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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Antiballistic Missile System

Nov 22 , 2017


Peter Sellers as the eponymous Dr Strangelove

South Korea seems to have caved to China on THAAD, agreeing not to install any new radars and launchers, or to join America’s regional missile defense system. In return, China will lift the economic sanctions it placed on South Korean businesses sixteen months ago.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said THAAD would “jeopardize strategic and security interests” and “aggravate tension and confrontation.” Beijing has found an ally in South Korean liberals and protestors who claim the antiballistic missile system is a provocation.

From these sentiments, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the installation of the THAAD (Terminal High-Altitude Air Defense) system was the equivalent of the Soviets putting missiles in Cuba (or, if you prefer, the U.S. putting missiles in Turkey), and ignoring the obvious fact: that this system is defensive.

Yes, the best defense is a good offense, but there’s an important distinction between offensive and defensive capabilities. The history of warfare has been an eternal contest between offense and defense, with the pendulum swinging in favor of one or the other (with the odd periods of equilibrium) at different times.

The construction of fortresses swung the pendulum in favor of defense because it gave defenders a huge advantage. The people behind high and thick walls were protected from raiders and invading armies, and those perched atop them could hold off many times their numbers. Francesco Guicciardini, a Florentine historian and statesman, wrote that, as a result, “the capture of a castle took up almost a whole campaign.” Since siege weapons were so rudimentary and a frontal assault on a fortress would cost the attackers heavily, they were usually forced to starve those within out, and to offer reasonable terms for surrender. “Wars lasted a very long time,” Guicciardini wrote, “and battles ended with very few or no deaths.”

The development of cannons under the French king Charles VIII in the 1490s changed that: because cannons could demolish even the strongest walls, they gave the edge to the attacker. “[C]ities were reduced with great speed,” Guicciardini observed, “battles became bloody and savage in the extreme.”

By the 1520s, innovations in fortress construction restored the defenders’ advantage. Fortresses began to be built closer to the ground and were protected by earthen embankments that could absorb cannon fire.

The pendulum would continue to swing between offense and defense in the following centuries. Trench warfare during WWI gave defenders a decisive advantage, but this was later negated by the development of tanks. With the developments in aircraft before WWII, bomber planes were thought to be virtually unstoppable. “The bomber will always get through,” Stanley Baldwin famously warned Britons in 1932. “The only defense is in offense,” he advised cheerily, “which means you have got to kill more women and children quicker than the enemy if you want to save yourselves.”

Fortunately, Baldwin was wrong. When WWII broke out, advances in radar, anti-aircraft weapons, and fighter planes managed to check the offensive power of bombers. However, defense did not long enjoy this respite. In 1945, America dropped atom bombs on Japan, ending the war and swinging the pendulum overwhelmingly in favor of offense, where it has remained to this day. Upgrades to hydrogen bombs that can be launched in intercontinental ballistic missiles instead of dropped from planes have made nukes even more potent. They represent the ultimate offensive weapon. At least one missile, it seems, will always get through, and, unlike with bombers, one missile is all it takes to level a city.

The only counter to nuclear missiles are antiballistic missile systems, and they are still very much a work in progress (their successful intercept rate, assuming military statements are reliable, is around 50 percent, even under controlled conditions.) To add to these difficulties, their development and use is hampered by those who object to them, many of whom claim it makes the world less safe because it undermines the Cold War principle of mutually assured destruction (MAD).

The fact that the U.S. and the Soviet Union didn’t end up triggering a nuclear apocalypse masks MAD’s fundamental unsoundness – that it works until it doesn’t, and that it only takes one irrational (or mistaken) leader to blow up the world. Indeed, on at least five separate occasions, the U.S. and Russia almost accidentally started a nuclear war. Luckily, sanity prevailed in those instances, but who wants to take bets on the sanity of Kim Jong-un? Or, for that matter, of Donald Trump? Who wants to take bets on the sanity of future nuclear-armed leaders, or rogue hackers? It was for good reason that Ronald Reagan called MAD “a suicide pact.” Though his dream was the total abolition of nuclear weapons, Reagan recognized that a more realistic goal was missile defense; that if we couldn’t get rid of nuclear missiles, the next best thing would be to render them impotent.

To be sure, that goal is still a long way off. Experts have compared the task of intercepting missiles with “hitting a bullet with a bullet,” and even when it works, it costs the defender far more resources than the attacker. But practice, as they say, makes perfect, and each new antiballistic missile system and each new advance of related technology is a step closer to the goal. The U.S. is looking to improve its antiballistic missile capabilities in the Asia Pacific. Instead of railing against this and punishing countries who get on board, China should respond by developing its own system; I’m sure Chinese scientists are up to the challenge. This is one arms race that would make the world safer.

To resist the development of antiballistic missile systems is an attempt to freeze military technology in time – and to freeze it with the pendulum firmly in favor of offence, with a world that can end with the push of a button. The pendulum must be allowed to swing back towards defense to deter aggressors and minimize civilian casualties. In a world filled with arms, we should all learn to craft better armor.

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