American Maginot-ism

There’s a good article in this week’s Economist looking at one of those public policy ideas that just won’t seem to die: strategic missile defense, aka “Star Wars”. Next year will see the deployment of the first ten interceptor missiles by the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), the defense unit charged with implementing the program, so we’ll soon be hearing about it in the news all over again.

The Economist piece is a good overview of how we got from Ronald Reagan’s grand early-80s vision of a huge space-based global missile shield to the comparatively small and unambitious program in place today (a few ground-based missiles housed in California and Alaska to guard against the launch of one or two ICBMs from North Korea). It does, though, miss the mark on one point I think is important: it describes the opposition of most Democrats to this program as coming mostly on the basis of cost.

For me, at least, that’s not it at all. I mean, the cost is certainly bad enough; the billions of dollars we’ve poured into this program over the years are staggering. But my main reason for opposing it has nothing to do with cost, and everything to do with rationale. Put simply, I think MDA is getting ready to fight the wrong war.

The whole design of the strategic defense initiative has always been premised on the idea that the main vector by which enemies would get thermonuclear devices into the US would be by mounting them on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). After all, that’s how we do it, and that’s how the Russians would have done it, right? The problem is, as technology has marched on, it has become possible to deliver a nuclear device via other channels — channels MDA could never defend against. How many cargo containers come into the Ports of Baltimore or Los Angeles every day uninspected, for example? You could hide a nuclear device inside one of those. How many trucks come over the border from Mexico every day? You could smuggle a device ashore south of the border and then move it north with a load of cheap sneakers.

Then, once you’ve got it in a city somewhere, just put the thing in a U-Stor-It and keep a sleeper agent on the payroll in case the day ever comes when you need to go up against the US. Much cheaper than ICBMs, and just as effective. Heck, more effective — after all, launching an ICBM is like hanging up a big sign that says “I NUKED YOU”, while cooking off a suitcase bomb leaves no such evidence trail. So you don’t have to lose sleep over the inevitable massive retaliation that would follow a missile strike.

The point of all this hypothesizing is that the basic thinking behind the missile shield is flawed: it’s an attempt to address a threat that miniaturized nuclear technology has rendered almost quaint. It reminds me, in that way, of the Maginot Line, which was an excellent solution to the problem of how to defend a trench line against the kinds of assault weapons — field howitzers and machine guns — which had caused so much devastation in World War I. Even while the Line was being built, though, the seeds of its obsolescence had already been planted in the mind of German military genius Heinz Guderian. While the French obsessed over how to build the ultimate trench line, Guderian saw in the armored fighting vehicle the key to making such lines completely irrelevant. When the Germans and French eventually clashed in 1940, Guderian’s tanks and the strategy of blitzkrieg that he had crafted around them provided a stark demonstration of the folly of digging in to fight the last war.

MDA and its dreams of missile defense have eerie echoes of Maginot. The cost of a truly effective missile-defense program would be so high that other programs, other strategies, would be crowded out while America huddles under its “impregnable” defenses. Meanwhile, out there in the rest of the world, where the march of technology will not be ignored, there will be an Arab or Asian Guderian with the wheels turning in his or her head. And God protect us if they are in a position to turn those thoughts into a thermonuclear blitzkrieg of their own.



December 9, 2003
12:50 pm

Hmm. Your points are not bad, and you’re right that smuggling is a bigger threat right now than ICBMs, but I’d say that suitcase munitions are still going to be few and far between, whereas there are at least 2 nations less stable than Russia where home-built nukes are being strapped to balistic missiles, and at least one more country that’s trying to join that club. Pakistan and (from all accounts) North Korea already have active nuclear programs and balistic missile programs. Iran has a more limited balistic capability, and is engaged in some alarming behavior in its ostensibly civilian nuclear program.
These nukes will not be suitcase nukes. They’re crude ’40s technology a-bombs which are big and heavy. You couldn’t easily smuggle them in anything smaller than a container, and even then you’d have to bank on the container not being opened, unless you were content to set it off in port (which they certainly might be).
The basic idea of MDA is that there are some smaller countries out there trying to get into the balistic nuke club, and we want to raise the barrier-to-entry a bit to discourage that.
Its no silver bullet, but its not a completely hare-brained scheme, nonetheless.

Jason Lefkowitz

December 9, 2003
12:56 pm

But the problem is that in order to raise the barrier to entry, we have to spend a terrifically large amount of money. If we could do missile defense “on the cheap”, as it were — as a contingency measure — then I’d be less against it. But all the indications are that even a half-baked missile defense like the one we’re deploying now will cost many, many billions of dollars — billions of dollars that will have to come from somewhere. If they come at the expense of programs that counter more realistic threats, then it’s made us less safe, not more.