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Public’s Role in Preventing Armageddon

Way back in 1980 (Long Time Passing), as Jimmy Carter staggered through the final days of an unsuccessful attempt to get his contract renewed, he announced that his daughter had told him her greatest fear was nuclear proliferation. The media guffawed, many wondering whether L’il Amy was old enough to spell nuclear proliferation, let alone fret over it.
Given recent events in India and Pakistan, and the virtual certainty of things going mushroom elsewhere, she had a point. The question is: Are we going to get serious about the threat in time to prevent the next Day of Infamy?

The United States needs protection against limited or accidental ballistic missile strikes, as part of a comprehensive defense against our various non-well-wishers, at least some of whom have or can finagle access to weapons of mass destruction. The Boeing Company recently received a contract, small by Pentagon standards (They’ll spend far more this year on office supplies) to design a ballistic missile defense system architecture.

Boeing can deliver. So can, I am informed, an array of more-or-less secret programs now approaching fruition. But will success be welcome back in Washington, DC? Probably not, unless and until the American people understand three things.

First, what went wrong with Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), aka “Star Wars.”

Second, how to counter the present threat.

And third, that it is the right of the American people, not just to be protected, but to participate in political deliberations concerning the common defense.

To take them in turn:

What went wrong with SDI? Nothing. It was the most successful weapons system never built. It was never meant to be built. Its mission was to pressure the Soviets into serious arms control and other accommodations through something known in Pentagonese as “competitive strategies”–forcing them to squander wealth and scarce technical talent countering our efforts.

(Obviously, SDI alone did not bring Gorby to the table. Nor did he come alone. A few Soviet generals, who understood the military implications of the Microprocessor revolution before we did, escorted him there. And interestingly, once they took their seats, “competitive strategies” vanished from the Pentagon’s Official List of Favorite Buzzwords.)

Perhaps it’s hard to believe that SDI was primarily a political tool. But consider the following:

When Reagan made his 1983 “Star Wars” speech, he ignored the demand of the so-called “Laser Lobby” on and off the Hill to start building an interim off-the-shelf system. He announced no JFK-style “Put a Man on the Moon” total commitment. He didn’t even establish a Star Wars Scholarship Fund for budding young rocket scientists. All he did was propose an invitation to an exploration, vaguely intended someday to make ICBMs “impotent and obsolete.”

Not exactly a clearly defined, high priority mission.

Nor, rhetoric notwithstanding, did he force the Pentagon to produce. The armed services had other priorities. So the administration created SDIO, the SDI “organization” for the “initiative”–whatever that meant–and housed it in a bus tunnel that the Pentagon had bricked off for security reasons (You could smell the old diesel fumes for months). Nor did SDIO receive vast resources. Much of what it did was simply to draw together a variety of pre-existing programs, scattered around the defense establishment, the national labs, and elsewhere.

After the Soviet collapse, SDIO segued into BMDO (Ballistic Missile Defense Organization) and has meekly proceeded ever since. Still, the research legacy remains. Anyone familiar with the history of aerospace technology knows how often the impractical visions of one decade yield the successes of the next.

The task should be easier for another obvious reason. The challenge is no longer dealing with a “threat cloud” of thousands of warheads and penetration aids. Incoming missiles will be few and relatively primitive.

In two ways, however, defense is more complex. Shorter-range missiles, whether land or sea-launched, provide less response time than ICBMs, which spend most of their flight in suborbital trajectory. But the fundamental problem is finding their pre-launch location. We knew where the Soviet missile fields and air bases were; their subs weren’t exactly untrackable. But how do you find very small things in very large places – a mobile missile launcher in a desert or a civilian ship toting a missile in an ocean – and then get the information to those who need it in time?

The answer is that finding these items is as much a matter of old-fashioned human intelligence as of high-tech sensors. It’s far easier to destroy a missile prior to launch. A rational missile defense policy would never eschew, and would sometimes require, pre-emptive action. Interception would be neither the only nor the first line of defense.

It would never have worked against the Russkies. But against a single missile or a small attack, defense is technologically and financially feasible. Indeed, we could start to deploy an interim system tomorrow, based upon the Navy’s Aegis fleet defense capabilities and assets in the other services. But DC just don’t seem to get it, preferring to wallow in its usual mix of positive rhetoric and negative leaks, studies and reports. So maybe it’s time to remember something about the relationship between the people and the government.

We the People, not the temporary hired help, bear ultimate responsibility for providing for the common defense. The Founding Fathers clearly intended that “providing” include deliberation (not just protest) as well as paying taxes and bearing arms. The Cold War, with its huge standing military and passion for secrecy, all but destroyed this notion.

And yet, it’s returning. We see it in arguments over women in the military; in the revival of the National Guard as a political counter to the professional military; and in a multitude of issues related to domestic security.

In the matter of defense against the most horrific weapons ever devised, should not the People deliberate and decide?

And if the People lead, might not the leaders follow?

Philip Gold

Dr. Philip Gold is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, and director of the Institute's Aerospace 2010 Project. A former Marine, he is the author of Evasion,: The American Way of Military Service and over 100 articles on defense matters. He teaches at Georgetown University and is a frequent op-ed contributor to several newspapers. Dr. Gold divides his time between Seattle and Washington, D.C.