 2002, after honouring the anti-ballistic missile treaty for 30 years, the administration withdrew from it in an ominous development. Part of the reason was a short-lived but dangerous resurgence of "small" nuclear weapons R & D. These "low-yield" weapons called "bunker busters" were intended to bust underground enemy bunkers. However, it was convincingly argued that contrary to what their proponents would have everyone believe, they were no "safer" or "contained" than conventional nukes, and in some respects even less so.

The most important reason for withdrawing from the treaty obviously is the renewed interest in another missile defense system, "Son of Star Wars", this time ostensibly against North Korea and Iran, and this time based in both Europe and the US.
Yet another article was published by Bethe's collaborator Richard Garwin in Scientific American in 2004, arguing against the proposed system. Again, the most important objection is political. What kind of signal is the US giving to N. Korea and Iran? It's clearly an invitation for these nations to become even more suspicious of the US, and get the perfect pretext for developing their own missiles.

Perhaps the US wants to adopt the Cold War strategy to try to economically bleed these nations out by making them spend huge sums on missiles, a justification that is often made in support of this endeavor. But this strategy is not only dubious but misguided. Firstly, there is no guarantee that another nation would not atack the US in any way until it faces economic collapse, so that the overall risk to the US increases. Secondly, even if it does not attack, it would develop any number of weapons and missile systems and possibly help them proliferate. This brings us to the third and most pertinent point. In this age of nuclear terrorism, it is highly unfeasible that Iran or N. Korea wil use nuclear warheads on missiles to attack the US if they really wanted to wage war against it. It would be suicide for them. Instead, as the late Carl Sagan, an outspoken opponent of missile defense used to point out, these states would smuggle in a low yield or dirty bomb through a suitcase or through diplomatic pouch. Graham Allison also affirms this in his highly readable Nuclear Terrorism. In fact, it is highly unlikely that these states would do something like this that would threaten to drop the curtain on their own existence. The real threat is from independent terrorist groups with no return labels and fear of retaliation. And it is almost impossible and ludicrous that they would use missiles to attack the US. However, nations like N. Korea and Iran would happily and anonymously provide the technology which they have developed to these terrorists.

In the latest developments, the US is pressurizing Vladimir Putin and other European leaders to employ missile defense in Europe. I commend Putin and these leaders for not giving in to this inane and misguided demand. One must not forget that it was the presence of Jupiter missiles in Turkey which threatened the Soviet Union in 1961, and became one of the causes of the missile crisis. By again employing missiles in Europe, the US is only going to make itself and the world a less safer place.

Times have changed, but the US still very much seems to be living in Cold War times. It still has about 10,000 warheads, many on hair-trigger 15 minute launch alerts. The threatening nature of this state of affairs has been certified by both conservatives and liberals. The strategies of missile defense that it's trying to employ are Cold War era tactics. And they were unworkable and dangerous during the Cold War, and are dangerous right now. One would think that statesmen would have learnt from such a long experience of dealing with possible death and destruction. But, like bacteria, these bugs don't die out. They can be resisted and rooted out though, but statesmen don't have the intelligence and conviction to resist them, and would rather let the bugs turn them into zombies.

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Anonymous SN said...

An excellent piece that goes into the economics of building nuclear arsenals:

10:36 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Good piece, thanks!

10:51 AM  
Anonymous anya said...

Quite well written Ashutosh. Though I am curious to know what prompted this post right now.
Also we need to look into where all the money (spent for missile defense) is going? That may explain why 'statesmen' are interested in the rejuvenation of the same.

Oh and you have my blog url wrong in the links. It is

1:39 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Anya, yes, thanks for reminding me about the broken link! About what prompted the post, it was the current debate about putting missile defense into Europe.

11:37 AM  

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