There’s a growing debate about missile defense in the national media. Much of it is recycled from debates in the 1960’s (Sentinel/Safeguard) and 1980’s (Star Wars). Missile defense, it is said, may “destabilize” the nuclear balance or lead to an arms race. Defensive technologies may be overpriced, underdeveloped, or easily negated by cheap countermeasures. These are important issues, but what about the other side of the story? Here are four concerns that merit similar attention.
The nuclear balance isn’t stable. The number of nations with weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles is growing. Some of those nations (like North Korea) are run by irrational cults masquerading as political movements. The biggest overseas nuclear power, Russia, has experienced severe instability in recent years and has a decrepit, unreliable early-warning system. Does this sound like a stable nuclear balance?
Deterrence isn’t provable. U.S. nuclear strategy is based on deterrence, which means discouraging aggression by threatening horrible consequences (i.e., nuclear retaliation). But deterrence is a psychological concept, so until the CIA learns how to read foreign leaders’ minds, it will be impossible to prove it’s working. All we know is that nobody has launched a nuclear attack, which may or may not be due to deterrence. If an attack occurs tomorrow, we’ll know deterrence wasn’t working. Until then, it’s all conjecture.
Accidents happen. Deterrence prevents deliberate aggression. It can’t prevent an accident, and it can’t dissuade an irrational actor. Think about that the next time you hear about gaps in the Russian early-warning network, or about the latest crazy statement by a North Korean leader.
No technology is perfect. Some “experts” think ballistic missiles are invulnerable to defensive measures. That’s what people used to say about longbows. Every technology eventually yields to new ideas. Unfortunately, no defensive technology is perfect either which is why the debate over what missile-defense approach works best is misguided. An effective defensive shield requires diverse systems that complement each other by preventing easy counters.
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