I’m back at Commentator. This time on missile defence:
It’s almost impossible to grasp now. Back in 1962 live nuclear bomb tests were an actual thing. The nuclear powers tested their weapons and raced to develop new ones.
There were 178 nuclear explosions around the world that year. Almost one nuclear explosion every other day. On land. At sea. At high altitude. Radioactive fallout floated around the planet.
In 1964 the movie Dr Strangelove darkly satirised the theories and logic of nuclear deterrence. In a famous scene General Turgidson and President Muffley argue the merits of launching a huge first nuclear strike against the Soviet Union:
If we were to immediately launch an all-out and coordinated attack on all their airfields and missile bases, we’d stand a damn good chance of catching ’em with their pants down! We would therefore prevail, and suffer only modest and acceptable civilian casualties …
Fast forward 55 years to the ravings of the North Korea regime and its own missile tests. Have the underlying issues changed? Not so much. General Turgidson had a grim point. What are “modest and acceptable civilian casualties” when weapons of mass destruction may be used?
Good question. The more so when President Trump muses on the options for ‘totally destroying’ North Korea.
There are three basic questions with missile defence:
What if it works?
What if it doesn’t work?
What if it might work up to a point?
Duly considered in turn.
As we have seen over the years, it’s possible for the United States and Russia (as the two states each with far more nuclear warheads than all other countries combined) to negotiate sensibly about reducing these stockpiles and tackling other WMD security issues.
However, Russia’s blundering illegal interventions in Ukraine and all the goings-on over alleged Russian interference in the US elections process currently make the political context for doing that far more difficult.
And weapons systems are expensive. Since 2012 the U.S. GDP has grown by some $3 trillion to a dizzy $19 trillion; Russia’s has fallen towards a puny $1 trillion. Russia simply can’t afford the defence systems the United States can pay for. This rattles Moscow.
Nonetheless, the hard realities of all those warheads on both sides still give plenty of scope for hard-nosed cooperation, including over new North Korea economic sanctions. And while Russia publicly rails against any increased missile defence moves by the United States, it knows that they’ll never be so reliable as to make Washington feel completely safe from all-out Russian retaliation.
Difficult issues arise when a state chooses to position itself outside accepted ‘normal’ boundaries of behaviour. Once most states are rubbing along in predictable ways, a market niche opens for ‘rogue’ regimes such as in Tehran and Pyongyang that opt not to do that.
Even then North Korea stands alone. Its leadership tolerates nothing like free public life and operates with exaggerated brutality towards its own people while holding millions of South Koreans hostage and ranting against the key ally of South Korea, namely the United States.
It therefore makes absolute sense for the United States to develop its missile defence systems to protect itself from erratic regimes such as Tehran and above all Pyongyang (“Even if you try to hit us, you can’t. So stop it.”) while at the same time doing its best to manage the strategic nuclear issues with Beijing and Moscow (and New Delhi and Islamabad).
Only the United States can afford to develop and deploy a multilayered (sea, ground and space) missile defence system to protect itself, albeit imperfectly, against different types of nuclear missile threats from almost anywhere on earth. Who can blame them for making that effort?
Or for adding a new gloss:
You hurt us. We obliterate you!