Rogue State, Part I:

Our Friend the Kill Vehicle

The Imaginary, Dangerous Missile Shield

by Jonathan Wallace

In 1968, on the first day of the New York City teachers' strike, the principal called us all into the auditorium and, lacking teachers, made an attempt to educate us himself. Around the third or fourth hour, I remember, he was reduced to telling us how a friend of his had discovered that turtles, long reputed to be silent animals, really made noises. His voice quavered as he told us, from stress and fatigue. It was one of the first times that I perceived an adult, in a role of authority, who could not withstand the pressure of living in our crazy world.

We had ancient wooden desks, with inkwells, and some other student had attached a sticker to mine. It was from SANE, an anti-nuclear group, and it portrayed two men with bows, each with a strung arrow aimed at the other's head. The caption was, "The tighter I draw, the safer I am."

As a child, I already knew something about nuclear logic, because I had lived through the Cuban missile crisis six years before, when I was eight years old. In class, we had had nuclear drills, in which we crawled under those same wooden desks and put our heads between our knees. I was a very precocious reader; within a year or two after I read John Hersey's Hiroshima, and understood something about the true force of a nuclear explosion, that could burn me to ashes and leave only my shadow imprinted on concrete, or leave me with the flesh dripping from my body as I stumbled blind and screaming down the street. It was hard to understand how the huge glass windows or the puny wooden desks could protect us from such a blast. Instead, it seemed as if the grown-ups were lying to us--or desperately lying to themselves for the same purpose--rather than confronting the horrible idea of the insane heat of the blast, which would melt our reason along with our bodies.

The SANE cartoon captured the nuclear calculus perfectly. Once such an intensely powerful weapon had come into the world, the ill logic of human interaction dictated that we build more of them, while our enemy did the same, and while third parties like Israel and India who didn't have one raced desperately to get in the game so they could be players too.

I wondered why, if enough people had nukes for long enough, someone wouldn't shoot one off by accident? If a week never elapsed without my painfully bumping my head or an elbow, if a day never went by without a fatal car accident somewhere in New York City, how long could we go without someone setting off a nuclear weapon when they didn't mean to?

Somewhere along the way I understood the distinction between logic and reason. In logic each statement may be consistent with the one before while the basic premises are all wrong.

The nuclear pavane we danced with the Soviet Union had assumed its final shape: Mutually Assured Destruction. Our safety ostensibly lay in the fact that we and the Russians both knew that nuclear war was unwinnable. If anyone firing off a nuclear weapon knew that his own death would ensue along with everyone else's, then no-one would ever pull the trigger. That was the world of the SANE cartoon: The tighter I draw, the more nukes I have, the safer I am.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists had a little public relations device they called the Doomsday Clock. When a political or scientific event made the world safer, they set the clock back. When something happened that made things tenser or more dangerous, they set it forward. In 1953, after the U.S. tested its first H-bomb, it stood at two minutes to midnight. The Doomsday Clock never seemed to be further than ten minutes away from midnight. Said Eugene Rabinovich, one of the founding editors: "The Bulletin's clock is not a gauge to register the ups and downs of the international power struggle; it is intended to reflect basic changes in the level of continuous danger in which mankind lives in the nuclear age, and will continue living, until society adjusts its basic attitudes and institutions." The clock has been adjusted seventeen times since it was first introduced in 1947.

We learned that the Soviets were rational people like ourselves and we negotiated a series of treaties with them, never renouncing MAD but just recalibrating it. We could field fewer nukes and still have MAD. We both renounced any attempt to escape from MAD and make a nuclear war winnable.

MAD was based on a second strike capability. This meant, "If you shoot me first, there is nothing you can do to prevent me from shooting you dead as I die." As soon as one side's missiles were in the air, so would the other's be. We renounced any attempt to try and shoot them down, which would end the balance of MAD. This came to fruition in the 1972 ABM treaty, in which we and the Soviets each promised not to create a "missile shield" which would eviscerate MAD by targeting the second strike.

In 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the clock back to seventeen minutes to midnight, the furthest back it had ever been. Today, it again stands at nine minutes to midnight, as a result of a 1998 adjustment after India and Pakistan both tested nuclear weapons. The Clock has not yet been adjusted to take account of the National Missile Defense (the "NMD"), the shield President Bush has decided to build. The one we promised never to construct in the ABM treaty.

The insane unreason of our current situation is that, with the Soviet Union no longer in existence, at a time when life is much less dangerous, when there is no angry, determined adversary of immense financial and technical resources proliferating powerful missiles aimed at us, we have chosen to end MAD and develop the NMD. Purportedly developed to protect against a first strike, the shield ends MAD because (if effective) it would allow us to act as the aggressor, fire our missiles first, and then use NMD to shoot down the second strike missiles, the ones that were supposed to deter us from shooting off the first set.

I have that sense of unreality so well described by Talking Heads in their song "Once in a Lifetime": "How did I get here? How do I work this? This is not my beautiful house..." How did we get here? It took two simple steps: first the concept of "rogue states", and then the inference that a shield was necessary to defend against them.

The phrase "rogue state" (these days, ameliorated to "states of concern" ("SOC's") after some of the putative rogues complained) began to crop up with some regularity in the Reagan era as the Defense Department sought an excuse to keep its budget at Cold War levels as the Cold War lost intensity. Noam Chomsky writes:

The basic conception is that although the Cold War is over, the U.S. still has the responsibility to protect the world--but from what? Plainly it cannot be from the threat of "radical nationalism"-- that is, unwillingness to submit to the will of the powerful. Such ideas are only fit for internal planning documents, not the general public. From the early 1980s, it was clear that the conventional technique for mass mobilization was losing its effectiveness: the appeal to JFK’s "monolithic and ruthless conspiracy," Reagan’s "evil empire." New enemies were needed.... A secret 1995 study of the Strategic Command, which is responsible for the strategic nuclear arsenal, outlines the basic thinking. Released through the Freedom of Information act, the study, Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence, "shows how the United States shifted its deterrent strategy from the defunct Soviet Union to so-called rogue states such as Iraq, Libya, Cuba and North Korea," AP reports.

In 1998, the other shoe dropped when the Rumsfield Commission, headed by the man who is now again our Secretary of Defense, issued its report, concluding that emerging nations such as North Korea and Iraq presented a previously unknown nuclear threat to the United States:

Concerted efforts by a number of overtly or potentially hostile nations to acquire ballistic missiles with biological or nuclear payloads pose a growing threat to the United States, its deployed forces and its friends and allies. These newer, developing threats in North Korea, Iran and Iraq are in addition to those still posed by the existing ballistic missile arsenals of Russia and China, nations with which the United States is not now in conflict but which remain in uncertain transitions. The newer ballistic missile-equipped nations' capabilities will not match those of U.S. systems for accuracy or reliability. However, they would be able to inflict major destruction on the U.S. within about five years of a decision to acquire such a capability (10 years in the case of Iraq). During several of those years, the U.S. might not be aware that such a decision had been made.

There is concern among our allies that the "rogue states" concept is a fake-out, merely an act of surrealistic hype to keep a Cold War military budget going in post-Soviet times. The British House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee released a report in July 2000 on Weapons of Mass Destruction, which stated:

A great deal of scepticism has been expressed to the Committee about the extent and credibility of the threat posed by "rogue states". During our visit to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, a senior European official described the idea of a North Korean ballistic missile attack upon the USA as "surrealistic". Whilst accepting that North Korea is run by an unpredictable administration, Professor Baylis believes that the threat has been exaggerated for political ends and that the Rumsfeld Commission in 1998 had "hyped this issue up quite considerably." Our academic witnesses viewed "pork barrel" politics as an important driver for the project. Professor Rogers advised us that many studies of the threat from "rogue states" had been financially assisted by arms companies. Professor Baylis concurred, stating that NMD "has been driven by close links between political groups and various industrial complexes in the United States."... There is mounting international concern about President Clinton's decision because of fears that deployment of NMD will be destabilising in terms of its impact on strategic arms control.

Domestic leftist voices, like Chomsky's, are in accord. Even the Cato Institute, a Libertarian think tank usually aligned with the right on economic and business issues, sees the rogue state doctrine as a "canon of post Cold-war American foreign policy" wrongly receiving "almost dogmatic and unquestioned acceptance".

By contrast, voices on the American right buy the rogue state threat entirely, or claim to. In April of this year, National Review editor Richard Lowry published an essay, Missile Defense--The Time is Now, subtitled "Stop Talking and Start Building". Lowry calls the ABM Treaty outdated and dangerous, and demands that we pull out of it right away, by giving the Soviets six months' notice: "By now, the ABM Treaty should be a dusty embarrassment to proponents of arms control."

I am fond of one of Count Talleyrand's famous aphorisms, uttered in commentary on Napoleon's decision to abduct and murder the Duc D'Enghien: "It was worse than a crime. It was a mistake." ("C'était pire qu'un crime--c'était une faute"). The NMD has to be analyzed on two fronts: Is it morally right or wrong to build it? and will it work or not? Let's start with the second question, which impacts the first (its wrong --fraudulent--to claim that broken things work).

A review of the available information about NMD clearly establishes that the system is grossly flawed in conception and execution.

NMD is based on the assumption that rogue states like Korea or Iraq will eventually try and fire an intercontinental missile at us. This would in fact be very obliging of them, when nuclear, chemical and biological warheads can so easily be delivered by short range missiles fired from ships, or even infiltrated into the U.S. in freighters or trucks. The NMD is completely ineffective against short range (cruise) missiles, because they are not in the air long enough to be targeted and shot down. Moreover, as the Union of Concerned Scientists recently pointed out, "chemical or biological weapons [can be] distributed among many small warheads". The NMD is not designed to deal well with multiple warheads (or with decoys, an issue we will get to in a moment) because NMD "kill vehicles", not in inexhaustible supply, will get used up fast trying to hit multiple targets, of which one or more are statistically likely to slip through. The UCS concluded: "As a result, the planned NMD system would offer little real protection from ballistic missile threats to the United States."

One of our major complaints is that rogue states support terrorism; over the years, Libya and Iraq have been repeatedly accused of numerous offenses such as the bombing of flight 103, and have been attacked in retaliation. Since these countries are skilled in the murderous politics of ruse, indirection, infiltration, penetration of security and the sowing of terror via explosives, why would they oblige us by firing an ICBM, when they can deliver a blow of equal efficacy much less expensively via their more accustomed tactics? A bomb delivered to New York harbor via ship has another advantage: the U.S. may not be sure of the source, undermining MAD; while firing an ICBM is tantamount to waving a big sign which says, "Hi! Nuke me now!"

One of the bizarre, mirror-world complexities of the NMD is that it depends on the argument that we need a more powerful and expensive shield against a smaller, less capable opponent. The Soviet Union had (and Russia still has) seven thousand warheads aimed at us that could be launched in fifteen minutes (though they are decaying, and there will be only a couple thousand of them left by 2010). By contrast, even China (which behaves like a rogue state in most respects, but will be hosting the Olympics in 2004) has only two dozen ICBM's capable of hitting the U.S. The NMD is being sold to us as a shield against countries which may only be able to field a small handful of missiles. Why do we need it now, when we didn't to protect us against seven thousand Soviet missiles?

The official answer: the Soviets were rational, and MAD successfully deterred them. Khadafy, Sadam and Kim Il Sung II are crazy, and may not be deterred.

The Cato Institute doesn't buy this. "Although SOC's are often ruthless, no valid reason exists to suppose that they are immune from the logic of deterrence or are less rational than other states in an anarchic international framework." Incidentally, the balance of terror between the U.S. and any rogue state can hardly be described as MAD. If the North Koreans fired an ICBM at us, their nation would be utterly destroyed, but we would survive. Thus, where rogues are concerned, MAD is really UAD--unilateral assured destruction. Unless they smuggle the bomb in and we don't know where it came from-- a risk the NMD won't protect against anyway.

The NMD can be analogized as a device in your front yard for stopping thrown bricks when the more profound danger is intruders slipping in with knives. Sure, an anti-brick device could add to your peace of mind if it cost you a dollar or two. But if you had to spend billions--possibly even at the expense of confronting the intruder-with-knife problem-- would it be worth it?

I turned back to the right wing advocacy of NMD to find the response to this, and instead, found silence. The essay from National Review cited above, for example, doesn't even address the issue of warheads delivered from ships or smuggled in to the U.S. The closest thing I found to an answer to what seems like a stunning and definitive objection to NMD was the following, from a FAQ on the Heritage Foundation website (Heritage has been the predominant and influential right wing voice in favor of NMD for some years now):

Q: Will the missile defense system President Bush has proposed stop terrorist attacks within our borders?

A: It's unfair to make the comparison between a terrorist attack and a ballistic missile attack. They are totally different sorts of attacks. A missile defense shield is not meant to protect against a terrorist attack.

We spend right now about $12 billion a year to protect ourselves from terrorism. The bottom line is that we live a free society, and a motivated terrorist could do harm. But a missile attack is something completely different. Comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges.

A missile defense was never meant and should not be meant to defend against a terrorist attack. We must devote adequate resources to meeting both of these threats.

But this is a dishonest response--the best possible rhetorical spin on a question to which there is no answer acceptable to the speaker. The firing of a short range missile from a ship, or the detonation of a warhead aboard a cargo vessel in New York harbor, is not a "totally different" kind of attack. Its a different delivery mechanism for the same weapon.

The significance of this silence is profound. The planet Pluto was discovered because its gravitational field warped the orbit of Neptune out of shape. What is the invisible force warping the NMD debate? After all, if we were really discussing the issues, instead of advancing interests, the right would answer the cargo-ship question. When a significant and valid objection is answered with silence, ridicule, or misdirection, that's a pretty good sign that something is going on behind the scenes.

In a paper published by the South Asian Analysis Group, B. Raman, formerly of the Cabinet Secretariat of the Indian government, now director of the Institute for Topical Studies in Chennai, attributes the U.S. push for NMD to the "political debt owed by the Conservative Congressmen and by the present Bush administration to the military-industrial complex, which was a major contributor to their election funds..."

This suspicion is strengthened by the fact that whereas the NMD/TMD project as contemplated by the Clinton Administration would have pumped into the military-industrial complex orders worth US $ 30 to 60 billion, the project as modified by the present Bush Administration would reportedly bring the complex orders worth US $ 200 billion in the next 10 years.

When there's such a mad race to build a device based on such a flawed conception, and a failure by its proponents to answer substantial, reasonable objections, the gravitational force exerted by the military-industrial complex seems like a damn good explanation. Just to remind you of the origins of the phrase; President Eisenhower, a Republican and victorious general, said in his farewell speech at the end of his second term on January 17, 1961:

The conjunction of an immense military establishment and a huge arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence-- economic, political, and even spiritual--is felt in every city, every state house, and every office of the federal government . . . In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.

Chess moves, if successful, limit the opponent's options. What good is a (costly) move that doesn't limit the adversary, but which can be easily obviated by the pursuit of options that are equally effective, yet less costly for him?

Jane's Intelligence Review published a remarkable essay last March, by a Chinese academic at the Institute of International Studies in Beijing. Professor Li Bin first observes that China is content to rely on MAD, like everyone else, even with its small number of ICBM's, which has remained unchanged since 1980 when first deployed. The theory is that even a pre-emptive strike against China will not eliminate all the missiles, and that one or more will slip through to harm the U.S. "NMD deployment would force China to consider adopting approaches that would help defeat that defence and this would introduce much greater uncertainty into the direction of its modernisation programme."

China fears that if the USA believes that a first nuclear strike plus a NMD system could render impotent China's nuclear retaliatory capability, the USA might become less cautious during any crisis involving China.

NMD deployment would therefore disturb the strategic stability between China and the USA and increase the risk of conflict.

The solution: China will be forced to build more missiles, develop missiles with multiple warheads, release decoys and chaff, lower the observability of its ICBM's via stealth technologies, make the missiles more maneuverable to dodge the kill vehicles, create moveable ICBM launch sites or develop short range missiles which can be launched from ships.

In an op ed published in The Boston Globe on May 11, 2000, two MIT physicists, David Wright and Theodore Postol, discussed the easy defeat of NMD by inexpensive countermeasures. In a year long study, they analyzed the efficacy of three countermeasures:

--Delivering a biological agent in up to 100 "bomblets" carried on a single ICBM. At the moment of separation, they would overwhelm the NMD kill vehicle by sheer numbers.

--Disguising a warhead by encasing it in a mylar balloon, and releasing a number of empty balloons as decoys.

--Enclosing the warhead in a shroud cooled by liquid nitrogen, so it becomes invisible to the heat-seeking technology used by the kill vehicle.

They concluded: "The reality is that any country that is capable of building a long-range missile and has the motivation to launch it against the United States would also have the capability and motivation to build effective countermeasures to the planned defense. To assume otherwise is to base defense planning on wishful thinking."

Let's turn back to the right to seek the reasoned answer to what seems like another powerful objection. We find two tactics: personal attacks on Postol as a madman and dreamer (pieces in National Review with names like "Don't Go Postol") and the argument that our enemies won't use countermeasures:

Imagining is one thing; designing, building and testing is quite another.

Countermeasures aren't free. Every countermeasures which someone attempts to put on a ballistic missile costs real money. Countermeasures also consume weight and space, which mean lowered performance or less payload. Countermeasures introduce complexity, which means more things can go wrong and engineers must spend more time trying to ensure they go right.

That's Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi, speaking to the U.S. Senate. Saying, with a straight face, that our adversaries, after spending billions to develop ICBM's, will run out of money to add inexpensive countermeasures such as chaff and Mylar balloons.

And we haven't even gotten to the question of whether the NMD will successfully perform the task of shooting down a missile--"hitting a bullet with a bullet" in the pungent but now over-familiar phrase.

NMD was to be tested three times, and then President Clinton would make the decision whether to fund it. The following is from a UCS summary of the three tests:

--In test number 1, the mock warhead carried a GPS system to tell the kill vehicle where to find it. Nevertheless, the kill vehicle was confused by a bright decoy. It homed in on the decoy instead of the warhead, but then found the latter, which happened to be nearby. "According to the 1999 annual report by the Pentagon's Director of Operational Testing and Evaluation, there is no basis to classify the test as either a success or a failure since it is unclear whether the intercept would have occurred if the brighter balloon had not been present."

--Second test: "A failure of the two infrared sensors on the kill vehicle caused it to miss the mock warhead, reportedly by a distance of 100 feet. The failure of the sensors was attributed to a coolant leak."

--Third: "The third intercept test failed when the kill vehicle did not separate from its Minuteman III surrogate booster rocket, dooming the test before it had the chance to attempt an intercept."

After these three failures, President Clinton bounced the NMD to the next administration to resolve.

Last week, on the first test on President Bush's watch, the kill vehicle destroyed the mock warhead, but the radar system watching it failed to confirm the kill. According to the New York Times:

"The radar was so sensitive it overwhelmed its information processing ability," Lt. Col. Rick Lehner, a spokesman for the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, said. "The system locked up, like your computer at home. It was too much work to track all the debris."

Then, on July 27, Reuters reported: "A U.S. anti-missile weapon was able to destroy a test warhead in space on July 14 partly because a beacon on the target signaled its location during much of the flight, defense officials said on Friday." They used GPS again to tell the kill vehicle where the target was!

The Pentagon approach: as long as we admit we're rigging the tests, there is no problem:

``We have made no secret of this. We have been very open,'' Navy Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman, said. He and others conceded that real warheads in an attack would not carry such helpful beacons....

This time at least, the kill vehicle wasn't fooled by the decoy.

Why are we building something that hasn't been proven? We wouldn't spend billions on a Mars mission or a cancer cure without being satisfied with early prototypes or trials. Why were the standards so low that we are rushing to create the first NMD site in Alaska after these three failures and one qualified (and rigged) success?

The right's common attitude is one of fiscal responsibility in the face of left wing fantasies about expensive social engineering, that projects like welfare, gun control, and other big government interventions shouldn't be funded because they just don't work. A sample from the National Review: "[S]ocial engineering by the tax code just doesn't work. "

But when it comes to the NMD, the rhetoric is warped in a very different direction: Build it now, build it fast, half an NMD is better than no loaf, we'll make it work later. The Heritage Foundation again: "100 percent reliability is not necessary. What is required is that we deploy something, and from that point on, we continue to make it better and better all the time." Imagine the cascades of right wing sarcasm and vituperation if Ted Kennedy defended welfare in these terms!

I think we've now answered the morality question. In my rulebook, the NMD is a bizarre aberration, because it is extremely costly, doesn't work and will add to the tension and violence in the world. Its like the answer to a child's riddle: what is imaginary yet very dangerous?

Although the distorting power of money in the system is a sufficient explanation for the NMD, there is another one, consistent with it: the NMD is a grandiose projection of the President's and his backers' unquestioned beliefs about the right to bear arms. Texas, the state the President formerly governed (to the extent he did) has one of the higher murder rates in the nation (its number 6), and is one of the most committed to the easy availability of handguns everywhere. The right has a little religion of guns and violence; the world is inescapably dangerous (for reasons having nothing to do with the ubiquity of guns) and we each have a natural and constitutional right to defend ourselves by keeping a handgun in the house. Take that framework now, and observe how it fits around the NMD: its a helluva big handgun,and the U.S. a helluva big house. The blindness is the same: guns don't cause violence, and neither will the NMD. We'll be able to relax safely in isolationist splendor, behind the shield.Well, that's not my beautiful house.

It took me a while to see it, but there is a third cause of the NMD madness. Money pushes us, gun ideology leads us, and....there's no-one to stop us. We're going to deploy NMD for the same reason a dog licks its balls: because we can. A strong enemy kept us honest, but now that Russia is a weak ally, nothing stands in the way of our nuclear expansion. For fifty years, MAD was something we offered ostensibly to keep the world quiet. Now, unless the world can make us believe that we, the U.S., will face certain destruction in the event of a first strike, equilibrium is over and we are poised to become the world's bully. It is the danger, possibly the inevitable result, of being the world's only superpower.

The U.S., therefore, is the most powerful rogue state there is. According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed., "rogue" means "Large, destructive, and anomalous or unpredictable: a rogue wave; a rogue tornado. Operating outside normal or desirable controls." Sounds like us.

This is the first in a series of essays exploring this image of the United States.