Belmont Club

Unscrambling the egg

Peter Brookes, a former deputy Undersecretary of Defense, examines the case for missile defense in an article for the Hoover Institution. The existing evidence strongly implies that despite denials, Iran, North Korea and a number of states are working to acquire a nuclear weapon and a missile delivery system. Not just the ‘nuclear genie’, but the ‘missile genie’ is out of the bottle.

Ten years ago, there were only six nuclear-weapons states. Today there are nine members of the once-exclusive nuclear-weapons club, with Iran perhaps knocking at the door. Twenty-five years ago, nine countries had ballistic missiles. Today there are 28 countries with ballistic missile arsenals of varying capability.

The key difference between the Cold War world and today is that nuclear weapons and their delivery systems are becoming, from the point of view of availability, ordinary weapons.  That will change the politics of nuclear weapons, but we haven’t realized that yet. What Brooke’s article doesn’t emphasize enough is how much of the current thinking about missile defense is rooted in Cold War politics. Missile defense, for example, was regarded as a destabilizing element in the US-Soviet balance of deterrence. MIssile defense carried the political baggage — at least in the left — of being associated with Ronald Reagan. But in a world where nuclear armed missiles are proliferating, the politics should change; and missile defense ought to be no more sinister than a lock on your front door or the body armor on a cop. It’s no different from high boots in a field full of snakes.

What about uninventing the danger? Brookes explains why this is particularly difficult. He shows that the know-how to build a nuclear weapon is out there, never to be recalled. Then he describes how the “long pole” in the building of a weapon, the production of fissile material, is a technology which can be slowed down by sanctions but has never been wholly stopped. Finally, he demonstrates that ICBM technology is inseperable from a peaceful space program. In general technological progress since the 1940s means that these once unattainable weapons are now within the reach of whoever is determined to get them.

In the calculus of probabilities, if Barack Obama’s “world without nuclear weapons” is less likely than intercepting a rogue missile inbound, it may be time to put a little more money on the missile defense technology and not to trust entirely to diplomats and politicians.

While the Bush administration has taken significant steps to develop sea- and land-based missile defense systems, the next White House and Congress should continue supporting missile defense programs to enhance our national security. Indeed, just this summer, the Washington Post broke a story claiming the international nuclear smuggling ring once run by the prodigious Pakistani proliferator A.Q. Khan had also managed to acquire the blueprints for an “advanced nuclear weapon.”

Owned by three Swiss members of Khan’s international cabal, a laptop containing 1,000 gigabytes of data (roughly equivalent to the information contained in a local library) on designs and engineering for nuclear weapons was discovered by investigators. Regrettably, according to the story, the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (iaea) believes the nuclear weapons designs found on the laptop could be mated — in theory — to the ballistic missiles used by “more than a dozen developing countries.”

In fact, the iaea, which reportedly verified the destruction of the data by Swiss authorities, cannot guarantee the nuclear warhead designs were not shared with others, according to a report by David Albright, a weapons expert who has been investigating the Khan network. While North Korea, Iran and Libya — the three states with which Khan had the most intimate contact — are the most likely recipients of the Pakistani’s atomic assistance, there may be others who received this nuclear know-how as well, although some experts view the report as alarmist. (Not surprisingly, Khan, who has been under house arrest in Pakistan since 2004, denied that he was involved in any way in proliferating nuclear weapons designs. Of course, others in his nuclear network may have done so.)