Deterrence or Detonation?

By Richard Alan Leach | 2002-04-01 12:00:00

With the imminent demise of the ABM Treaty - and the 1967 Outer Space Treaty next on the Pentagon's chopping block - the public deserves straight answers to vital questions concerning human survival. Unfortunately, many of the designated "experts" have a vested interest in the outcome of the argument, and newspaper op-ed pieces are often as useless as a TV sound-bite. The public is ill-served by a mass media which presents the musings of right-wing ideologues posing as technical experts, or slapdash analyses by journalistic pundits who apparently devote an hour to thinking about the nuclear weapons issue before making shallow pronouncements.

As an example of the former, consider the well-publicized arguments of Frank Gaffney, of the Center for Security Policy (CSP), a pro-Star Wars lobby group posing as a think tank. Both the CBC and the New York Times regard Gaffney as a knowledgeable commentator on this issue. In the early 1980s, Gaffney was kicked out of the Reagan administration because he became apoplectic when his boss began talking to the Russians. Yet it is only natural for the CBC to consult this former Pentagon official in order to give its befuddled viewers "balance."

Gaffney's think tank, CSP, is less interested in US security than in implementing Star Wars II, by any conceivable rationale. In 1999, Gaffney's alarmist rhetoric was aimed at Northeast Asia, not the Middle East: "We must not only worry about rogue states like North Korea that are now acquiring means to attack their enemies with such weapons of mass destruction. Russia and China already have significant numbers of these long-range missiles" - conveniently omitting that both have been consistently clamoring for the United States to agree to multilateral reductions of nuclear weapons. For opponents of arms control, the standard ruse is to accept that the race is on, and that the United States has no other choice but to "win."


Last summer, US Senator Carl Levin called for a review of technical requirements before making a deployment decision on National Missile Defence (NMD). To achieve "balance," the New York Times consulted Gaffney, describing him as the "president of a conservative defense analysis group" - failing to add that he advocates detonating nuclear bombs in space as part of a missile defence strategy, among other Strangelovian fanstasies. Gaffney denounced the Senator's prudent advice as "a delaying action." Gaffney offered no evidence for his diametrically opposed position: that the United States should proceed to develop and deploy an unworkable system, that will likely lead to a strategic cul-de-sac.

Gaffney had already published in the National Post, advising Canadians to follow the United States in its delusive bid for global military supremacy. Characteristically, he relied on strategic omission to make his case. To justify the missile defence scheme, he cited China's ominous research developments, neglecting to mention that China agrees with most US allies, including Canada, that the ABM treaty should be preserved, not scrapped. It's an old Pentagonal ploy: during the Cold War, congressional funding was obtained by warning that the Russians were also working on such technology - during the Reagan era, they even warned of an imminent Star Wars gap! Reality check: the best scientific experts assert that NMD is both destabilizing and unattainable. (There is no contradiction here: to construct a shield which the world perceives to be a bid for a first-strike capability is dangerously destabilizing, and an invitation to an arms race, even if an impermeable "umbrella" is a technical impossibility.)

To pitch the scheme to Canadians, Gaffney asserted that if Canada does not support the plan, and "insists on remaining vulnerable to missile blackmail or actual deadly attacks, the United States [will] respect their wishes and leave them undefended."1 To those who understand the technical objections to this scheme, the threat of leaving Canada "undefended" - by an unworkable shield - does not seem decisive. During the Gulf War, the Patriot Missile system had a far less complex task and hit no more than 20% of incoming missiles. After September 11, Gaffney turned his eyes to the Middle East: "Does anyone think for a moment that if those waging holy war on this country...had access to [weapons of mass destruction] they would refrain from using them?"

In fact, opponents of missile shields argue against wasting $100 billion on a mis-named "defence" which is fundamentally flawed and cannot protect the United States against terrorist attacks like 9/11. If another country decided to commit national suicide and launch strategic and tactical nuclear missiles, they would be accompanied by decoys, which cannot be differentiated from actual warheads - a fundamental flaw. Of course, missile "defences" were always nothing more than a Trojan Horse to prevent the public from comprehending that it is merely the next step toward the weaponization of outer space.


Andrew Coyne only adds to the confusion ("Taking Potshots At the Missile Shield," National Post, February 26, 2001) with his intended refutation of the arguments of NMD critics. These peace-loving types are obviously muddle-headed, so Coyne parodies their arguments to reveal their contradictions. One the one hand, the critics of Star Wars claim that it can never work ("like hitting a bullet with a bullet"), and yet they also argue (in Coyne's rendition) that any fool can see the construction of an impregnable anti-missile shield around the United States would upset the nuclear balance of terror; Russia and China would be forced to add enormous numbers of warheads to their arsenals in response. In other words, it would work too well. So determined are NMD's many critics to shoot down the idea that they do not seem to have noticed that their two main lines of argument are diametrically opposed to one another. Either NMD is an obvious technological fantasy, which no sane person takes seriously, or it is a dangerous upping of the nuclear ante, a destabilizing break from the assumptions of mutually assured destruction (MAD) that laid the groundwork for a generation of arms control agreements. It can't be both.2

Ah, but it can be both unworkable and dangerously destabilizing - and is. Coyne's "discovery" of an apparent contradiction dissolves when one realizes that the global perception is that the United States is seeking a "unilateral security advantage," one which will surely lead to undermining the nonproliferation regime. The Bush Administration intends to create a new global arena of "every nation for itself." For Coyne, however, any nation skeptical of US designs is "anti-American," a designation which presumably includes the American scientific community (outside of the weapons labs) who are adamant in warning that no amount of money can change laws of physics. Coyne remarks that:

Positions have certainly reversed over the years. It used to be the hawks that stood for the grim logic of deterrence, and doves who insisted that mutual assured destruction was immoral. Now those same liberals and peace activists cling to MAD as the only basis of a stable international regime.

As an unsympathetic observer of both liberals and peace activists, Coyne misses the point. When liberal peace activist Jonathan Schell wrote an article for Foreign Affairs recently, it was titled "The Folly of Arms Control."3 Of course, Schell intended to signify that it is folly to settle for "mere arms control" - which, unlike disarmament, is a stopgap and cannot be regarded as an ultimate solution. In today's hawkish climate, however, one may interpret such a title as an attack on the entire premise of mutual vulnerability - which the United States wishes to "go beyond" by exploiting its comparative advantage in research and development. In short, US hawks think they can "win" an arms race! (Of course, they can - but for only a decade or two, as the rest of the world inevitably reacts to this bid for global hegemony.) Coyne goes on:

Missile defence is just that: a defence. It does not add a single warhead to the American stockpile, nor prevent further reductions. By itself, it threatens no one. Why, then, would Russia and China be forced to build more missiles in response to its deployment? Only if they insist, still, on retaining the capability to nuke the United States into the stone age.

Here, Coyne mimics hawks in the Bush administration, who encourage public ignorance with claims that the scheme is merely "defensive," even as they continue with research on lasers and Anti-Satellite (ASAT) weaponry. Will the United States, after acquiring a shield, relinquish its sword? Again, however porous the shield may be, the global perception of a bid for invulnerability makes a defensive reaction inevitable.

Deterrence intends that no nation should need to "trust" that potential adversaries will refrain from launching an attack, since the other side will be able to launch a second strike. The hawks currently in power in Washington are obviously not satisfied with mutual vulnerability, since "security" for Pentagon planners is a lower priority than domination.

Nukes serve a purpose: The United States refuses to declare "no first use" of nuclear weapons, to create a climate of uncertainty. The United States threatened their use as recently as the Gulf War. In the nuclear age, Washington is now altogether too comfortable living with weapons of mass destruction. At this moment, deterrence is the only feasible stopgap between two eventual alternatives: disarmament or detonation.

Richard Alan Leach is an English instructor and technical editor at POSTECH University, Korea.

1 Frank J. Gaffney, Jr., "Yo, Canada: Get on board," National Post, 23 Feb 2001.

2 Andrew Coyne, "Taking potshots at the missile shield," National Post, 26 Feb 2001.

3 Jonathan Schell,. "The Folly of Arms Control," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 79, No. 5, September/October 2000.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2002

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