In the wake of the U.S.-Russia dustup over placement of an ABM interceptor site there has been a raft of articles on the U.S. missile shield. The October 2007 issue of Arms Control Today devotes the cover and six articles to it. Matthew Yglesias (“Preemption, 12 October 2007) calls his readers’ attention to a long story in Rolling Stone on the subject (Hitt, Jack, “The Shield,” Issue 1036, 4 October 2007).

I think that Mr. Yglesias is correct to say that the real purpose of ABM is “to facilitate American first strikes.” That the U.S. seeks such a capacity is the conclusion of a RAND report (Buchan, Glen C., et. al., Future Roles of U.S. Nuclear Forces: Implications for U.S. Strategy, Santa Monica, California: RAND, 2003, see p. 61) and Keir Lieber and Daryl Press suggest (“The End of MAD: The Nuclear Dimension of U.S. Primacy,” International Security, vol. 30, No. 4, Spring 2006, pp. 7-44, see p. 28) that in such a scheme, mop-up of a small number of surviving missiles launched after a disarming counterforce strike might be a job for which an ABM system of limited capability might be adequately suited.

But this isn’t the whole of the story: there are three reasons that the right has in the past and continues today to be so in favor of an anti-ballistic missile system.

  1. More fundamental than anything else is the American cultural reason for the fervor for ABM on the right. The culturally Scotch-Irish descended, Jacksonian segment of the United States subscribes to a very specific notion of warfare and the law of nations. War is to be fought all out with no restraint. Victory resulting in complete submission of the opponent is the objective. It is retributive in its notion of justice and particularistic rather than universalizing and legalistic in its reasoning. It is a mentality that never made the leap to the counterintuitive reasoning of the nuclear age. Its members have never understood limited war or restraint in warfare. Hence the angst over Vietnam, the use of torture in Iraq and opposition to all forms of arms control.

    The basis of arms control in the 60s and 70s was the gradual acceptance by nuclear strategists of MAD and its institutionalization in the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972. That nuclear powers would intentionally remain vulnerable to attack was the linchpin in stabilizing the nuclear arms race, but this flew in the face of the Jacksonian notion of war. Conspiring with one’s enemies to limit one’s capabilities and limit the uncontainable violence of war didn’t fit their paradigm and ever since they have been raging to tear down the entire structure. The intense interest in deploying an anti-ballistic missile system has had less to do with pragmatic considerations of national security than with the ideological struggle between two strategic paradigms. No policy debate would be so intense and fought out over generations of strategists and politicians were it just a weapons system at stake. The aim of moving to deploy an ABM system so urgently — even before it has been adequately demonstrated to work — is specifically to destroy the existing arms control regime and international system more generally in favor of one more in line with Jacksonian notions.

    This is why opponents of ABM have done so much to pillor Ronald Reagan, the id of 1970s and 80s America, and why the label “star wars,” with its invocation of psycho-cultural tropes, was so effective. The whole debate about ABM has taken place where strategic reasoning leaves off and social-psychology picks up.

  2. Hedging one’s opposition to ABM on technical infeasibility is probably a bad option. First, Americans, with their infinite faith in technology and can-do attitude won’t buy it. Second, at some point a system of at least some rudimentary capability will probably be up and running. A review of the history of nearly every weapon today touted as a miracle system shows that at some point in its development it was widely considered a boondoggle that would never work.

    The Patriot Missile is a good example here. During development in the late 1970s there was endless harping that the technical hurdles were insurmountable and that it would never work. The first battery was deployed in 1984 as an anti-aircraft weapon, but it was designed to be a modular system and underwent a number of major and minor upgrades, including the 1988 upgrade that gave it the anti-ballistic missile capability for which it is so well known today. In the 1991 Gulf War CNN footage of Patriot missiles rising to destroy incoming Scuds over Israel and Saudi Arabia are some of the most memorable images of the war. Subsequent studies have indicated that the success rate of the Patriot was significantly lower than initially reported, but additional upgrades throughout the 1990s have further refined the performance of the weapon. In the invasion of Iraq the weapon misidentified and shot down two allied aircraft, but it is hardly the only system to have malfunctioned resulting in friendly-fire deaths. It is presently undergoing an upgrade that is nearly a complete system redesign and will significantly enhance performance in nearly every aspect. The important point is that it managed to overcome its technical hurdles, with significant progress being made post-deployment and has undergone a number of modifications that have pushed a thirty year old system well beyond its initial specifications. A similar story could be told for the Tomahawk cruise missile or the B-2 stealth bomber.

  3. As Senator Lyndon Johnson argued to liberal skeptics who thought the 1957 civil rights bill didn’t go far enough, it was more important that a bill get passed than any particular content of the bill. Or as Senator Johnson put it, “Once you break the virginity, it’ll be easier next time.” Senator Edward Kennedy has offered a similar defense of his votes for micro-initiative healthcare programs or No Child Left Behind. If a comprehensive universal healthcare bill is unpassable, than pass it in a million little pieces. Or, it is more important to get Congress to agree in principle on federal education spending. The program can later be reengineered with amendments.

    One of the notable features of the post Newt Gingrich / George W. Bush right is the degree to which they have learned to use the very things they most hate about government to their advantage. One is that a budget line-item never dies. All that was necessary was to fund ABM once, then there would be interest groups, a bureaucracy, a scientific community, a lobby and the fundamental human laziness of just carrying a line-item forward. The program would then live in perpetuity.

    Combine this with number two, that the technological problems can be ironed out in the field with enough money, and the important point is to get systems in place. The pressures of real-world operability plus the bureaucratic juggernaut will force a system into existence. The arguments that Mr. Hitt in the Rolling Stone piece thinks his strongest are, at this high-level, no argument at all. You really have to dig down into the nitty-gritty — which he does not do — before such arguments start to have any impact. In this scenario, a few negative GAO reports are no threat. In fact, they could shame politicians to throw good money after bad, lest failure show their previous votes in a new light. In fact, I’ll wager that if the Democrats capture Congress and the White House in 2008, the ABM juggernaut just keeps rolling on unabated.

The real problem with an anti-ballistic missile system is that it is a Maginot Line. This is the case for three reasons.

  1. ICBM counter-measures and ABM system requirements don’t scale at the same rate so would-be attackers can defeat ABM — or at least confound it to the point where a defender could not factor it into their strategic considerations with any reliability — much more easily and affordably than defenders can adapt. And being on the right side of a scalability calculation is how one wins a strategic competition.

    If the technical countermeasures aren’t enough, it’s worth noting that the calculation of an ABM system is that its OODA loop is inside that of an ICMB flight time. As terrifyingly short as ICBM flight times are, they are long enough compared to modern C3I. To defeat ABM, all one has to do is compress ballistic missile flight time to less than the OODA of ABM. The 25 minutes from Asia to the U.S. is a relatively long time, but park a missile submarine loaded with intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) a few hundred miles off the coast and now you are talking about flight times of more like five minutes. Many IRBMs are suborbital so even if detected and reacted to, there just might not be enough air under a warhead for a ground-based interceptor to work its magic.

    Reaction time of ABM could be shortened too, with the first C of C3I — Command — being the lowest hanging fruit. But automate the decision-making component and SkyNet goes live.

    All of these calculations explain why the Chinese are spending so heavily on SSBNs (Lewis, Jeffrey, “Two More Chinese Boomers?,” Arms Control Wonk, 4 October 2007) as well as why the United States continues to turn out attack submarines ($2.7 billion for one Virginia class submarine in the FY 2008 budget) nearly 20 years after the end of the Cold War and without a single navy peer competitor prowing the seas.

  2. Once it becomes clear that ballistic missiles are under threat, states will quickly realize that the future is in cruise missiles.

    Having watched a number of U.S. air power attacks on CNN, Americans think that cruise missiles are an exclusive U.S. technology. While, say, the U.S. Tomahawk cruise missile is an extremely sophisticated weapon, cruise missiles are not beyond the reach of less capable powers. The German V-1 “flying bomb”, first flown in 1944, was essentially a cruise missile. The United States deployed its first cruise missile, the problem-prone Snark, in 1961 and initially development of the cruise missile was considerably ahead of that of the ICBM. The Europeans have the Storm Shadow. During the invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein attacked Kuwait with a Chinese-made Silkworm cruise missile, first deployed in the early 1980s. Proliferation of cruise missiles is proceeding apace and the technology is not so sophisticated as to be intercepted by export control regimes. Hell, the flight control system of a Tomahawk runs on an 8086 processor. And it’s not even manufactured by Intel anymore. The design has been licensed to a bunch of low-end Asian chip fabricators.

    Cruise missiles fly low and under radar detection systems, are capable of maneuver and because they don’t follow set, easily calculable trajectories like ICBMs, are not subject to easy intercept. Cruise missiles usually have shorter ranges, so we are potentially back talking about anti-submarine warfare again.

  3. Then, of course, there is the most radical delivery system. If I were a terrorist or rogue state plotting to get a weapon of mass destruction to a U.S. city, I would just FedEx it.

    As has been fairly well observed, modern terrorism and to an increasing extent, modern war in general, is parasitic on the very highways and byways of globalization. There is no killer app here that can solve the problem. This is more labor-intensive problem demanding a myriad of heterogeneous and creative operations.

It would seem to me that given the scalability issue covered in number one, ABM is a grand-strategic looser. Much more security per dollar could be had through the tried and true means of anti-proliferation, traditional deterrence, counterforce, anti-submarine warfare and the newer, but relatively affordable area of homeland security.