Thomas Nichols (Page 3 of 3)

America recently successfully tested another SM-3 missile defense interceptor. Do you feel the program has been successful?

I don’t have an opinion on “success,” for two reasons. One, I’m not an engineer and I’m not qualified to say whether the SM-3 works in any meaningful way. But second, I don’t care.

By this I mean that I don’t think missile defenses will matter in a real crisis. Look at Israel’s Iron Dome. I wrote about this on my blog: missile defense advocates love Iron Dome because so far it’s about 80+ % effective. Well, that’s great if you’re shooting at relatively slow Hamas rockets. If you miss 1 out of 5, you lose an apartment block, and it’s tragic for the local residents, but it’s not a catastrophe.

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If you’re shooting at nukes, 4 out of 5 isn’t good enough. 98 out of 100 isn’t good enough. No U.S. president is going to risk millions of lives on a missile shield that might leak just once. Now, with that said, I think we should build theater defenses, because if the Iranians or the North Koreas get off the leash and launch a medium-range missile, we might be able to catch it early off the launch. But that’s last-ditch damage-limitation in the theater. If you’re talking about an ICBM with a nuke on it, you’re not going to rely on a defense: you’re going to go first and take out the launch site the minute it looks active. War gamers like to talk about missile defense chances, but real political leaders don’t think that way and never have.

By the way, this crowing that Iron Dome proves “Reagan was right,” as Max Boot did a few months ago, is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the goals of the Reagan-era SDI program. Attempts to compare it to Iron Dome are just silly. The goal of SDI, no matter what kind of “peace shield” rhetoric Reagan used, was not to protect cities. That was impossible, and it’s still impossible. It was meant to introduce one more layer of unpredictability into Soviet first-strike planning, so that the Kremlin would have one more complication to think about before they launched an attack on our nuclear forces. We figured — and I know, because I worked on this stuff for SDIO contractors back then — that if the Soviets had to hesitate during a crisis even for an extra few minutes, it was worth billions of dollars. I still believe that, and if there were still a Soviet Union, I’d be pushing for a stationary, space-based defense over our ICBM and submarine installations, even if it had only a very low chance of working. But there isn’t a USSR anymore, and the wild claims of missile defense advocates are not only scientifically unsupportable, they’re dangerous, because the last thing you want is a U.S. president who might get bamboozled into thinking a national missile defense might actually work.

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