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There's Never Enough Defense

This column was written by Martin Sieff.
North Korea's Taepodong-2 test fizzled. There was no potentially nuclear-capable "Rocket's Red Glare" to cast a blight on the Fourth of July this year.

But the North Koreans, of course, keep trying. And eventually they'll get it right because rocket science really isn't rocket science. It's been around for almost half a century: Since Chief Soviet Designer Sergei Korolev first successfully lofted Sputnik 1 into orbit in October 1957, to be exact. If you have a big dumb booster capable of lofting a grapefruit-sized metal ball into Low Earth Orbit, you can certainly propel a miniaturized nuclear warhead across the Pacific Ocean.

So even though the North Korean ICBM test proved unsuccessful, it was a significant milestone about a threat that eventually will emerge. And as Dr. Samuel Johnson memorably said, the prospect of being hanged in the morning will concentrate anyone's mind wonderfully.

So suppose It Really Happens. Suppose North Korea, or Iran, or for that matter Someone Else Out There presses The Button five years from now. Would you really want to have nothing out there and only 30 minutes to shoot the city killer down before New York, Chicago or Los Angeles was radioactive rubble?

It is a nightmare that needs to be confronted. For there is no weapon in human history that has not been used once it was invented; And there is nothing so diabolical that it was never fired in anger.

For more than six decades since those two U-235 fission and plutonium implosion devices incinerated the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no nuclear or thermonuclear weapon of war has ever been used in war — to destroy any army or fleet or annihilate any more cities. Machine-guns, poison gas, and even machetes have all been used to kill millions of people. But the great nuclear taboo has held. However, nothing lasts forever.

Playing in the U.S. Missile Defense Agency's war games on Capitol Hill a few months ago made the inconceivable real. Playing at war is a far cry from the real thing: But sometimes it is the necessary next best thing. If you are manning a control console with even the theoretical power to defend and possibly save millions of people in great cities you have lived in and loved, all of a sudden your perspective changes. The question is no longer: "Why couldn't all this money have been spent on more bilingual education programs or deficit reduction?" It becomes: "Why do I only have 10 anti-ballistic missile interceptors deployed to face a threat of seven intercontinental ballistic missiles coming in from the Northeast Asian nation of 'Midland.'" (When the North Korean ICBM test was imminent, the MDA put two of the nine ground-based midcourse interceptors it has so far deployed at Fort Greeley, Alaska on alert. There are another two deployed at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Cali.)

In the MDA's Jan. 24 war game on Capitol Hill, all the 10 U.S. interceptors that were launched worked perfectly. War games, it is true, tend to assume that everything will work perfectly, whereas in reality, as the great Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz pointed out in the early 19th century, war generates complexity and chaos. There is no human activity or experience more redolent of Lord Kelvin's Second Law of Thermodynamics. All things in war tend towards entropy — a state of chaos and confusion. And they do so very fast. But that isn't an argument against having any anti-ballistic missile defenses at all: It's an argument for doing precisely what the MDA. Boeing and other contractors are doing now — going over the engineering with a fine tooth comb and doing the component testing that was squeezed out by early unrealistic timetables in a rush to have something credible out there as soon as possible. Presume then, that if a North Korean or "Midland" attack finally comes, almost all, if not all of the interceptors deployed by then will indeed work as they are supposed to.

But one prediction can very safely be made: However many ground-based mid-course interceptors are deployed (contrary to widespread assumptions, the U.S. Navy's Standard Missile-3s deployed on Aegis-class warships are not designed for ICBM intercepts), for the people charged with directing the defense, they will never be enough. You will always want more. However many ABM missiles seemed sufficient to defense planners before the crisis, once the ICBMs start flying they will always seem like far too few.

Also, decisions of life or death for tens of millions of people will not be made by middle-aged politicians and reporters: They will be made by young officers and servicemen and women over split seconds. The MDA's war games brought home this reality sharply: Decisions in the war games about which interceptors to fire at missiles threatening different cities had to be made in time envelopes of only a few minutes.

My old friend and colleague Bill Gertz, the legendary intelligence correspondent of the Washington Times, had to decide in the Jan. 24 war game to let a target in the Aleutian Islands get hit in order to have sufficient interceptor resources to defend and save the huge, densely populated cities of California. Good call, Bill. A message to old friends out in Dutch Harbor: Sorry, folks.

More than half a century ago, a despairing Albert Einstein famously said, "There is no defense against the weapons that can destroy civilization." Twenty years before that, Stanley Baldwin, the prime minister of Britain famously proclaimed, "The bomber will always get through." If that statement had been correct, decent, civilized life across all of Europe including the British Isles would have been extinguished for generations, perhaps forever, by a Nazi victory in the Battle of Britain only half a decade later. Instead, the crash development of fast, heavily armed monoplane fighters and the world's pioneering radar defense system — something far more technically inconceivable in 1935 than ABM interceptors are today — proved Baldwin wrong. RAF Fighter Command and its legendary commander Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, the Lt. Gen. Henry "Trey" Obering of his day, got the job done, but it was, as the Duke of Wellington said of the Battle of Waterloo, "a close run thing."

It is not for nothing that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, the greatest advocate of ballistic-missile defense modern Japan has yet produced, keeps a portrait of Winston Churchill in his study. That portrait is far less famous than the Japanese leader's famed passion for Elvis. But it is rather more significant. Koizumi knows that to protect his country, the stakes are infinite, the margins small. No doubt sitting in the fire-control seat in simulated exercises focused his mind too.
By Martin Sieff
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online