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Dead Walruses

19 September 2009

Dead Walruses

 By Gwynne Dyer

“Some experts have doubts about the missile shield concept,” as the more cautious reporters put it. (That example comes from the BBC website.) A franker journalist would say that the ballistic missile defence (BMD) system that the Bush administration planned to put into Poland and the Czech Republic, and that President Barack Obama has just cancelled, has never worked and shows few signs of ever doing so.

Obama has done the right thing. It saves money that would have been wasted, and it repairs relations with Russia, which was paranoid about the system being so close to its borders. And the cancellation also signals a significant decline in the paranoia in Washington about Iran.

“Paranoia” is the right word in both cases. Iran doesn’t have any missiles that could even come within range of the BMD system that was to go into Poland and the Czech Republic, let alone nuclear warheads to put on them. According to US intelligence assessments, Iran is not working on nuclear weapons, nor on missiles that could reach Europe, let alone the United States. Washington’s decision to deploy the system anyway was so irrational that it drove the Russians into paranoia as well.

Their intelligence services told them the same thing that the US intelligence community told the Bush administration: that Iran had no nuclear weapons or long-range ballistic missiles, nor any possibility of getting them within less than five to ten years. So what was the US really up to, siting the system so close to Russia’s borders?

The intelligence people in Moscow also told Russian leaders that the US system was useless junk that had never managed to intercept an incoming missile in an honest operational test. (All the tests were shamelessly rigged to make it easy for the intercepting missiles to strike their targets, and still they failed most of the time.) Besides, although the planned BMD base in Poland was close to Russia, it was in the wrong place to intercept Russian missiles.

So why did the Russians get paranoid about it? Because although they knew how the military-industrial complex worked in the United States (and they have similar problems with their own domestic version), they simply could not believe that the United States would spend so much money on something so stupid and pointless. Surely there was something they were missing; some secret American strategy that would put them at a disadvantage.

No, there wasn’t, and almost everybody (except some Poles and Czechs who want US troops on their soil as a guarantee against Russian misbehaviour, and some people on the American right) was pleased by Obama’s decision to pull the plug on the project. As Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s ambassador to NATO, said: “It’s like having a decomposing corpse in your flat (apartment) and then the undertaker comes and takes it away.”

But why did the Bush administration choose to deploy this non-functioning weapons system in Eastern Europe? Indeed, the same BMD system has already been installed in California and Alaska (to intercept North Korean missiles that cannot actually reach the United States either). It’s as if Ford or GM designed a car with faulty steering, and decided to put it on the market anyway.

The answer lies in another weapons project that began in 1946: the nuclear-powered airplane. It could stay airborne for months and fly around the world without refueling, its boosters promised, and that would give America a huge strategic advantage. There was only one problem. The nuclear reactor needed a lot of shielding, because the aircrew would be only feet (metres) away. The shields had to be made of lead. And lead-filled airplanes cannot fly.

Fifteen years and about ten billion dollars (in today’s money) later, there was still no viable design for a nuclear-powered bomber, let alone a flyable prototype. Ballistic missiles were taking over the job of delivering nuclear weapons anyway. But when Robert McNamara became defence secretary in the Kennedy administration in 1961, he was astonished to discover that the nuclear-powered aircraft was still in the defence budget.

It was, he said, “as if I came down to breakfast in the morning and found a dead walrus on the dining-room table.” It took McNamara two more years to kill the programme, against fierce opposition from the air force and defence industry. The fact that the nuclear-powered aircraft did not and could not work was irrelevant.

Former general Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency is perhaps best remembered for his warning against what he named the “military-industrial complex” in his farewell speech in 1960, but he actually gave two warnings. The other was that “public policy could become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.” These were the lobbies that kept the nuclear airplane going for seventeen years, and they have kept the BMD system going for more than a quarter-century already.

President Obama has killed the most pointlessly provocative of the BMD deployments, but he still cannot take the political risk of admitting that the system doesn’t work (though he twice explained in his speech that the United States needed missile defence systems that were “proven and cost-effective.”) It is the grandchild of Star Wars, a sacred relic blessed by Saint Ronald Reagan himself, and it will keep appearing on various dining-room tables for years to come.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 12. (“Their intelligence…borders”; and “Former…already”)

Calling the BMD Bluff

8 June 2007

Calling the BMD Bluff

By Gwynne Dyer

Vladimir Putin is definitely a player, and the proposal that the Russian president sprang on George W. Bush at the G8 meeting in Germany on Thursday was a classic political ambush. You claim to be putting interceptor missiles and X-band radars into Eastern Europe to intercept nuclear-tipped, long-range missiles coming out of Iran, said Putin to Bush. So why don’t you make our radar station in Azerbaijan, which overlooks all of Iran from its perch high in the Caucasus mountains, part of the system?

The Bush administration has no intention of letting Russia share in its beloved Ballistic Missile Defence system (aka “Son of Star Wars”), nor does Russia believe that the system is either necessary or functional, but Putin’s negotiating ploy was brilliant. If Iran had either nuclear weapons or long-range ballistic missiles (which it doesn’t), and if the United States had the technological capability to intercept such missiles (which it doesn’t), then access to a Russian radar station in the mountains north of Iran would be exactly what Washington wanted.

“Let’s let our experts have a look at it,” said President Bush about Putin’s “interesting proposal,” and that’s the last that anybody will hear about that, but it did give Putin the opportunity to show that the new US bases in Eastern Europe are not about what Washington says they are about. So what ARE they about?

That is a lot harder to answer, because the whole BMD boondoggle is a weapons system in search of a threat. Twenty-five years ago, when the Blessed Ronald Reagan first proposed the “Star Wars” system, it was going to shoot down thousands of Soviet warheads with directed energy beams, just like in the movies. Very cool. But now there is no Soviet Union, and the only BMD technology that actually exists is clunky missiles that occasionally manage to shoot down other missiles, but mostly miss or just don’t launch.

Time to move on, you might think, but Reagan is a Republican saint, and George W. Bush had promised to roll out some BMD system when he became president. Besides, there are several hundred thousand jobs in the US military and defence industry that depend directly or indirectly on BMD. So the system was unstoppable, even if it didn’t work, and in 2002 the Bush administration tore up the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty in order to be free to deploy it.

The next question was where to put it. The first choices were Alaska and California, in order to intercept the intercontinental ballistic missiles that North Korea doesn’t have. Next on the agenda, obviously, was stopping the non-existent Iranian missiles, which required US radars and interceptor missile bases in Eastern Europe. The Polish and Czech governments eagerly volunteered to host them, not because they believe in a threat from Iran (they don’t), but because they don’t like Russia and badly want American bases of some sort on their soil.

Interestingly, a majority of Poles and over two-thirds of Czechs don’t want the American bases, perhaps because they realise that the bases will just annoy the Russians without providing any real protection. But if all this is just meaningless military nonsense serving a domestic American political agenda, why does it annoy the Russians at all?

It actually isn’t the dysfunctional American missiles that may be installed in Eastern Europe to stop a non-existent Iranian threat that annoy the Russians. They are just a useful stick to beat the Americans with. It’s everything else that the United States and Nato have done to the Russians over the past ten years.

Shortly after he came into office, Putin asked to join Nato. The Cold War was supposedly over, but Russia’s request was rejected out of hand. Instead Nato took in new members all across Eastern Europe — and even on the territory of the former Soviet Union, in the case of the Baltic Republics. After the Cold War, Nato promised not to build new military installations in former Warsaw Pact territory, but the new bases are there in Romania and Bulgaria, and now more are planned in Poland and the Czech Republic.

In a word, arrogance. The Russians don’t count any more, so we don’t need to take their interests into account any more, or even consult with them.

Which is why, in Munich last February, Putin talked bluntly about the old days when “there was an equilibrium and a fear of mutual destruction. In those days one party was afraid to make an extra step without consulting the others. This was certainly a fragile peace and a frightening one, but seen from today it seems reliable enough. Today it seems that peace is not so reliable.”

In Moscow last week, just before Putin left for the G8 meeting, a journalist asked him: “Why are the Americans so obstinate about putting these plans for (ballistic missile defences) into practice, if it is so clear that they are unnecessary?”

Putin replied: “Possibly this is to push us to (retaliate in ways that would prevent) further closeness of Russia and Europe….I cannot exclude this possibility.” As if US foreign policy under President Bush has ever been that subtle and sophisticated. It’s a good thing that both Putin and Bush are leaving office soon.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 10 and 11. (“Interestingly…at all”; and “In a word…reliable”)

Ballistic Missile Secret

28 February 2005

The Secret of Ballistic Missile

By Gwynne Dyer

This week’s tempest in a teapot in Canada has been Prime Minster Paul Martin’s long-delayed decision not to take part in the US project for ballistic missile defence (BMD). Canada will share radar information about any incoming missile with the United States through the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD), but it will not allow anti-missile interceptors on its soil (not that the US wanted to put them there anyway), nor will it have any part in decisions to launch those weapons.

That should have kept everybody happy. The US gets the information it wants, while Canada withholds its formal approval of a weapons initiative that a majority of Canadians (and of Martin’s own Liberal Party caucus) think is dangerous and wrong. But US Ambassador Paul Celucci declared that Canada was forfeiting sovereignty over its own airspace by refusing to participate in BMD, Prime Minister Martin replied that “we’re a sovereign nation and you don’t intrude on a sovereign nation’s airspace without seeking permission,” and the fat was in the fire.

It’s all nonsense, of course. Any missile intercepts would take place in space, and sovereignty doesn’t extend into space. In any case, intercepts by the BMD system now being deployed in Alaska would happen far out over the Pacific, not above Canadian territory. And even if Ottawa did sign up for BMD, it couold have no meaningful say in an American decision to launch an interceptor. There simply wouldn’t be time.

What Washington really wanted from Ottawa (and what Martin was being rebuked for failing to deliver) was Canadian approval of the PRINCIPLE of ballistic missile defence. The United States has been isolated on this issue since the Bush administration tore up the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, and Canadian approval would have been useful diplomatically. The controversy will die down in a few days — but it did rouse former defence minister Paul Hellyer to speak the truth that no other Canadian public figure was willing to utter: “missile defence” is not really about defence.

Writing in the Globe and Mail, Hellyer said bluntly that “BMD…has about as much to do with rogue missiles as the war on Iraq had to do with weapons of mass destruction.” The notion that North Korea might fire one or two ballistic missiles at the US, even if it had a few long-range missiles and nuclear warheads to put on them, is ludicrous. The entire leadership and most of the country would instantly be destroyed by a massive US retaliation. Pyongyang is a very nasty regime, but it hasn’t attacked anybody in the past fifty years, it isn’t suicidal, and it can be deterred by the threat of retaliation just like Russia or China.. So what is BMD really about?

BMD first emerged in the 1980s as President Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” proposal. He was genuinely horrified by the idea of a nuclear war, and it was sold to him as a project that could save Americans from a Soviet missile attack. Reagan even wanted to give the BMD technology to the Soviet Union, too, so that they could jointly eradicate the danger of a nuclear exchange, but that’s not what the people who sold him the project really had in mind.

In practice, any system designed to destroy incoming ballistic missiles that depends on ground-based interceptors can easily be overwhelmed just by building more missiles. The cost to the Soviet Union of building more ICBMs would always have been far less than the cost of the interceptors needed to shoot them down and their supporting systems, so the Soviet Union could always have saturated US defences in an all-out attack. But what if it were the victim of a US surprise attack that destroyed most of its missiles on the ground? THEN a good American BMD system might be able to deal with the ragged retaliation that was all the Soviets could manage.

Such a BMD system is not yet a technological reality even now, twenty years later, but that’s what it was always about: giving the United States the ability to launch a first strike against the Soviet Union and to survive the inevitable retaliation with “acceptable” losses. It seemed less urgent when the Soviet Union collapsed, but it was never abandoned — and in the later 90s the neo-conservatives revived it as part of a scheme for establishing permanent US military dominance over the planet.

Paul Hellyer quoted their own document, published by the Project for a New American Century in late 2000: “Building an effective, robust, layered, global system of missile defences is a prerequisite for maintaining American preeminence. Unrestricted use of space has become a major strategic interest of the United States.” By “layered” they meant not just ground-based interceptors, but space-based systems that can also destroy space stations and surveillance satellites belonging to any rival power. They intend to militarise space, and they still dream of gaining the ability to carry out nuclear first strikes against other countries with impunity.

The interceptors now going into their silos in Alaska are a (technologically problematic) down payment on this hyper-ambitious project, but they are intended to establish the principle that America has the right, despite the old ABM treaty and the still extant treaty banning the militarisation of space, to go down this road. That was why Canadian agreement to participate in BMD defence, even symbolically, was desirable to Washington. And it is why Canadians refused (though they were wise not to say so officially).


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 6. (“It’s all…time”; and”BMD first…mind”)

BMD and the “Rogue States”

16 December 2004

BMD and the “Rogue States”

By Gwynne Dyer

“We say to those tyrants who believe they can blackmail America and the free world: you fire, we’re going to shoot it down,” President George W. Bush told the voters of Ridley, Pennsylvania on a campaign stop last October. Many of his listeners probably believed him, since there is not a large reservoir of expertise on ballistic missile defence (BMD) in Ridley. But even they must have noticed that the interceptor missile he was boasting about failed yet again last Wednesday.

It was the first full test in two years for the “ground-based midcourse” interceptor. None of the previous eight flight tests were conducted under realistic conditions and most of them failed anyway, so this time the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency described the goal of the test in terms that precluded failure. It was just going to be a “fly-by” of the incoming warhead (and nobody said how close). The interceptor missile managed to fail the test anyway: it didn’t even get out of its silo.

The US government has spent an estimated $130 billion on various versions of BMD since Ronald Reagan first dreamed of a perfect shield against Soviet missiles twenty years ago, and this is the only part of the planned system that is even ready for testing — or rather, not quite ready for testing. How odd, then, that a battery of these same unproven missiles is being deployed in Alaska at this very moment, just as if they were operational weapons.

The people of Ridley must be realising around now that Mr Bush’s “We’re going to shoot it down” remark was a trifle optimistic, but they probably still accept the bit about “the tyrants who believe they can blackmail America and the free world.” They shouldn’t. That is a myth that was created after the collapse of the Soviet Union, mostly for domestic political reasons.

The Soviet Union posed a real threat in its time, but it also served a lot of purposes. Other countries gladly accepted US leadership in return for American protection, and practically any military programme could be sold on the basis of the Soviet threat. Ten thousand Soviet nuclear warheads poised to explode over all the cities of the West was a pretty persuasive argument.

When the Soviet Union vanished at the start of the 90s, there was an urgent need for a new threat to justify the existing defence budget, and if possible to persuade other countries that they still needed American protection. The think-tanks in Washington went to work on the problem, but all they could come up with was the so-called “rogue states”.

The “rogue states” — the phrase first came into use in 1993-94 –were countries that had nasty regimes and publicly defied the United States. Iraq, Iran and North Korea were always included on the list; Libya, Syria and Cuba sometimes got mentioned as well. They were poor, far away, and technologically unimpressive, and there was no way they could actually hurt the United States, but at least they SOUNDED hostile.

“Rogue states” were successfully sold to the US public as a new threat that justified the old military forces and programmes, but you couldn’t really expect foreign governments to take them seriously. These were regimes that had already been in power for between fifteen years (in Iran’s case) and forty years (in North Korea’s). Why had they suddenly become a mortal danger now, just after the Soviet threat disappeared? Why would they be crazy enough to attack the United States, even if they could?

Washington made much of the suspicion that Iran, North Korea and even Iraq were working on nuclear weapons, as though that would prove their evil intentions, but nobody else saw it that way. If they actually were seeking nuclear weapons, it would obviously be for deterrent purposes, since they all lived under the permanent threat of either Israeli or American nuclear attack. A limited capability to strike back, even if only locally and only with a couple of warheads, would make them feel a lot safer.

Nobody else wanted Iran, Iraq or North Korea to have nuclear weapons, but they didn’t see any likelihood of these countries developing intercontinental ballistic missiles. In any case, they simply did not believe that any of these regimes would deliberately commit suicide by firing a couple of missiles at the US. They were nasty, but they weren’t crazy.

In the United States, however, this preposterous “threat” has been used for the past ten years as a justification for continuing with the missile defence programme that Ronald Reagan originally intended to stop Soviet missiles. And it’s really still about developing the ability to stop Russian and/or Chinese missiles, in some future where the great powers have slid into a military confrontation once more.

The BMD system being deployed now probably couldn’t stop a single missile, and even the full system envisaged for ten or twenty years down the road (if they can ever get the technology to work) could never stop an all-out Russian or Chinese attack. It’s always easy to saturate a missile defence system. But the day might come when a BMD system could stop most of what was left after an American first strike wiped out most Russian or Chinese missiles, and that is the prize that fascinates American strategists.

It’s probably a pipe-dream, but meanwhile the money keeps flowing to needy aerospace companies, the technology is delightfully challenging, and American tax-payers have bought the story about “rogue states”. Why on earth wouldn’t we keep going?


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 5. (“The US…weapons”; and”The Soviet…argument”)