TCS Daily


Missile Defense Era Demands New Military Doctrine

By James Pinkerton - June 11, 2001 12:00 AM

First of two parts.


"It's time to think differently about defense." So declared President Bush in Iowa last Friday, signaling the theme he would carry with him on his trip to Europe this week. How differently? A lot differently. As he said in Dallas Center, just west of Des Moines, "Russia is no longer our enemy and therefore we shouldn't be locked into a Cold War mentality that says we keep the peace by blowing each other up." So the challenge for Americans, indeed for all humanity, is determining what new mentality-what post-Cold War doctrine-should replace the old idea of "blowing each other up." In a time of strategic uncertainty and intellectual flux, various doctrines present themselves:
  • First, the existing doctrine of blowing each other up;
  • Second, Bush's proposed new doctrine, which is defending ourselves against being blown up-by whomever;
  • Third, the doctrine that we are likely default to, defending ourselves, if that's the word, by hair-trigger, pre-emptive strikes against would-be blower-uppers;
  • Fourth, a transcendent defensive doctrine in addition to what Bush has in mind, which takes into account the Murphy's-Law inevitability of being blown up no matter what we do, and addresses that inevitability by creating a dynamic new geographical option for the human race.
The first doctrine, which Bush wants to replace, is the idea of keeping the peace by threatening to blow up the peace-buster; this has been the centerpiece of U.S. strategic thinking for half a century. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) worked well enough during the bipolar Cold War, when both the U.S. and the USSR proved themselves to be rationally non-suicidal, but it's a chancy approach in a multipolar, or at least multi-nuclear, world, where some nations appear to suffer from-to mix metaphors-some form of bipolar disorder. As Bush put it, "Rogue nations who can't stand America, our allies, our freedoms or our successes" might deal with their anger by deciding to "point a missile at us." And so, he said, "We must have the capacity to shoot that missile down."

What Bush is talking about now is the second doctrine, the seemingly obvious idea of defending oneself. Even if National Missile Defense (NMD) doesn't deal with every threat, it deals with some threats--and so NMD is slowly gaining adherents. As noted here on May 29, the new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin (D-Mich.), has endorsed NMD-if the details can be worked out, diplomatically and technologically.

Even The New York Times agrees. In a June 4 editorial, the paper maintained, "A narrowly targeted, technologically reliable missile defense is desirable and may be possible to develop." But, the Times warned, echoing Levin, "To produce such a system, the Bush administration must set aside its exaggerated expectations and commit itself to a program of careful testing and patient diplomacy." Some would say that the Bush administration, building on decades of NMD research, is doing exactly that. It is working on a "scarecrow" defense system that could be deployed as soon as 2004, even as it consults with allies; both Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld took the NMD case to Europe in recent weeks, and now Bush is going overseas, too. Indeed, the increasingly multilateral-minded Bushies have taken lately to dropping the N, just calling the proposal MD-for just plain Missile Defense, open to any peace-loving country that wants to sign on to the new doctrine.

But of course, even under the most optimistic scenarios, N/MD will not be a robust reality until the end of the decade. So that begs the question of what military doctrine will obtain in the meantime. That is, what does a prudent nation-state do to defend itself in a world in which seven nations-the U.S., Russia, Britain, France, China, India, and Pakistan-acknowledge possessing nuclear weapons; in which an eighth country, Israel, is presumed to possess them; and in which many other nations are thought likely to have access to A-bombs, either by manufacture or purchase?

With so many potential players, the old idea of deterrence breaks down; imagine the confusion of a half-dozen angry leaders all jockeying to get through to each other on their red telephones. Moreover, to the degree to which crazy countries or crazy groups or even crazy individuals can acquire "loose nukes" and loose them on their targets without regard to consequence, deterrence is completely useless.

So in the absence of a good defense, the only answer is a good offense. That is, absent NMD, a risk-conscious country might think more about pre-emptive strikes. This is the third possible doctrine, which Israel pioneered two decades ago. On June 7, 1981, Prime Minister Menachem Begin ordered the destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak, near Baghdad. In the pilots' briefing room, Israel Defense Force chief of staff Lt. Gen. Rafael Eitan told the F-15 and F-16 flyers that they had no choice but to fulfill the mission: "The alternative is our destruction."

The Israelis succeeded in that mission without suffering a single casualty, but pre-emption is hardly foolproof. The United States' cruise-missile attack on an alleged chemical-weapons factory in Khartoum on August 20, 1998, was in part retaliation for the bombing of U.S. embassies in Africa, but it was also a pre-emptive strike against future terror, even if it appears that bad intelligence led to the faulty targeting of an aspirin factory.

Although the U.S. suffered no casualties in that attack, pre-emptive first-striking is an inherently risky doctrine. However necessary hitting first might be for a nation's self-defense, common sense says that countries that practice pre-emptive strikes will ultimately be struck themselves.

Of course, as the creation and utilization of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is further "democratized"--such that more and more players can get access to not only nuclear weapons, but also chemical and biological weapons--the task of defending the nation-state will grow all the more difficult. Indeed, the WMD era could make the MAD epoch seem like the good old days.

Missile defense will help, of course, but those who argue that alternative delivery mechanisms could deliver the same destructive charge--the proverbial "suitcase bomb" toted in by an anonymous terrorist-have a fair point.

The nations of the world should proceed with MD, even as they heighten their vigilance against all other threats, too. But an honest appreciation of all the dangers facing humanity suggests that far more profound safeguarding steps will be needed. That is, wise leaders will have to look beyond defending and pre-empting. After all, in the history of warfare, offense has always overcome defense-at least for a time. But of course, in the WMD era, even the briefest triumph for the offense could be more than disastrous for the defense; it could be annihilatory and, indeed, history-ending.

Mindful that humans are increasingly capable of extinguishing not just their enemies, but also the entire human race, leaders with a true eye for the long-term well-being of the species should start thinking about an additional defensive doctrine, a dynamic theory of defense that would transcend the terminal dilemma we face here on the third rock from the sun.

Next week: the fourth doctrine, a new and different approach to defense, based on pessimism, but laced with optimism.

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