The Tired Debate Over Missile Defense

Public discourse on Ballistic Missile Defense has become little more than “Ritualized Anxiety.”

President Obama’s renewed call for cuts in the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals has, perhaps inevitably, sparked a renewed round of missile defense posturing between Russia and the United States. Arms reduction will be difficult, according to Russia, if the United States continues to pursue a missile defense system that puts the Russian deterrent at risk.  

This is a familiar dance; last month Michael Krepon termed the serial complaints of Russia and China over America’s Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) plans “ritualized anxiety.” The post strikes a chord; even to the extent that most (or all) conversations about national security involve overwrought symbolism, the contours of the missile defense debate appear especially ritualized.

The sketchy prospect of psychotic madmen who might commit national suicide by loading an experimental warhead onto an experimental missile and lobbing it towards Alaska, or some unspecified part of the Atlantic Ocean, gives cause for BMD advocates to demand extraordinary sums for a very few “utils” of national security. The United States demonstrates its commitment to European, Japanese, and South Korean security by emphasizing BMD cooperation; Russia, China, and North Korea display anxiety over these developments, which gives the national defense establishments in Tokyo, Seoul and the capitals of Europe the excuse they need to shift resources to high technology constituents.

Even in the Israeli case, the argument for missile defense depends to great extent on discredited Douhetianism, the notion that civilian life will collapse when placed under threat from a finite number of unsophisticated rockets and missiles launched from Lebanon and Gaza. This fear justifies the expenditure of virtually endless amounts of Israeli (and American) money in pursuit of the last sediments of national security.

The nub of genuine utility is this; ballistic missile defense can help protect the forward military installations of a state from attack by hyper-accurate ballistic missiles designed to destroy and disrupt military capability. Soviet plans to strike Western European airbases and staging areas with short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) during the opening hours of a NATO-Warsaw Pact war helped drive a sensible interest in theater missile defense.  Similarly, the U.S. Navy is quite correct in pursuing BMD options that can protect aircraft carriers and Pacific airbases from the PLA’s Second Artillery.

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Unfortunately, little of the public conversation on BMD is held on these terms, either in the United States or abroad.  The operational details of ballistic missile usage and the utility of defense are difficult to explain to a general public that is uneducated in and largely indifferent to military affairs. Consequently, BMD advocates drum up the direst possible scenarios to make their case to the public at large, initiating the ritualistic cycle that plays out across the world. This, in turn, hampers realistic assessments of risk, threat, and capability.