TCS Daily

Strategic Defenses

By Jerry Pournelle - July 24, 2000 12:00 AM

As often noted, one problem with the National Missile Defense (NMD) debate is that most Americans think we already have it. If you ask the average man in the street how many ICBMs aimed at their city we could intercept if we knew when and where they would be launched, the answers vary from a few to some to all; few give the right answer, which is zero. The only reason we do not have strategic missile defenses is that our political leaders do not want them.

Yet some sort of NMD system is strategically, morally and constitutionally necessary. It is also economically and technologically feasible. I made the case, along with Stefan T. Possony and Francis X. Kane, in 1969 in our book, The Strategy of Technology. Since that time both the technological and economic factors have gotten much better for defenses. The moral and constitutional arguments are unchanged.

The constitutional and moral arguments for a strategic defense system are simply stated. Our present arms policy is based on retaliation: If you kill any of us with nuclear missiles, we will destroy you. You kill us, and we will kill you back -- cities, civilians, children and all. The doctrine is called Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) strategy, and it has been the official policy of the United States since Robert McNamara was secretary of defense in the 1960s.

Without strategic-defense capability, MAD is all we have, but surely it is nothing to be proud of. The Constitution says the United States should "provide for the common defense," not for the common destruction. If mutual destruction is the only possible course, you take it, but as a moral country we need to develop other capabilities. Leaving only one option -- a repulsive one -- is itself an immoral action.

So why not do it?

The arguments against strategic defense boil down to these: We cannot do it; we cannot afford it; having it will trigger a new arms race or war; and even if we have it, it won't do any good. Note that many of these arguments are contradictory, but that does not stop opponents of strategic defense from using them in turn: If one does not convince you, perhaps another will. The truth is that most of those Americans opposed to strategic defense do not trust the United States. It is as if they are saying, if we can defend ourselves, God knows what imperial mischief we may get into. We are already a superpower, and that is bad enough: God forbid we be an invulnerable superpower.

The odd part is that many of those who make these arguments approve of our interventions in Kosovo and Haiti, and seem to have no objections to our bombardments in Sudan and Afghanistan.

Leave aside the question of motives: Is there merit to any of the arguments against strategic defense? Is there any rational reason why the United States should prefer Mutual Assured Destruction to a policy of assured survival? Why we would rather destroy our enemies than defend ourselves?

First, of course, is the question of technology. Can we really do a strategic missile defense?

I cannot completely settle that here, but I can add some context for you to consider. An intercontinental missile is a complicated device -- to travel thousands of miles to arrive within a few miles, let alone a few feet, of a designated target is no easy task. Everything has to go just right. All the defense has to do is interfere at any point from launch to reentry. Since 1960 when ICBMs became technically possible, there has been a revolution in guidance, tracking and control technology. While those new technologies have improved the capability of the ICBM, there was not all that much improvement possible. New technologies made the final arrival on target more likely, but ICBM capability has not changed fundamentally.

The change in defense capability is more dramatic. In 1970 the best we could do was area weapons. Against what we faced then, area weapons could be quite effective. ICBMs must travel a fairly precise and predictable path from launch pad to target, and a nuclear explosion in their path -- the threat tube -- can effectively sterilize it.

We can still use area defenses including threat-tube sterilization, but today we have better kill mechanisms, better guidance systems, far better detection and tracking capabilities, and much better command and control. As these technologies inevitably improve -- Moore's Law applies here as electronics and computers get better and cheaper every year -- defense capability gets better.

Most technological arguments against missile defenses concede that we can do the intercepts now, but cite other concerns. Some are merely silly, like Carl Sagan's suggestion that the Soviets could defend against boost-phase laser attacks by armoring the booster: a technique that would use up all the missile's payload in armor. Others argue that missile decoys will make defense too expensive. The claim seems to be that these decoys -- used by our enemies -- are cheaper than defenses, used by us. True, but so what? Decoys are still expensive, and effective ones have not yet been built. Against small numbers of decoys our defense system will simply intercept them all. With our sufficient laser power we will merely raster the target area: Burn everything, then burn it again.

As to the cost differential, so what? If an opponent builds decoys, and we build interceptors, they will go broke long before we will. Not that anyone will actually start that race. There are too many other consequences to directly threatening the United States of America, and if the Soviet Union could not win a strategic arms race with the United States, who else is likely to? The economic objections just do not wash. Neither do the technological objections. We can intercept strategic missiles, and we can afford the defenses.

Anonymous war?

The oddest objection to strategic defenses is that it will not do any good because nuclear weapons can be delivered other ways than just by ICBMs. Weapons can be smuggled into harbors on cargo ships, or sent to any city by UPS and Fed Ex. Why bother intercepting an ICBM?

The purpose of war is to win -- meaning a country is better off after the war than it would have been if the war had not happened. You do not win wars with UPS and smugglers. The threat of terrorism -- including nuclear terrorism - is real, but it is not the same kind of threat as an ICBM. Today an ICBM is used as an umbrella under which other operations can be carried out. If Serbian President Slobodan Milosovec had a few nukes and a couple of ICBMs he would still control Kosovo. The People's Republic of China threatens Taiwan, while muttering darkly about a dozen or so missiles \that can reach San Francisco or Los Angeles. Strategic missile defenses cannot negate terrorism, but they can negate that kind of extended deterrence.

Strategic defenses do not protect us from biological weapons, assassination threats, or the troops getting sick from not properly washing their mess kits. They can protect us from nuclear destruction of a city. They can also protect our allies from similar threats.

It is not easy

There is nothing simple or easy about building and deploying strategic missile defenses. No single and simple system will do the job. Proper defense against ICBM attacks on the United States will require space-based components for both detection and interception. That will not be cheap, but much of the expense is in launch costs: One of the major advances needed will be a drastic lowering of the cost of delivering payload to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). But lower LEO cost would have some compensating economic advantages in communications and observations.

In the same vein, most technology developments will have multiple benefits. Improved missile-defense technology also will mean improvements in lasers, radars, target discrimination and tracking; it will also have great potential benefits for both military and civilian applications.

Unfortunately, the leadership in the United States has not really even started considering some of the other factors we will need. Proper missile defenses will require inter-service cooperation. Some components, particularly defenses against Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles, need sea-based elements. Continental defense of the United States still belongs to the Army. Some intercept elements belong to the Air Force, as does much of the high-energy laser research. All these details need to be worked out.

They are details, though, and none of them are beyond our capabilities.

The only real reason for not deploying strategic missile defenses is that we do not want them. That is a political decision. It is high time that issue is debated directly, not hidden behind silly obfuscation about UPS and missile decoys.

Dr. Jerry Pournelle has written about computers and civilization for 20 years. He is a contributing editor for, where this column originally appeared.

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