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Ballistic Missile Defense and Reality

May 6, 2016 The system protects Eastern Europe from a very improbable threat.

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By George Friedman

A U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) system site in Romania became operational yesterday. The system is intended to defend against attacks by one or a few missiles. The system has been under consideration and construction for several years – it came online in December, but had to be integrated into NATO’s larger BMD framework before it could become operational. Missile defense in Europe has become as much a political symbol as a weapon. I would argue that if political symbols matter, then it has served a purpose, because it is hard to envision the military purpose of the system.

The system is designed to block one or a few (the precise number is likely unknown) missiles targeted toward a large area. This would be ineffective against Russia, should it wish to launch a nuclear strike against Europe, because the system would be easily saturated by a relatively small number of missiles and would be completely irrelevant if the Russians launched a massive strike, which is certainly something they could do. If some other nuclear power decided to launch an attack, it would likely have fewer missiles to launch, so the system could be effective.

The problem with this is that it is unclear why a country with relatively few missiles would launch a strike at all, and totally unclear why their target would be Europe. Nuclear weapons were developed by the United States in World War II as a substitute for massed bombing attacks. World War II bombers were so inaccurate that the destruction of a single factory required thousands of bombs. Inevitably, since most factories needed workers and were in cities, the destruction of a few factories required the destruction of a city.

Over 100,000 people were killed in Tokyo over the course of three days in massed air raids. A comparable number died in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was not necessary for mass destruction. It was primarily needed for efficient mass destruction. It was precisely that efficiency that stunned people. They had gotten used to casualties between 1914 and 1945, but the idea of a single weapon killing so many people turned nuclear bombs from weapons to the embodiment of hell. Hiroshima is remembered around the world. The Bombing of Tokyo not so much.

Nuclear weapons became reasonably associated with the apocalyptic end of the world. Novels were written on it. I recall three: “Alas, Babylon,” “On the Beach” and “Fail-Safe.” Each was about catastrophic nuclear war, but none attempted to explain the political origins of the war. The decision-making that led to the war was left out. “Fail-Safe” postulated a technical glitch that led to war. “On the Beach” had some vague mention of Albania (of all places), but no discussion of why the missiles were launched. “Alas, Babylon” had a navy fighter fire a missile at a Soviet plane over Syria that went awry and hit a warehouse that had nuclear weapons stored there. One exploded leaving the Soviets to launch an all-out nuclear attack on the United States.

The origins of the war were left murky because while everyone could imagine a nuclear war, no one could imagine a coherent line of reasoning that would lead a country to launch a war against another nuclear power. This was simply because there was no rational reason. The military reason – destroying targets in cities through mass destruction – was obviated with advanced precision weapons. The battlefield use of the weapons depended on the generosity of the enemy in massing forces and the indifference to one’s own forces. As for annihilating cities, that was not where the enemy forces were, and doing so would achieve nothing. In the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Israel, under heavy pressure, contemplated the use of nuclear weapons. It chose not to for several reasons, but mainly because it would achieve nothing militarily. It could have destroyed Damascus, but the Syrian army and its field commanders were not there. Attacking the forces on the Golan would have killed both sides’ forces.

The political calculation that obviated nuclear war was rationality. Therefore, those terrified by nuclear war, turned to another explanation: madness. “Dr. Strangelove” assumed that a U.S. Air Force general lost his mind and sent his B-52s to attack the Soviet Union. However, to make this work, the bomber pilot had to be mad as a hatter, the Russian ambassador to the United States was nuts, and Dr. Strangelove, who appeared to the National Security Advisor, was completely insane. Everyone in the room was crazy.

During the 1950s, it was assumed that once China had gotten nuclear weapons, world holocaust would follow. Mao was known to be insane. One of his comments was that losing a few hundred million people in a nuclear exchange would not be a problem for China. Mao was not squeamish about death on a massive scale, but he was not that crazy. More important, the other people in the room were not that crazy. Absent a psychosis as widespread as we find in “Dr. Strangelove,” somebody in the room loves their family enough to kill the loon.

The madman scenario is the only coherent explanation for starting a nuclear war, but it confronts a hard reality. Since World War II, no nation has used nuclear weapons for any purpose. For the U.S. in Vietnam and the Soviets in Afghanistan, nuclear weapons had no utility. Even if they had, both countries would have accepted defeat rather than use them. The empirical reality is that of all the nations that have nuclear capability, and wish ill toward their neighbor, none have used it. You would have to be crazy to use it. It is always posited that the current enemy doesn’t value human life as we do. Thus, Iran and North Korea might launch attacks. Kim Jong Un is clearly enjoying playing God too much to spoil that. In Iran, the sheer corruption is comforting. People who love accumulating money are rarely suicidal. The madman theory doesn’t work.

Wars are of course waged by helicopters, armored fighting vehicles and well-trained infantry firing wire-guided missiles at tanks. This is the substance of war. The problem with BMD is that the money spent to build it could have been spent preparing Romania, Poland and the Baltics for war. But the United States has a fixation with complex weapons designed to handle improbable threats, and Poland and Romania regard building this system as a symbol of American commitment to defending them. All this defends them against is a threat that is improbable for two reasons. First, nuclear attacks are unlikely. Second, a European city is unlikely to be a target over cities like Tel Aviv, Mumbai or Karachi.

Nuclear weapons are not trivial. A nuclear attack would be terrible, and however unlikely, it is a threat that must be negated. To assert otherwise is to be casual with the fate of humanity. Ideally, we would destroy nuclear weapons, but nuclear weapons do not live in silos. They live in the minds of people who know how to build them. Destroying the weapons will not destroy the knowledge. But whatever the risk, it is essential to be rational in assessing risk. The threat of a nuclear strike is extremely low. The probability of conventional war is much higher. Ballistic missile defense addresses an apocalypse for which even great novelists could not imagine a convincing origin. But conventional wars have been waged many times since World War II. The money spent on BMD should have been spent on far more probable threats.

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