Belmont Club


Imagine a world where nuclear weapons are simultaneously a factor for stability to be invoked when arguing against US missile defense, something to be abolished when arguing against the US arsenal, and something to be feared when describing terrorism, at a time when those who seek nuclear weapons are within an ace of being left alone to develop them undisturbed, save for diplomatic inconvenience. What would you call this world? Why, our world.

Tigerhawk is perplexed at an AP analysis piece which call characterized the just-cancelled missile defense system in Eastern Europe “a grave threat to Russian national security”. Since missile defense doesn’t kill anything except things which are aimed killing millions, why is it a threat? Is it because it undermines the stabilizing effect of the Russian nuclear arsenal? Tigerhawk writes:

My understanding had been that an anti-missile missile — a missile used to shoot down an incoming offensive missile — has itself very little offensive capability, nor can it easily be reconfigured to have offensive capability. … Did Moscow mean it in the sense of the argument put forward during the Cold War that any weapons system that threatened the concept of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction, that each side would annihilate the other in a nuclear exchange) was inherently destabilizing and indeed provocative?

Tigerhawk is rightfully puzzled. Let’s grant for a moment that nuclear deterrence has kept the peace for decades. Then why is the same President who is against missile defense also attempting to abolish nuclear weapons? An advocacy organization called Global Zero says:

We believe that whatever stabilizing impact nuclear weapons may have had during the Cold War, any residual benefits of these arsenals are now overshadowed by the growing risks of proliferation and the related risk of nuclear terrorism.

In April of this year, Presidents Obama and Medvedev jointly declared their commitment to “achieving a nuclear free world”. As these two presidents and other leaders begin to pursue the important near-term measures presented in London and Prague – all of which we fully endorse – we are developing a practical, end-to-end strategy – including near, medium and long-term steps – for the phased, verified, proportionate reduction of all nuclear weapons to zero.

Missile defense objectively assists in anti-proliferation. It reduces the military utility of small nuclear arsenals, hence it removes the incentive to acquire WMDs. It makes waging proxy warfare more difficult since smaller nuclear arsenals cannot convincingly be used to threaten the United States deniably at the behest of larger powers. Hence it enhances both nonproliferation and deterrence, if you believe in either. But Global Zero argues that the mere existence of nuclear weapons now makes their total abolition necessary because of the related risk of “nuclear terrorism”. Yet missile defense plays an important part in countering a world of rogue powers and terrorist forces.

One factor complicating a nuclear terrorist attack is the need for the aggressor to maintain command and control over their weapon at all times. Letting a nuke out of sight of a terrorist leadership cell is the supreme act of faith in the attacking cell. The nuke can be turned against them in a leadership struggle; diverted for sale or used to extort vast amounts of money. Fanatics can seize them to use against another faction.  Much terrorist violence in the world is faction-on-faction. They can even be intercepted and made to blow up in their own faces. Unless used immediately nukes must be secured in a heavily guarded, hard to conceal place. If used immediately they cannot be stockpiled into a decisive amount. Missile delivery systems were ideal solutions to all the problems of command and control problem. That is why North Korea and Iran sought a missile capability immediately. Anti missiles defenses were therefore an immense discouragement against nuclear terrorism in their own right.

The most likely reason for Russia’s objections to US missile defense is not that it degrades their vast and unstoppable arsenal, which remains effective in any case, but it reduces the effectiveness of sock puppet proxies who threaten the US. Russia is not about to threaten the US directly. But wouldn’t it be convenient if others would? And wouldn’t it be even more convenient if the US could not defend against them.

But then, suppose the President believed that nuclear weapons and missile defenses could both be done away with in a “world without nuclear weapons”.  Wouldn’t that be an even better solution? After all, if both deterrence and the need for it are at an end then we go back to a world of pure conventional weapons, like the halcyon days of World War 1 and World War 2 before Hiroshima. The only remain problem would be terrorists because a “world without nuclear weapons” would be slightly meaningless if nobody but Osama bin Laden and Kim Jong Il had them. That means it is imperative to eliminate all weapons and it’s hard to see how that can be done if Afghanistan is conceded to al-Qaeda as an unchallenged base. General McChrystal warned that Afghanistan could be lost without more troops and Barack Obama is agonizing over whether to send them.

KABUL (Reuters) – The Afghan war will be lost unless more troops are sent to pursue a radically revised strategy, the top U.S. and NATO commander said in a confidential assessment that lays out stark choices for President Barack Obama. In the assessment, sent to Washington last month and leaked on Monday, Army General Stanley McChrystal said failure to reverse “insurgent momentum” in the near term risked an outcome where “defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.”

One of the least emphasized interactions between a forward defense and anti-missile capability is their ability to make actions against a rogue-state nuclear “bootstrap load” credible. Rogue states seek nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them as a way of creating a safe space behind which to arm even further. It is not the first nuke which is so dangerous as much as the succeeding ones that can be built behind them. Like a boostrap loader in a computer, a small, fast-loading piece of code pulls in more libraries behind it until you have vast system staring at you from behind the computer screen. With aspiring rogue states it may be the same. A missile defense preserves the credibility of forward defense because it makes intervention, although unlikely, a feasible operation of war. Without it, any aspiring rogue power can simply acquire one nuke and build away.

If President Obama eventually decides to yield Afghanistan one would think that his strategic choices are stark as well: the alternative to preventing terrorists from obtaining the space to acquire nuclear weapons is to hunker down behind the US deterrent might and missile shield. But it seems exceedingly difficult to square a circle in which missile defenses are eliminated because they undermine deterrence, deterrence is undermined in the name of Global Zero, and anti-proliferation is undermined by ceding space to rogue and terrorist groups. That is the worst of all worlds. What is even more astounding is if all three are pursued in the name of each other. But we live in an age of miracles.

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