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Missile Defense


An article in this month’s Scientific American by Richard Garwin, who “has worked with the US government since 1950″ and was on the “Rumsfeld Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States” is a combination of interesting information about the uselessness and wastefulness of this technology and a complete lack of perspective about how dangerous the whole program is.

The “missile defense” program is designed to shoot down the kind of missiles that are fired from rockets, missiles that go up from the earth’s surface, into the atmosphere, and come back down to destroy cities. Garwin identifies three different times when it’s possible to shoot such missiles down: as they go up to space (boost phase), when they are in space (midcourse), and when they are coming down from space (terminal). Using some simple calculations, he shows that trying to shoot missiles as they come down is difficult because they have to be shot down high to prevent damage (if they are shot down near their targets, nuclear warheads can still devastate the targets), and that means there have to be a lot of interceptors, near all potential targets: “unless the Pentagon is prepared to carpet the nation with interceptors, terminal defense is not an appropriate response… Even a perfect defense of many cities would simply lead to the targeting of an undefended city.” Midcourse defense using interceptors in space or fired into space is difficult because it is cheap and easy to make decoys that would confuse the interceptors: “the countermeasures are all too simple. The money and skill needed to implement them are trivial” compared to the cost of the missiles.

What does Garwin conclude from all this? That “boost phase intercept” is the way to go, of course! The problem there is that in order to do “boost phase intercept”, you have to have missiles very close to the countries that you are worried about. So Garwin describes a scenario:

“To down [missiles] launched anywhere in North Korea”, Garwin suggests “boost-phase interceptors based on ships off the country’s coast or in a neighbouring nation”, while “Iran, though, is a much larger country”, so the ships would have to carry faster interceptor missiles. “Boost phase intercept becomes still more difficult when defending against [missiles] launched from Russia or China. These countries are so vast that offshore interceptors could not reach the missiles while they are ascending. The interceptors would have to be placed in orbit, which greatly increases the expense of the system.”

This kind of thinking is emblematic of the dangerous world we live in. Garwin has a fine mind and can explain technical and scientific problems of missile technology with grace. He is honest enough to discuss the system’s technical flaws in a public magazine. But his prescriptions for solving them are suicidal because they are divorced from political – to say nothing of military – reality. First of all, everyone ought to understand that North Korea’s missiles are not pointed at the US via space: they are pointed at South Korea and US ships won’t have time to shoot those down. Nor do Iran, China, or Russia have any urgent desire to commit suicide by launching a nuclear attack on the US. So what is the logic of building this system at all? Why are scientists like Garwin going to such trouble advocating better missile “defense”, tremendously expensive technology which he acknowledges is not going to able to “defend” against any likely threats and will serve as massive provocation to proliferation?

When the red herring scenarios Garwin mentions are dropped, Garwin’s article actually makes it clear: the missile shield’s intentions are aggressive, not defensive. There are no threats to the United States. What there are, however, are a handful of countries that possess a nuclear deterrent against the United States: states that have the ability to retaliate against a first strike by the US. Rather than being a ‘threat’ to US security, these nations impose a limit on the US’s ability to dominate the world. The missile “defense” system seeks to remove that limit and give the US first-strike power by using these “interceptors” to stop any retaliatory strikes.

All that means is that if the US ever succeeds in this dubious venture, those states and groups that are worried about being targeted will seek other means of retaliation and cheap countermeasures that can defeat these billion-dollar schemes. That’s on one side.

On the other side, the technical proficiency of scientists like Garwin, instead of being controlled by wisdom and understanding, is actually merged with the dreams of the American fundamentalists and put at their service.

Anyone feeling safe yet?

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