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FAS Public Interest Report
The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists
May-August 2001
Volume 54, Number 3-4
FAS Home | Download PDF | PIR Archive
Front Page
The Central Deception of National Missile Defense
If Not NMD, Then What?
Sharing Missile Defense
US Government Fails to Lead on Small Arms
US Policy and the BWC Protocol
Intelligence Oversight Faces New Obstacles
Controversy over Wen Ho Lee Persists
FAS Status Report

The Central Deception of National Missile Defense

By Robert Sherman

When casual acquaintances learn my line of work, they frequently ask "Do you think we should build a shield against nuclear weapons?"

As readers of this journal are no doubt aware, no such shield has been proposed. But by encouraging the American people to equate defense against missiles with defense against weapons of mass destruction, National Missile Defense (NMD) supporters play their strongest card.

So long as the American people think "nuclear defense" when they hear "missile defense," popular support for NMD is likely to remain substantial. One of the most effective lines of attack against NMD is to educate the American people to the fact that even a successful defense against ballistic missiles will not protect us against weapons of mass destruction.

It is useful to illustrate the distinction by examining the historical analogues to a defensive shield against ballistic missiles.

One precedent that springs immediately to mind is that of nationwide anti-aircraft defense. With remarkable consistency, the British defense against German bombers in the Battle of Britain, the German defense against Allied bombers, and the North Vietnamese defense against American bombers all averaged about 2% effectiveness. In slow grinding wars of attrition, such defenses were profitable. But against a nuclear attack this level of effectiveness, or even an order-of-magnitude improvement over it, would be useless.

While defense against ballistic missiles is probably even more difficult than defense against aircraft, for the sake of discussion let us grant NMD the benefit of the doubt. Let us assume it would be 100% effective, and that North Korea, Iraq, Iran et al are fully convinced that any ballistic missile attack they make against the United States will fail. In that case, the best historical analogue is found by going back seven decades.

As France's Minister of War in 1929, Andre Maginot was determined that never again would Germany invade his country. So he began construction of the most massive, powerful and technologically advanced homeland defense in history.

Stretching the entire length of the Franco-German border, the Maginot Line was to consist of a series of interconnected forts using the strongest concrete armor and most powerful artillery in existence. It was even to provide air conditioning for the crews _ astonishingly advanced technology for that time.

Maginot died in 1932 but his dream project continued. By the time Germany again turned hostile eyes toward France in 1940, the Maginot Line was complete, fully operational, ready for combat _ and useless. It might well have been 100% effective, and it would have made no difference.

The Germans simply drove around it. They easily crossed the German-Belgian border, and then hooked across the Franco-Belgian border; their successful invasion of France was delayed by only a few days.

France's mistake was to define the threat as a German invasion through a particular border. The real threat was a German invasion, regardless of route.

Similarly, the Bush Administration's mistake is to define the threat as nuclear or biological weapons delivered by ballistic missiles. It isn't. The threat is nuclear or biological weapons, regardless of delivery method.

A hostile missile without a weapon threatens no American. But a hostile nuclear weapon without a missile threatens all Americans.

Imagine that you are a foreign aggressor, you have a workable nuclear weapon, and you wish to kill a large number of innocent American civilians. In broad-brush terms, you have two options:

You can use an ICBM. Or you can use clandestine delivery: Put the bomb in the hold of a merchant ship and explode it in an American harbor. Put it in an airliner and fly it to the city of your choice. Or just put it in a Ryder truck and drive it there.

The ICBM would be more expensive, less accurate, and much less reliable than clandestine delivery. Even more important, the ICBM would leave an unmistakable return address, while clandestine delivery offers at least a possibility of anonymity.

Ballistic missiles make sense for the five declared nuclear weapon states, which can test and perfect their missiles and need to deliver multiple weapons to rapidly-chosen targets. But for a Third World despot with one or two weapons, ICBMs are the weakest delivery method imaginable.

Imagine, then, that the Secretary of Defense were to make a public statement that the purpose of NMD is to force hostile states to abandon ineffective ICBMs and deliver their nuclear or biological attack by more effective clandestine means.

He'll never say that, of course, because if he did the NMD debate would be over.