National Missile Defences: Fighting the last war
24 January 2000
Last week, the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defence Organisation launched a missile from California into the Pacific in an attempt to shoot it down and prove that a limited national missile defence is possible. But the ongoing debate over such a defence is at least a decade behind emerging strategic and battlefield realities. The new strategic threat will not come from rogue regimes fielding one or two weapons but instead from coalitions built around true nuclear powers such as Russia and China - whose forces could easily overwhelm such a defence. And the debate is distracting the US military from forging a space strategy that protects satellites, the keys to US conventional military power.
Last week, the United States launched a missile from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California toward Kwajalein Atoll, several thousand miles away in the Pacific. A few minutes later, an interceptor missile was launched from the island. Its mission was to destroy the incoming intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in a test of a new anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system. The interceptor missed. The test failed.
The responses were predictable. Opponents of an ABM system claimed that the failure proved the inherent unreliability of a missile defence system. Whatever the virtues of an ABM system, the claim that this test proved its non-viability is absurd. Early tests of any system are expected to fail. That's why they are called tests. You only have to think about the failures of missiles early in the space programme to realise that. This failure tells us nothing. Which is not to say that an ABM system of this sort is a good idea. It just means that this failure should not influence anyone's opinion, one way or another.
Let's consider how we got to this position. In 1972, the United States and Soviet Union signed an agreement banning the creation of an ABM system. The treaty was meaningless; no one really knew how to build such a system. The Soviets deployed some hardware around Moscow, but calling it an anti-missile system would have been charitable. The 1972 treaty, therefore, was a classic in diplomatic irrelevance, banning what was effectively impossible.
By the 1980s, missile defence capabilities appeared to have evolved to the point that a serious defence was possible. Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), or Star Wars, was a project intended to reconsider the question of whether an effective defence against missiles was possible under new technology. Opponents of SDI argued (a) that it would not work and (b) that it would de- stabilise the balance achieved by Mutual Assured Destruction, the doctrine that deterrence rested on assurance that an attack by one side would result in an annihilating attack by the other side. Now, If (a) were true, then (b) would not be. Nonetheless, the same people who criticised SDI for being ineffective were frequently the ones arguing that it was destabilising.
The defenders of SDI managed to get as tangled in logic as the opponents. The primary criticism of a missile-based ABM system was that it was like hitting a bullet with a bullet. A secondary criticism was that the interception would likely take place inside the atmosphere, with results as nasty as if they weren't intercepted. Finally, since each ground-based interceptor would have a very limited range, the number of interceptors needed to protect the United States from incoming missiles was mind-boggling. All of these were good arguments.
SDI therefore focused on a new class of weapons. These weapons were to be based in space rather than on earth, so that they could intercept launches as they left the atmosphere or in mid-flight, rather than on the last seconds of their trajectory. More important, these weapons would consist of laser beams, particle beams, X-rays and other speed-of-light weapons. These speed-of- light weapons would take care of the problem of hitting a bullet with a bullet. A missile moving at seven miles per second was virtually standing still. Space-based, speed-of- light weapons would be able to handle any missile.
That was probably true, yet the SDI initiate failed to generate an effective missile defence. In the 1980s, no one knew how to build weapons able to generate sufficient energy to fry an ICBM thousands of miles away. The generation, storage and release of huge amounts of energy was theoretically possible, but no one knew how to do it with sufficient speed so that thousands of missiles could be dealt with between the time they left the atmosphere and the time they re-entered. Ideas like using giant mirrors to focus the light of the sun were floated, but the fact was that this was a great idea with a single defect. No one knew how to build it. Other ideas, like Brilliant Pebbles, in which thousands of little rockets with sensors would be deployed, were floated. But by now, the time for exotic technologies has passed.
SDI hit its technological stonewall, serendipitously, it spawned a range of technologies that generated a revolution at the operational level of warfare.
The old idea of a ground-based missile defence system resurfaced. This resurrection coincided with a transformation in geopolitical realities. A ground-based system would be impotent in the face of a Soviet attack. But by the time the idea of ground-based system was reborn, the Soviets were on their last legs. As important, during Desert Storm, the single most feared weapon in the Iraqi arsenal was the Scud missile, a fairly primitive, relatively short-range missile - that killed more American soldiers than any other single system when it hit Saudi Arabia.
Attention turned to two missions. Defending a theatre of operations against incoming missiles was one. The other was defending the United States against ICBMs launched one or two at a time by lesser powers like Iraq, Iran, Libya or Syria. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the primary objection to ground-based missile defence systems evaporated. The United States no longer had to defend against 5,000 incoming warheads. It only had to defend against a handful. The developing technologies could also be used to defend against shorter-range systems within a theatre, like the Persian Gulf or the Balkans.
Enter the current series of tests. Consider that the primary argument for the current system is that it will defend against "rogue" states that might launch a missile attack against the United States. The list is short of nations with motive to attack the United States and with the potential ability to build both atomic weapons and ICBMs: Iraq, Iran, Libya, North Korea and Syria.
It is far from clear that any of these nations have nuclear technology that can be married to an effective ICBM. More important, contrary to popular myth, none of these nations is ruled by lunatics. Quite the contrary, when we look at the leadership of Iraq, Libya or North Korea we see people who are in the business of surviving. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein took a calculated risk with a big potential payoff in 1990. The gamble failed, but it wasn't a reckless act, just a bad bet. He didn't know the United States would intervene. He left himself room for retreat, hung on and survived. He may be a brute, but he is not a moron. Saddam knows that if he launches two or three ICBMs at the United States, his country would be turned into radioactive glass, and he would be playing a leading role in a Geiger counter.
The primary motive for these nations to build nuclear-capable missiles would be the same as that of the great powers: deterrence. The United States would certainly think twice before bombing an Iraq with several survivable, nuclear-tipped ICBMs. But as with all deterrence, the value is lost at the moment of launch. Moreover, if the United States genuinely believed that someone was planning to launch an ICBM at the United States, US satellite intelligence would pick up the construction of the site months or even years before it was intact. The low-cost response would be to destroy the launch site, the missile factory and the nuclear facility with pre-emptive, preferably conventional, air strikes. If necessary, the State Department could claim that it had discovered a secret plan for genocide. That would be the low-cost missile defence, both more effective and immediately available.
There is a much more serious problem. We are now in the year 2000. The assumption that the primary threat facing the United States comes from a handful of rogue countries is simply no longer true. Russia and China are both major nuclear powers whose relations with the United States are rapidly deteriorating. We do not expect a nuclear exchange, but we do not think that the only challenges facing the United States come from a handful of isolated countries.
The strategic environment changes daily. The real issue facing the United States is its ability to maintain a presence in Eurasia in the face of Russian and Chinese animosity. In the future, interventions against countries like Serbia will likely occur in the context of their receiving backing, political and material, from other great powers. It is no longer reasonable to expect that - as has been the case in Haiti, Iraq, Panama, Serbia, Somalia and others - the defenders will be strategically isolated.
This means two things. First, Western interventions will become much less frequent, as risks rise. Therefore, the concept of the isolated, rogue state is going to be replaced by coalitions grouped around great powers. The probability of one or two missiles launched by a rogue power decreases from its already low probability. One of the consequences of coalitions is that the great power at the centre not only supports the lesser power, but also imposes discipline. Serbia, allied with Russia in two years, will be more difficult to attack but more predictable in its response.
Second, the ongoing debate over national missile defence consistently draws focus away from the real battlefield necessity: space strategy's role in supporting conventional forces. US conventional forces have become dependent on space-based systems for communications and intelligence, as illustrated by the 1999 NATO conflict with Yugoslavia. The Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) dropped by B-2 bombers depended on guidance from US Global Position System satellites (GPS). Targeters relied on reconnaissance satellites for target selection. Orders inside the theatre, as well as between the theatre and Washington and Brussels, depended upon satellites. Even weather forecasting was managed by satellites.
Any serious opponent of the United States knows that it cannot win a conventional war while these satellite systems function. An opponent also knows that if that satellite system is destroyed, the United States will be left deaf, dumb and disoriented. Destroying just a handful of the 24 GPS satellites currently in orbit could leave infantry patrols lost and munitions undeliverable.
The fundamental issue in missile defence is not defending US cities against ICBMs launched by North Korea. The launch sites can be destroyed in a week, and there is nothing North Korea could do about it. That is a side issue. The central issue is defending US satellites against enemy missile, laser and other attacks. The problem with the current programme is that it is fighting yesterday's war. It is focused on random missile attacks on the United States from isolated powers. The real issue is going to be fighting conventional wars at the lowest possible cost. That means that US space-based systems are indispensable.
Obviously, we have no idea what defensive capabilities have been added to US satellites. We assume that critical reconnaissance satellites can manoeuvre to avoid anti-satellite systems and are hardened against ground-based laser systems. One would assume that serious thought and investment has gone into both the defence of satellites and redundancy in the event of attrition. At the same time, no one knows what surprises a clever enemy can devise to get around defences. Such surprises can be catastrophic to units as far down the chain as the infantry squad on patrol.
Defending American cities against rogue states seems the wrong mission at the wrong time. Pre-emptive strikes and the promise of nuclear annihilation are a sufficient defence. The new mission is sustaining and operating forces in the back yards of enemies with sufficient sophistication and capabilities to pose a real threat. These forces will strike at US satellites in order to reduce massively the capabilities of conventional forces. Defending US space-based assets is critical for US geopolitical interests.
Ample reports exist of Chinese, Russian and other nations developing ground-based lasers designed to destroy satellites. Undoubtedly, anyone thinking about conflict with the United States is spending a great deal of time contemplating the vulnerabilities of US communications, navigation and intelligence satellites. They undoubtedly are forming their battle plans. These plans have to include space-based attacks on US systems. That means that there has to be space-based defences for satellite systems. A purely defensive posture on the most valuable and scarce military resources cannot work. Anti-satellite systems can only be countered actively.
Which brings us back to SDI. The revolution in sensor technology had a great deal to do with SDI. Now, SDI may be re-applicable to its original mission. SDI failed because speed-of-light technologies were not available to complement its sensor technologies. Over the coming decade, speed of light may well come into its own. Certainly it will be used as an anti-satellite system. It can be used to defend satellites. By extension, it may now be applicable to a working anti-missile system.
In the 1980s, SDI was premature and was focused on an unlikely threat. Now, the threat against US satellites is far from unlikely and is potentially crippling. As important, many of the technologies being contemplated in the early 1980s are not as farfetched a generation later. From energy weapons to Brilliant Pebbles, concepts that could not be operationalised in 1985 may be possible by 2005. Within this context, an effective space-based anti-ICBM system might well be feasible. The failed test over the Pacific gives us an opportunity to reconsider what is possible and necessary in the next generation. Decisions made in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and Desert Storm need to be rethought under any circumstances.
The real issue is not defence against rogue nations, but a general reconsideration of US space strategy in an age of increasingly great power tension and the likelihood of ongoing conventional operations far from the United States. The dollars spent on defending against the threats of the 1990s might be better spent in preparation for the wars of 2010 and 2020. If planners simply think through how US capabilities would be affected if space-based systems suddenly were destroyed, the importance of a practical space control strategy would become apparent.
In knowledge we trust!