The Right’s Naive Missile Defense Fantasy

bakerspringYesterday on Heritage’s Blog, Baker Spring argued that a better way to eliminate nuclear weapons is to build a super awesome full proof missile defense system that makes it pointless for other countries to have nuclear weapons. He argues that instead of the multilateral arms-control approach pursued by the Obama administration, the US should:

pursue more fundamentally defensive strategic postures for the U.S. and other nations. This is the best option for keeping the world as far from the nuclear precipice as possible until it is clear that a world without nuclear weapons can be achieved.

As Kingston Reif and Travis Sharp point out Spring and others on the right:

recycle(s) a snake oil sales pitch that first emerged at the dawn of the Atomic Age. The illusion is that the awesome destructiveness of nuclear weapons can somehow be neutralized by a panacea—in this case impenetrable missile defenses.

This is pure and total fantasy.

First, back in the real world, despite two decades of massive amounts of investment, long range ballistic missile defense still doesn’t work as planned. The much flaunted successful “tests” of the ground based system in the US are largely staged. These are open book tests, where one knows the answers before hand – we know exactly where the missile will be and when and yet we can therefore sometimes hit it. Kingston Rief and Travis Sharp explain that “the technology required to intercept a large number of long-range missiles equipped with decoys and countermeasures does not exist and may never exist.” Technical problems are endemic. The head of the Missile Defense Agency even publicly vented his frustration this week. A New York Times editorial today notes:

Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, the program’s chief, told a conference on Monday that some contractors continue to produce poor quality components for missile interceptors… General O’Reilly said he is withholding a portion of the profits from contractors responsible for the shoddy work… If contractors know profits will be reduced if a missile test is unsuccessful, experts say this could create a strong incentive for them to ensure the tests are (falsely) successful by conducting more scripted, less realistic tests.

Second, the missile defense system that Baker Spring envisions would only lead to a destabilizing nuclear arms race. Even if technical problems were resolved in the ground based system, they still wouldn’t be able to protect against large number of missiles and would only serve to create incentives for countries to increase their nuclear stockpiles. In a remarkable article three Air Force scholars, one of whom heads the Strategic Plans and Policy Division, recently explained in reference to Asia that “nuclear defenses are a bad idea,” since it will only prompt China to build more nuclear weapons, something that it is not seeking to do. Any defensive system we develop will only spawn others to build new weapons to overcome it that is the history of warfare’s technological innovations.

Finally, Baker Spring simply cannot seem to understand why the Russians would not see US missile defense as in their interests. According to Spring, US missile defense is actually in Russia’s interests:

a U.S. strategic policy that pursues missile defenses may reflect a better understanding of Russia’s strategic interests than the Russian government itself appreciates.

His logical gumby is hard to follow. But Spring is essentially saying that the Russian state, like the Soviet Union before it, is seeking confrontation with the US, and so when we build our Jedi force field of freedom around the US, it will finally make those pesky Russians – who still have nukes threatening us (nevermind that we still threaten them with out nuclear arsenal) – realize that we are invincible and that they should simply bow down and kiss the ring of the United States and eliminate their nuclear weapons. Got that? One wonders how they have the gall to call Obama’s plan naïve, after writing such nonsense.

Unfortunately, bad ideas have consequences. Pursuing right wing missile defense plans, while at the very least would flush tens of billions of dollars down the toilet, would also serve to upset nuclear stability. Countries like Russia and China would rapidly expand their nuclear forces and the threat of nuclear terrorism – something no missile shield can protect against – would only worsen as proliferation dangers grow. While there is definitely a role for more proven short-range theater based missile defense, the notion of an impenetrable long range missile defense shield is not only exceptionally naive and fanciful, it is also destabilizing and dangerous.