An Effective Missile Defense

What do “Seinfeld” and the Clinton administration’s missile defense policies have in common?
Obvious answer: Neither is about anything.

It’s too late for Seinfeld. But the Boeing Company recently received a modest (by Beltway standards) contract to design yet another missile defense system.
Boeing can deliver. But will success be welcome?

Probably not. But then, success has never been welcome.

At least, not the kind of success that might defend us physically.

Go back to 1983, and the Reagan speech on missile defense that drew such ridicule–“Star Wars,” a “leakproof Astrodome in Space,” a trillion dollar joke. Truth is, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) produced the most successful weapons system never built.

For it was never intended to be built.

Mr. Reagan’s speech, which called for the beginning of an effort to make ICBMs “impotent and obsolete,” was more remarkable for what it omitted than for what it proposed. Reagan totally rejected the demands of the “laser lobby” in Congress and the High Frontier crowd for an off-the-shelf interim defense. He proposed no JFK-style “put a man on the moon” total effort. He didn’t even advocate an “SDI Scholarship Program” for deserving young rocket scientists. All he proposed was an “initiative”–a term of sufficient ambiguity to sound either aggressive or lethargic, depending on taste.

The military preferred lethargic. Since no service had responsibility for SDI, none stood to benefit financially or bureaucratically. Since each service considered its own rearmament plans more important than missile defense, none had much incentive to make it work. So SDI–a strange little hybrid with its headquarters in the Pentagon’s old walled-off bus tunnel–did little more than assemble a variety of existing programs scattered around the country, do scads of leisurely research, conduct a few tests, generate some commercial spin-offs, and then fold.

But the real mission of SDI was to pressure the Soviets technologically and economically, not mess with their missiles. For the Soviets understood, far more clearly than we did in the 1980s, the potential of the microprocessor to change the conduct of certain kinds of war. What we now call the Revolution in Military Affairs, they called the Military Technological Revolution. But we understood enough to embark on something called “competitive strategies”–forcing the Soviets to spend themselves bankrupt countering our gadgetry.

They knew they couldn’t compete.

SDI scared Gorbachev and his military advisers, not because they expected the Americanskis to attack from behind their leak-proof shield (no such item could be built), but because they lacked the technical and economic wherewithal to handle the challenge. “One Nuke Can Spoil Your whole Day” may have been a cute Yuppie protest slogan, but it failed to capture the Soviet dilemma. Say, for example, the Soviets launched 1000 warheads at us, knowing that 300 would be destroyed enroute.

Which 300?

Under such conditions, Mutual Assured Destruction could remain the desired condition, but an awfully expensive bit of MADness to maintain.

In the end, SDI worked. It helped to remove the threat of massive Soviet attack. But now the security requirement is different, in some ways more dire, and in some ways more easily handled.

To state the obvious:

Weapons of mass destruction are spreading like cancer. Their current and potential owners seem less than totally benign. The primary problem now is defense against limited or accidental launches. Incoming missiles (whether ICBM or shorter-range) will be few, sometimes primitive, and probably lacking sophisticated penetration aids and electronic counter-measures. True, the technological aspects of defense against even primitive missiles are challenging. Still, it’s doable.

So why isn’t it happening?

To state the obvious again:

Bureaucratic inertia and self-interest; adherence to a dead-letter ABM treaty; popular indifference coupled with popular belief (if you accept the polls) that we already have such defenses; and, of course, the strange, lingering notion that if it couldn’t be done fifteen years ago against ten thousand warheads, it can’t be done today against ten.

But there’s a far deeper problem involved. Properly understood, missile defense is only one part of homeland defense: the first responsibility of any government. The American people have yet to grasp that we are now, in this regard, a very ordinary country, neither invulnerable nor targeted for total devastation. And we have yet to grasp that, to the extent we desire to be a very unordinary country, i.e., a global leader and force for goodness, we’re going to get hit. A truly isolationist nation would have few enemies. Fortress America is necessary only if we intend to leave the fort.

And the reason the American people don’t grasp it–other than the economy’s good and the media concentrate on who’s stupping whom–is that an essential nexus between people and government has been broken. We have forgotten that, ultimately, we the people are responsible for our own defense. The state is our agent only. And the participation of the citizenry in the common defense entails more than military service.

It also means participation in the deliberations which establish defense policy.

Curiously, the notion that we must recover the nexus between citizenship and defense is enjoying a minor revival on the left. Gary Hart makes the case his new book, The Minuteman. Advocates of women in combat are now using the citizenship argument. Yet conservatives still, by and large, regard defense policy as an Inside-the-Beltway affair.

The left is correct. There must be a revival of the right of the citizenry to influence defense policy. And I would suggest that it is the right of the citizenry to demand that an effective missile defense system be developed and established as soon as possible.

After all, one nuke can cause you to miss an awful lot of Seinfeld reruns.

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.