Going ‘Round the Maginot Line

A couple of days ago I wrote a piece comparing our never-ending missile-defense initiative to the Maginot Line. Some further thought on this has led me to wonder whether getting around such a line might not be even easier for a budding Arab Guderian than I originally thought.

My idea would require our adversary to have copious amounts of chutzpah, but little else. It’s a strategy that’s only really suited for an Evil Genius with nerves of steel and balls of brass. The upside for such a person, though, could be substantial.

The strategy, in a word, is: bluff.

In my previous piece I described the looming danger posed by miniaturized nuclear weapons, and how easy it would be to smuggle one into the country. I said a smart adversary would pre-position one or two in the United States long before they needed them — kind of like an insurance policy.

But what if you don’t have one or two bombs, or the means to smuggle them into the U.S.? Well, then, you just pretend that you did. Announce to the world that you have planted a thermonuclear device somewhere in a major U.S. city of your choosing. Heck, may as well throw a real scare into ’em — announce that you’ve planted two. Then outline your demands and set a deadline for compliance (make it short).

If the deadline is short enough, and the city is large enough, you’ll have put the U.S. in an unenviable position. Finding a device the size of a crate that could be hidden anywhere in a major city, with no leads to go on and a ticking clock, makes finding a needle in a haystack seem like a simple problem. Finding such a device when it doesn’t even exist is even harder! (Especially if you, the Evil Genius, were smart enough to plant some false leads and promising-seeming paper trails in the city in question before you made your threat.) And if you claimed you’ve got two, they’ll be sweating even more, because even if they find one they’ll still be out of luck — it’s all or nothing.

When time runs out on the deadline, the U.S. will have a number of choices, all of them bad:

  • Launch a first strike on your country, killing large numbers of innocent civilians and (as far as they know) possibly not even pre-empting the threatened strike (even if they killed everybody in your country, your agents in the U.S. could act alone — if they weren’t fictional, but the Americans don’t know that)
  • Grit their teeth, tell you to go pound sand, and run out the clock — in which case they’ll discover it’s a bluff, but to get there they’ll have to display about ten thousand times more backbone than any recent politician has
  • Cave in and give you what you want, to avoid the “inevitable” (heh heh heh) apocalypse.

Of course, this policy would make you an international pariah, but I’m assuming that if you’re an Evil Genius and your relations with the U.S. have deteriorated this far, you probably are there already anyway, so a little more disapproval isn’t the end of the world. And even if the plan fails, the worst-case scenario for you (you look like an idiot in front of a world that thinks you’re an idiot anyway) is much less dire than what the Americans think it is for them (substantial devastation of a major city), so the odds favor their giving in.

I don’t bring things like this up because I enjoy them. I bring them up only to illustrate the folly of assuming that a missile defense system would mean the end of nuclear confrontation between powers. It would only channel that confrontation into different avenues that missile defense couldn’t stop.

That’s what fortifications do — they are like stones in a stream: no matter how large the stone, the water always finds a way to flow around it. Sometimes it takes moments, sometimes it takes millennia, but the water always finds a way. When you retreat into a fortification — when you surrender the initiative to your opponent — you become the stone.



December 10, 2003
1:53 am

This is the realist in me coming out, but I have to say I’d combine options 1 and 2.
Tell them to pound sand, let them pop their nuke if they like, and then end whatever group was associated with it. They CANNOT take out our deterrent force with one or two nukes, even if they have them.
No politician would do that on purpose (except me, which is why we should limit the powers of government, in case I get in), but would probably stumble in to it.
That being said, my (thankfully untested) theory is that nukes make a state want to act like a state. The only way that a non-state can get them, yet, is to get hold of a “loose nuke”…but they’ll have nation-states competing with them for those resources. If Iran gets the bomb, they will not mess around with smuggling it into the US, they will use it to become lords of the local manor, probably influencing Iraq.
Combine that with better rocket technology, and then yes, I think an accidental launch or even a threat to launch against CONUS in order to cover some local move (say NK invades SK) is a plausible threat and from a strategic point of view, not a bad argument to have missile defense in the toolbox. If Kim Jong Il can be told “not only can we retaliate, but you can’t even take out one of our cities with any guarantee of success” it makes it that much less likely he’ll go that route.
Also, strictly speaking, accidental launches and rogue states are NOT last war’s threat, so the Maginot analogy falls down. It’s a theoretical threat, and debateable vs the theoretical suitcase bomb (a crate being more likely), but not the massive strike by a sophisticated enemy that was the last (theoretical) threat.
Also, to be fair to the Economist, they brought up all the issues you mentioned, such as the possibility of an unconventional delivery.

Jason Lefkowitz

December 10, 2003
9:14 am

Sure, that’s what YOU would do (or at least, what you think you would do when discussing the issue in an abstract sense, without the pressure of a real threat and a ticking clock). My point was that it’s not what EVERYBODY would do. If the threat was made publicly and loudly, there would be immense pressure on the government to capitulate to whatever the adversary’s demands were.
It would take a politician of rare courage to go to the American people and say “Look, two million or so of you are about to die, and there’s nothing I can do about that — but I promise we’ll get the bastards after you’re vaporized.” That’s not a message that would go over very well, especially if it was publicized that the threat could be averted.
That’s why I asserted that, if the timespan was short enough, bluff could actually be as effective as a weapon itself — because the public hysteria would be the same, and by the time they could figure out that you were bluffing, the deadline would already have passed.
As for the “good to have in the toolbox” argument, I would agree if anybody could explain a way to build an effective missile defense system that would not require a sizable fraction of our overall defense budget. If missile defense was just another line item, sure, why not have it — but as it stands, to deploy it even against limited threats like North Korea has required the commitment of huge sums of money (and we’re still not sure it would work under combat conditions). To get it to the point where policymakers could bet on it in a crisis would mean making it a central plank of our defense strategy — which goes far beyond the “nice to have in the toolbox” category.
And as you note, the Economist did mention some of these threats — but I thought they gave them short shrift, which is what prompted my original post.