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Dead Walrus

16 April 2000

The Dead Walrus on the Breakfast Table

By Gwynne Dyer

On Friday, the Russian Duma finally ratified START II (the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), six years after it was signed. The next step, rationally, would be to finish the negotiations on the START III treaty, cutting the nuclear warheads on each side even further. But what both sides will actually be wasting their time on instead is a farrago of technological nonsense known in the United States as National Missile Defense (NMD).

National Missile Defense is the grandson of Ronald Reagan’s visionary 1983 “Star Wars” proposal, a hyper-optimistic plan for an elaborate space-based system that would shoot down all of the many thousands of Soviet nuclear warheads that would be fired at the U.S. in an all-out nuclear war. Few of the necessary technologies existed then, or now, but some $60 billion —- around $500 for each U.S. taxpayer —- has been expended on this fantasy already. And the saga is far from over.

It’s like the old story of the “nuclear airplane,” a 1950s technological fantasy about bombers powered by nuclear reactors that would never have to land except to change crews. The strategic principle of a delivery system that was always on the move and impossible to find was sound enough, and 15 years later, ballistic missile-firing submarines filled that niche admirably. But nuclear reactors require heavy shielding, and airplanes that are too heavy cannot fly.

Technologically, the idea was palpable nonsense, as anybody with basic aeronautical knowledge could determine with three minutes calculations on the back of an envelope. Even the Pentagon kept trying to kill the project, but Congress, in thrall as usual to the interests of the defense industry, kept voting funds for it year after year.

This was the boondoggle that persuaded President Dwight Eisenhower, the leading general of his generation, to devote much of his farewell speech in 1960 to warning Americans against what he named the “military-industrial complex.” But despite all the attempts to kill it, the nuclear airplane was still in the defense budget when John Kennedy took over the presidency and made Robert McNamara his defense secretary.

McNamara, who had been gainfully employed running General Motors, had not been tracking defense matters closely, but he was capable of doing sums on the back of an envelope. In his memoirs, he describes his astonishment at discovering, on taking office, that the nuclear airplane was still in the budget. It was, he said, like coming down to breakfast in the morning and finding a dead walrus on the table.

This generation’s dead walrus is anti-ballistic-missile missiles, “Star Wars,” NMD: a new name in every decade, but always the same foolish (but lucrative) idea. There is not much hope it will be removed from the table in the near future, since in addition to those who stand to make money or gain campaign contributions from NMD, it commands support from that significant fraction of the American population who live in perpetual fear of attacks by foreign terrorists or “rogue states” with nuclear weapons.

Why they think that these evildoers would prefer to invest gazillions of dollars in developing ballistic missiles, rather than just chartering a freighter under a flag of convenience and delivering a nuclear warhead to New York or Los Angeles that way, remains a mystery.

The problem for the Russians is that an American commitment to NMD, apart from breaching the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, will cast doubt on Russia’s ability to use its nuclear weapons against the United States, and thus on the whole structure of mutual deterrence, even if the actual technology is hopeless. In practice, therefore, Russia would either have to build many new missiles to swamp an American NMD, or build its own NMD.

The Clinton administration, while privately regarding even the stripped-down version of NMD now on sale (for use only against small numbers of missiles from “rogue” states) as an updated version of the nuclear airplane, is rolling with the punches. It has all but agreed to commit to NMD if the third test of the interceptor missiles, now scheduled for June, is a success. (The first, last October, was a success; the second, in January, was a failure.)

Russia is rolling with the punches, too. Clinton has offered Russia access to U.S. technology so that it can build a similar system, as part of a damage-control exercise to preserve the essence of mutual deterrence. And the Russian Security Council, which includes President Vladimir Putin, the speakers of both houses of the Duma and other officials, has recently discussed START II as part of a package that might also include a “nonstrategic missile defense system.”

Like Clinton, Putin is well aware that this is probably all money down the drain. If 100 tests under combat conditions worked, maybe you could believe in NMD —- but only two successes are required out of three, with no decoys or counter-measures on the incoming missiles, before $12 billion more is committed to the project.

The military-industrial complex of Eisenhower’s time has become a military-industrial-ideological complex that is almost unstoppable in American domestic politics, and it seems that everybody will just have to dance to its tune. Unless, of course, we all get lucky, and the third test in June is a failure.