Star Wars Episode VII: Missile Defense

By Akil Alleyne on April 9, 2009

So President Barack Obama has delivered yet another stirring speech to a vast crowd of European well-wishers, this time in Prague, Czech Republic, on April 5th. This time, however, he threw his fans something of a curveball. President Obama made clear that he would not scrap the ongoing development of a nuclear missile defense shield. “As long as the threat from Iran persists,” he declared, “we will go forward with a missile-defense system that is cost-effective and proven.” 

At this, the raucous crowd fell largely silent. Missile defense rubs Europeans entirely the wrong way. I, however, was pleased to see the president prick his transatlantic pep squad’s bubble. The sooner Obama’s fawning foreign acolytes—and America’s overseas enemies—learn that he will not conduct a “kum-bah-yah” foreign policy, genuflecting constantly before the altar of the United Nations, the better.

That said, though I am sympathetic to missile defense in principle, I am unconvinced of its desirability in practice.

sdi.jpgThe policy as we know it originated with President Ronald Reagan’s 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI (derisively nicknamed “Star Wars” by its detractors). The primary purpose SDI served was to flummox the Soviet Union. The Russians feared that their entire nuclear arsenal would be rendered obsolete by Reagan’s proposed anti-nuclear umbrella, while they would remain vulnerable to America’s nuclear ordnance. This realization, combined with the pain Reagan brought to the Soviets by funding anti-Communist insurgencies worldwide, helped propel Mikhail Gorbachev to the negotiating table, ultimately lowering the curtain on the Cold War.

It was this use of SDI as a geopolitical bargaining chip that Reagan Administration officials found useful. Reagan himself, however, eschewed this view. What is seldom remembered today is that Reagan personally advocated SDI not only to “psyche out” the Soviets, but also to render obsolete all nuclear stockpiles—including America’s own. To the chagrin of most of his own national security advisors, as well as certain hard-nosed foreign allies like Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, Reagan had come to embrace a seemingly impossible dream, one now espoused by Barack Obama: that of a world without nuclear weapons.

Of course, a generation later, missile defense still has not achieved liftoff, as it were. Nonetheless, Reagan was on to something here. If a Star Wars-style defense shield could be perfected, and could one day be expanded to protect the whole globe, no country need ever again fear being targeted with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. The best way to dissuade countries from pursuing nuclear missile technology is to minimize its usefulness, and comprehensive missile defense, in theory at least, would do that. For this reason, the principled objections raised by opponents of missile defense—that it wrongfully alienates America’s allies, that it violates the arms-limitation treaties of the past, and so on—leave me cold.

It is the practical objections to missile defense that pack some punch. An article I read in The Economist soon after September 11th argued that jettisoning missile defense at that juncture would be akin to scrapping one’s flood insurance if the house caught fire. This was the wrong analogy. Pragmatically speaking, pursuing missile defense is more like buying flood insurance for a house in the middle of the Mojave Desert.

What credible threat of a nuclear missile attack against the US or its allies actually exists? The old Cold War doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” remains very much a thing of the present. None of the less responsible nuclear powers—regional rogues like North Korea, hotheads like India and Pakistan or fanatics like the mullahs in Iran—dares ever launch nuclear warheads at anyone, anywhere, for they know the fate that would await them. Even a purely conventional American military response could still bring most nuclear perpetrators to heel. 

This is why I scoffed at the chorus of condemnation that followed Hillary Clinton’s election campaign vow to “obliterate” Iran if it ever tried to nuke Israel. The good Senator, if you’ll forgive the expression, was simply keeping it real.

It is also why I do not quake at the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran. The worst the mullahs would have the chutzpah to do is use their nukes to deter any potential foreign intervention, enabling them to sponsor terrorist groups like Hezbollah with even greater impunity. Quite frankly, this would not be much worse than the status quo. 

The real danger is that Iran (or North Korea, or a Pakistan taken over by Islamists) might relay nukes to terrorists who would not hesitate to use them. In such a situation, missile defense would be worse than useless. No terrorist group possesses the resources or facilities to even maintain nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles, let alone deploy them. An antimissile shield would not stop terrorists from carrying nukes in suitcases or smuggling them in cargo containers. This is likely the principal nuclear menace of the 21st century—and missile defense would be helpless in the face of it.

Even if the technology is one day perfected, then, it may not be worth the price Uncle Sam will have paid in fiscal and diplomatic capital. The policy has generated as much consternation among America’s allies as among its rivals and enemies. Given this geostrategic disruption, and given its exorbitant expense—especially in this era of industrial bailouts and bloated stimulus bills—how wise an endeavor is this?

On the whole, the technology formerly known as “Star Wars” is a noble pursuit in principle, but a misguided one in practice. It could never rid the world of all nuclear weapons, and the only nukes against which it would protect us are the ones no one would ever have the gumption to launch in the first place. President Obama would do best to heed Winston Churchill’s wise warning in his last address to the US Congress: “Be careful, above all things, not to let go of the atomic weapon until you are sure…that other means of preserving peace are in your hands.”



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