Friday, August 15, 2008

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Missile Defense

Russia is dropping hints that Poland may find itself on the receiving end of an attack for its involvement with the United States in a Missile Defense shield. Why would a major power threaten a small-fry like Poland over a defensive system?

On the face of it a missile defense shield seems like a good idea. The threat of nuclear annihilation did not end just because the Cold War is over. There are several more nuclear powers in the world, India, Pakistan, and a few of the former Soviet states but the theories about the way that nuclear weapons would be used in a conflict have not changed.

Nuclear weapons are incredibly devastating. The one time that they were used it was against a state that had no capacity to retaliate. In fact the bombs dropped on the industrial centers of Hiroshima and Nagasaki severely limited Japan's production and ability to fight the War. They had to surrender.

The Cold War brought about some of the best acronyms that government minds had to offer. Nuclear Utilization Theorists (NUTs) developed the framework of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) that guided us through the Cold War without nuclear fallout. MAD plays out like this: Country A launches attack against Country B, Country B retaliates with however many nuclear weapons weren't destroyed during the first strike. This is a little simplistic, there are submarines capable of launching nuclear attack and bombers in the air ready to retaliate (a la Dr. Strangelove), but the point is made.

This is why there was an arms race. It wasn't enough to have bombs enough to annihilate your enemy, you need to have a second strike capability that is a credible deterrent to a first strike. Primary targets of nuclear weapons are usually major cities and other nuclear weapon complexes. If you can wipe out a county's nuclear arsenal they cannot retaliate. So the supply needs to be large, theoretically large enough not to be destroyed by the other country's missiles.

If there was no threat of a second strike then there is no deterrent to launching the first strike. This is incredibly destabilizing to a system that has prevent a nuclear war for decades.

The idea of a missile defense shield is a relic. A tip of the hat to Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" program. It has never worked in testing. It will likely never work. It is one of the many principles of physics that makes it a near impossibility to hit a moving object out of the sky. The theory goes that you can know where a missile is at any given time and you can know it's trajectory and speed, but you cannot know both at the same time. Increasing the accuracy of one measurement decreases the accuracy of the other. If missile defense is going to work you need to know both.

Bottom-line is that the stupid shield won't work and it gives the countries behind the shield the opportunity to strike first without being retaliated against. The MAD deterrent has been working just fine, so don't mess with it. The Russians are not happy about it and have made some threatening gestures to Poland for even thinking about it. The Russians know the difficulties of a feasible missile shield. They know their physics. But even during the Cold War they felt that if anyone could make such an idea reality it would be the Americans.

Theories are fine, but people are rarely that predictable. If you have not seen Dr. Strangelove of the Fog of War, I strongly suggest you do so. They illustrate the irrationality of people and dictators. Chilling moment during the Fog of War when Robert McNamara recalls a conversation with Fidel Castro about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Unless Castro was thumping his chest to the former Sec of Defense, we were a lot closer to nuclear war than anyone would have liked to admit.

Sure we would have been destroyed, but I still would have bombed the US. Fuck you guys anyway. So much for the assumption of a rational actor.

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