How New Thinking in Missile Defense Could Lead to Better Defense— and Better Politics


I.  Better Missile Defense?

Here’s an interesting headline that appeared in the March 18 Washington Business Journal: “DOD deputy secretary to industry: Come up with a new missile defense solution, and we’ll fund it.”  The news item detailed a speech by Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert O. Work to a conference in Washington, DC, making defense contractors an offer that is hard to refuse: If you can build it, we will buy it.

It would seem fair to say that if the Obama administration—generally seen as liberal and dovish— wants to build missile defense, that is a sign that missile defense is an idea whose time has truly come. Indeed, from a partisan point of view, Republicans are now on notice: The Democrats, too, seem to be staking out a hawkish position on a supremely important defense issue. In other words, we could be seeing the domestic-political equivalent of an arms race.

As Work said to his audience, “If you come up with a relatively low-cost way to defeat an inbound missile raid—either through offensive or defense means-–then we’re going to find funding for it.

However, Work then added a stipulation that might seem a bit counter-intuitive, even contradictory. According to the Journal’s Jill R. Aitoro:

What the Pentagon doesn’t want is a ‘kinetic’ solution, or shooting down incoming missiles with missiles. That ‘can put us on the wrong side of the cost imposition equation,’ Work said. ‘We need to come up with other ideas to defeat this threat.’

In other words, the Obama man was saying, we want something other than anti-missile missiles; contractors and other would-be problem-solvers should pitch the Pentagon on something other than kinetic solutions. It is just too expensive, this argument holds, to counter every incoming missile—including bluffs and decoys—with an anti-missile.

Now of course, most current thinking on missile defense has been oriented toward using missiles to shoot down missiles; it is sometimes called “hitting a bullet with a bullet,” although the military term is “hit to kill.” It is the basic idea behind both America’s Patriot and Israel’s Iron Dome systems, and these have worked pretty well. However, those systems have really been tested only against low-tech Arab opponents, such as Iraq during Desert Storm in 1991 and Hezbollah and Hamas in the last decade.

Meanwhile, more sophisticated potential opponents, including China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan, are all busily improving their missile-attack capabilities. And so the US and its allies have no choice but to upgrade our defense systems.

And it could be, in fact, that Deputy Secretary Work is correct—that the kinetic approach to missile defense is the wrong approach, or at least the less optimal approach.

So do we need instead, say, a laser defense? Or something different altogether, such as, maybe, Stuxnet-type virus-weapons that might disable enemy missiles when they are still sitting in their silos?

II.  Better Defense, Overall?

Certainly the Obama administration’s Bob Work is asking provocative questions, and he seems to have the right historical frame of reference for his inquiry, as when he declared:

In many ways, today’s environment is similar to the 1920s and 1930s inter-war period that saw significant advances in new technologies and weapons, including aircraft, armored vehicles, submarines, aircraft carriers, and radar.  But not every nation was able to harness the new technologies and develop new ways of fighting… Our innovation must be broad-based and rooted in realistic wargaming, which is a big priority of mine. More experimentation, and new concept and leadership development, to enable our people to adapt to situations we can’t yet imagine.

Yes, the lesson of World War Two was that it was not the countries with the biggest militaries that did the best; it was the countries with the smartest militaries. The decisive weapons in the fighting were submarines, tanks, airplanes, and, finally, of course, the atomic bomb. In other words, the right sort of technology could wipe out the other side’s strength based simply on courage and manpower.

And so for all the heroics on the battlefield, the behind-the-scenes struggles over technology were just as important in determining the outcome of the war. One is reminded, for example, of the profound and bitter debate over technology policy in Britain in the 30s and 40s: Two scientific heavyweights, Frederick Lindemann and Henry Tizard, squared off over the most effective vision for England’s air defense. Lindemann endorsed the idea of “aerial mines” as the best strategy against Nazi aircraft, while Tizard supported the development of radar. Both men were equally patriotic and committed to Britain’s survival; they just had different ideas about what would work best. And interestingly, even this technical debate became political: The Conservative Party, including Winston Churchill, mostly supported Lindemann, while the Labour Party mostly supported Tizard. Fortunately for Britain, Tizard’s ideas prevailed; it was radar that proved to be a tide-turner for the British and the Allies.

So yes, today, let’s have a robust debate over missile defense, remembering that ultimately the issue of defense is not less or more, but,rather, better. And so conservatives, who tend on instinct to favor bigger defense budgets, should never fall into the trap of thinking that the issue is simply inputs; instead, the real issue is always outputs—what works best.

III.  Better Politics?

Now, if we might be indulged, we could extend our techno-thinking from the realm of missile defense to the larger realm of politics overall. Perhaps we could see a way in which forward thinking about defense would restore luster to the tarnished brand of both political parties—indeed, of politics itself.

We have, after all, reached a situation both paradoxical and perilous: Public faith in politics, and in the two major political parties, is down dramatically, even as America faces severe—and many would say rising—strategic military challenges. That is, the American public holds its political class in disdain, even contempt, while China, Russia, Iran, et al. grow more menacing; not to put too fine a point on it, maybe they even have plans to destroy us. Indeed, the threat of obliteration would seem to be far more dire than the threat of boob-politicians.

And so becomes important to ask: If neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are to be trusted, whom, then, should we trust? How should we go about defending ourselves as a country? How should we know which politicians to empower in order to look out for us? Surely, in a world of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, we need more than personal firearms to stay safe. Phrases such as “don’t tread on me” and molon labe might count as sincere and admirable expressions of flinty independence, but they would not mean much in the face of a high-tech enemy assault.

In other words, if we Americans don’t trust our politicians to help organize and finance our national defense, then we need better politicians—quick. We cannot afford to ignore the problem of political malpractice; we need to fix it.

Meanwhile, for their part, politicians could see improved defense as a route to the regaining of our trust. Maybe one way for the political class to prove its bona fides is for it to think seriously about the big issue of defense—and there’s no bigger issue than national survival. As we have seen, Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work is willing to step up: He seems positively hawkish on the issue of spending more for an effective missile defense.

Indeed, one of these days, the argument for missile defense is going to be tested—really tested. That is, a big missile, perhaps a nuclear missile, is going to be fired at a ship, or at a city, and we will see what happens. Either way—whether the missile hits its target or is deflected—we will have learned an object lesson in the value of effective missile defense. Even a population enraptured by such trivial technologies as Twitter and Meerkat will be forced to admit that a weapon of mass destruction is more important than the latest social-media gimmick.

And so at that point, we will have learned a lesson about the value of politics. Yes, most of the time, politicians are little more than bloviators, offering predictable kneejerk partisan platitudes. But sometimes, we will be reminded, the choices they make really do matter.  That is, either we are safe, or we are not.

In other words, missile defense offers a potential rationale for a better kind of political leader, one who starts from first principles—and the first principle, of course, is survival.

Yes, the public might be jaded and cynical about most political promises. But maybe, just maybe, the public would respond to this pledge: Vote for me, and I will keep you alive. I will keep our country from being incinerated.

Would such a message get the voters’ attention? Would it punch through? I’m betting it would. Yes, all the other issues—from taxes to spending to fracking to pot-smoking—are important, but surely, national survival is the most important.

And so maybe politicians should start at that point, seeking to rebuild their credibility on the basis of our country’s survival. And if that survival message works, perhaps they could extend their writ to other topics that also involve survival, such as curing disease and going into space, thereby compartmentalizing, or life-boating, our population in a dangerous world.

Because there’s one thing we know for sure: Other countries, developing their offensive capabilities, are doing their best to make sure that America’s survival skills will be sorely tested in the decades to come.