February 25, 2002

Not So MAD Then?
The world after nuclear weapons

Last year, The Daily Telegraph sponsored a conference in London on the contentious subject of Star Wars – or to foreign policy bores like you and me, National Missile Defence. We will straight-away pass up on the cheap shot about, 'uh, which nation's that then, that's going to be defended?' and instead consider the enthusiastic support William Hague (then Tory leader – his successor, Iain Duncan Smith, was defence spokesman, and even more keen) gave to this scheme. The Telegraph, in reporting it, loyally averred that, 'the government was thrown into confusion by [Hague's] annoucement'. And well the assorted peaceniks, sometime CND members and all-weather humanitarian bombers who comprise the current regime might be at the news that the Conservative party favours Star Wars. Since it contradicts every argument the Thatcherites made in the 1980s in defence of nuclear weapons. Those you'll remember boil down to: deterrence. Mutually Assured Destruction prevents nuclear war. In other words, the only set of circumstances in which nuclear weapons were likely to be used, would be if only one side had them. Hence, remember, unilateral disarmament, such a bad thing. So, is the policy of the US that all other countries should be denied nuclear weapons? for that would be the consequence of an effective NMD.

Let's look at things from the perspective of those other countries: the successful accomplishment of NMD by the US would denude them of their nuclear deterrent – which of course they had maintained for exactly the same strategic rationale as she had hers. What then should be their response to even the prospect of such a development? Well, exactly that which would be the response of the US: they should oppose it. There are two levels at which this could be undertaken: first is the diplomatic; second is the tactical, or military response.

We can dispense with the diplomatic in a sentence – either the US is going to see sense or she is not. There is no more to it than this, as, after all, no other country is proposing such a radical disruption to the status quo.

Then we have the military response. This is reminiscent of the 'danger zone' that vexed Tirpitz during the long Dreadnought race against Britain. Very simply, the theory the father of the High Seas Fleet evolved to justify it coming into being in the first place was, if we don't have one, Britain can fall on Germany at will, and if we do embark upon the building of one to protect ourselves against this eventuality we will face a 'danger zone' i.e. a period between the provocative start of building and that point when we have built sufficient Dreadnoughts to be secure. Germany of course never left this danger zone because Britain always built more Dreadnoughts per ratio than Germany could, constantly pushing into infinity the possible end of the danger zone. Exactly the same thing occurs today with Star Wars, for even the most optimistic assumptions about a successful NMD assume a static missile threat. Whereas in fact, were such a scheme initiated what would be the response of the ballistic, but non-NMD, equipped powers? It would be to raise their offensive capability – not to do so would indeed be a gross dereliction of duty. The magnitude of which we can easily assess by again asking, what would America do if things were reversed?

If say China was set to achieve NMD, and the US was nowhere near this (or even if she was – we'll come back to that point about the immanent strategic difference between NMD and ICBMs presently), what would the paladins of the USAAF be saying? Would they be going up to the Hill and murmuring, 'well thank goodness for that. We may not have NMD but lucky China, she does. My how this will advance the cause of peace and stability that at least one nation can rest tonight, immune from every other nation's nuclear missiles. It being in no way, no way unsettling that that immune nation of course possesses yet nuclear weapons herself'. Palpable nonsense: what they would do is to demand more funding for more delivery systems. And they would be right, for any NMD that is going to come into being anytime soon is simply going to be unable to cope with an ICBM barrage. This bomb always will get through. That's what made the doctrine of deterrence so beautifully simple.

None of this even assesses the potential chances of NMD working. Accepting for a moment that these are in truth slight, the point remains, if the US seriously says that she is going to attempt it, it behooves other, responsible, governments to believe her. And accepting American sincerity the only responsible thing the Russian or the Chinese government can do by their people is to build more ICBMs so as to nullify any NMD. One calculation in Washington may well be that neither Moscow nor Peking can bear this particular burden. That seems to me to be very shoddy reasoning – nuclear missiles are an established technology, in other words their real unit cost is going to go down rather than up. Moreover as strategic assets both eastern powers know that missiles are a damn sight more dependable than conscripts. ICBMs also by definition have an extra-continental influence: something Russian and Chinese infantry have rarely if ever had in the long history of those two countries.

However this discussion of what established powers would do in response to an American effort to create a genuine NMD points up the supreme irrelevancy of the arguments actually advanced in its favour: namely the 'rogue state' scenario (obediently cited by Mr. Hague). This is the one where, for no good reason, North Korea or Iraq or some loopy dictatorship decides, let's loose one off at the US. Leave to one side, yeah, real loopy, firing one, maybe two wonky ICBMs at the state with more functioning ICBMs than everyone else put together. And forget that little bit of dishonesty about the loops not having a perfectly understandable reason for having a swipe at the US (say, because they've been bombed or invaded or generally told what to do by the US), let's just consider how our entirely fictional loops might actually use nuclear weaponry against the US, if for some crazy, illogical reason there was ever a regime anywhere that wanted to do such a pointless thing.

We have our goal: nuke New York. How do we, nutso loser state accomplish this quite dazzlingly incomprehensible goal (for one minute would an advocate of NMD set forth why the nuts would want to do this, what they would actually gain from it, other than actualization of their echt or ur-nuttiness? You know I'm beginning to suspect that this 'nutty' explanation is all a bit fishy . . .) given: we're oh so very poor, and, well, nutty? Do our nutty scientists invent atomic weaponry, and then inter-continental ballistic missile technology to boot? Doubtless, for otherwise NMD would be a pretty daft expenditure by the hated Yanquis. Heaven knows how Congress would account for the money spent if we developed non-atomic weapons of mass destruction, which might, who knows, be easier to manufacture and deploy. Still, we're a nation of irrational fruitloops, we're not going to go down that route. It's nukes or nothing. Though . . . and here it comes, super simple point, so easily understood it's Condolezzable: whilst we might well build ourselves a nice little atomic bomb, and we might very well look up New York on a map, why on earth should we deliver it by means of an ICBM? Being nuts and all, why don't we just put it on a yacht, or on the back of a lorry driven up from Mexico (thank goodness for NAFTA), or any way other than the one which possibly, just concievably might be prey to NMD? Only one thing can explain our attraction to ICBMs – we're . . . well we're not quite right in the head, are we?

I don't mean to rub this in, but when an adherent of NMD ripostes, 'well if that's such a good delivery system, why don't other states use it?' the answer is painfully obvious. It's not a particularly good medium, it's susceptible (though not that susceptible) to counter measures e.g. at time of tension, theoretically the US could prohibit foreign vessels from her waters, whereas the existant nuclear powers prefer the certain, unstoppable route of ICBMs. However the whole point of the 'rogue state' argument for NMD is that there will not neccessarily be a causus belli. There won't be a sudden build-up of tension, an attack could, nay will come at any moment, without provocation – that's rather the deal with being a 'rogue state'. This is not to deny the appeal of ICBMs for a rogue state to do her rogue thing, but strictly speaking they're not neccessary. An SUV will do.

So, NMD cannot prevent the only sort of attack which has been used to justify it. It could be useful in mitigating the nuclear weaponary currently possessed by e.g. China and Russia. Though only at the margins, at the moment, at the present state of Russo-Chinese nuclear weaponary, if the very best that is now hoped for the schemes on the drawing board are successfully realised. Far, far more likely is that NMD will not work at any level. The basis for believing this is of course the brutally apparent fact that it has as yet never worked convincingly at any level. It's not to say that it won't, but it is to say that it will be a considerable achievement.

Indeed, were one an opponent of American empire, there are few policy courses one could more fervently wish for than pursuit of NMD. Let us detail what that will entail. The first, and unavoidable cost is the vast financial commitment NMD requires. Even with the strength of the US economy today, this cost will mean less expenditure on conventional military needs, and hence a reduction in America's actual military capability. As we have already seen, it also, to be an effective investment, requires immobility on behalf of those it affects most e.g. the Russians and the Chinese. This is unlikely.

That leads us to the second cost: the diplomatic one. Determined pursuit of NMD requires treaty busting, and then blank dismissal of the squeals of protest inevitable from Russia and China. In other words, the cost will be an entirely unnecessary estrangement from Russia and China – thus one issue will have poisoned an entire relationship. That and, the US will sound even more silly the next time she harangues a 'treaty-busting' regime, you know, places like Iraq or North Korea.

However the real danger to NMD lies in the fantastical possibility that it might be successfully realised. America is a very inventive nation, it has some jolly useful clients like Britain to hand (do you really think if push comes to shove, Tony Blair would deny them use of e.g. Fylingdales?) so it might happen. But because, for all the Reaganite soft-soap that attaches to Star Wars – appealing visions of being a defensive shield, rather than an offensive 'sword' – intimating that this is not an asset employable for the purposes of power projection, we should not think that the result of a working NMD will be anything other than increased American military intervention overseas. The disaster inherent in NMD is that, if it ever worked, it would allow the US to behave towards the nuclear armed the way she currently does towards the nuclear free. William Hague was, and Iain Duncan Smith is a moron for supporting this prospect, Tony Blair will do nothing better in office if he prevents it happening.

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Christopher Montgomery is an historian who is currently writing a book on the historiography of the Suez crisis. He has also recently taken some time out to run the Iain Duncan Smith campaign office, and for a while was working in the private office of the Leader of the Opposition. A young representative of the diehard tradition, he believes that Enoch Powell was right on everything apart from immigration.

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