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Ronald Reagan

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Hypersonic Hype

Hypersonic missiles are not a terrifying new weapon. They are just another cog in the terrifying but remarkably stable strategy called nuclear deterrence.

“The Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle entered service at 10:00 Moscow time on 27 December,” boasted Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu – and nobody quailed in their boots.

The new Russian missile can deliver nuclear weapons, of course, and the Russians are very proud of it. As President Vladimir Putin said, “Not a single (other) country possesses hypersonic weapons, let alone continental-range hypersonic weapons.” They’ll all be green with envy.

A hypersonic missile’s warheads launch on a rocket, just like the traditional Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). However, instead of going very high and travelling most of the distance through space in a predictable ‘ballistic’ trajectory before plunging back down into the atmosphere and striking their target, the hypersonic missile’s warheads go low early.

The hypersonic missile launches on a ‘depressed’ trajectory, and then a ‘glide vehicle’ detaches from the rocket and skips along the edge of the atmosphere, travelling at up to twenty times the speed of sound. It only comes over the horizon and becomes visible to the enemy’s missile defence radars when it’s much closer to the target.

Even better, it can manoeuvre on the way in to its target, which makes it harder to intercept. As Putin proudly said, “The Avangard is invulnerable to intercept by any existing and prospective missile defence.” Indeed, he claimed, everybody else is “playing catch-up with us.”

This would be deeply alarming to Russia’s potential adversaries if all the orthodox, traditional ICBM had suddenly become vulnerable to interception. Then only the Russians would have missiles that could get through the other side’s defences, and so they would rule the world. But in fact there are no effective defences against mass attacks by conventional ICBMs.

The United States has been working on anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems since Ronald Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ fantasies of almost four decades ago, and it does have one active ABM site in Alaska. It might be able to stop one or even two incoming ICBMs launched by, let’s say, North Korea. It certainly couldn’t stop the hundreds of ICBMs that Russia would launch in any real nuclear war.

The problem with any kind of anti-missile defence system is that it’s relatively cheap and easy to overwhelm it by sheer numbers. The dumb old ICBMs will still get through any ABM defences if used in quantity, which is how they would certainly be used in any great-power war. Hypersonic missiles are wonderfully fast and clever, but they’re also expensive and quite unnecessary.

So why has Russia spent what is clearly a great deal of money to develop a snazzy but pointless weapon? Because the ‘metal-eaters’ alliance’, the Russian equivalent of the US ‘military-industrial complex’, is still alive and kicking despite the demise of the old Soviet Union. Developing new weapons is what it does, whether they are needed or not.

This provides an entire Russian industry with interesting and well-paid jobs. In return, the industry provides the regime with cool new weapons that make it look powerful and even fearsome to people who don’t understand nuclear deterrence. These cool new weapons don’t actually change the strategic realities, but who cares? Nobody’s really planning to use them anyway.

That is not to say that nuclear weapons are not dangerous. Of course they are, and although nuclear deterrence has kept nuclear war at bay for three-quarters of a century, there is no guarantee that it will work forever. We would be much safer if these weapons were abolished.

But the long strategic stalemate will not be destabilised by some flashy new gadget like hypersonic missiles. As long as no effective defence is available against mass attacks with nuclear-armed missiles, mutual deterrence will persist. The only technological development that could really undermine it is directed-energy weapons.

High-energy lasers and particle-beam weapons would be far more effective than the ground-launched missiles employed in today’s rudimentary ABM systems. They would function at light speed, they would have absolutely flat trajectories (which allows precise targeting), and above all they would be able to switch almost instantaneously from one target to the next.

In theory, therefore, directed-energy weapons would make effective defence possible against any nuclear attack using missiles, whether they are ICBMs, cruise missiles, or hypersonic gliders. In practice, however, nobody has come up with an operationally credible directed-energy weapon in forty-plus years of trying.

Maybe one day they will, but until then innovations like hypersonic missiles are just minor new wrinkles in an essentially unchanging strategic scene. Both the Americans and the Chinese have been experimenting with the same hypersonic technologies, but neither is in any rush to deploy them.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“This provides…abolished”)

US Foreign Policy

05 September 2012

US Foreign Policy: The Election Barely Matters

By Gwynne Dyer

There was never going to be a big debate on US foreign policy at the Democratic National Convention. It will be whatever Barack Obama say it should be, and besides, the delegates in Charlotte weren’t interested.

It’s the economy, stupid, and two months before the election nobody wants to get sidetracked into discussing a peripheral issue like American foreign policy. The only people who really care about that at the moment are foreigners and the US military – and even they are not following the election with bated breath, because few of them believe that a change of president could fundamentally change the way the US relates to the rest of the world.

Although the Republicans do their best to paint Obama as a wild-eyed radical who is dismantling America’s defences, he has actually been painfully orthodox in his foreign policy. He loves Israel to bits, he did not shut down the Afghan war (or Guantanamo), he uses drones to kill US enemies (and sometimes, anybody else who is nearby), and he tamely signs off on a $700 billion defence budget.

How can Mitt Romney top that? He could say he loves Israel even more. In fact, he does say that, promising to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. But that is purely gesture politics, since almost no other countries do, and in practice Obama gives Israel almost everything it wants already.

He could pledge to spend even more on “defence” than Obama, but the United States is already pouring 4.7 percent of its Gross Domestic Product down that rathole. Obama has planned cuts over the next several years that would bring it down to about 4 percent – and Romney has promised not to let it fall below 4 percent. Not a huge difference there.

Romney does his best to disguise that fact by declaring that he would reverse certain of Obama’s decisions. US ground forces, for example, would remain at their current level under a Romney administration, rather than being reduced by 100,000 people. But changing only that and nothing else would put $25 billion a year back onto the defence budget. How do you do that without raising taxes?

The Republican candidate faces a constraint none of his recent predecessors had: a party that really cares about the deficit. In the past three decades, it has been Republican presidents who ran up the bills – Ronald Reagan never balanced a budget, and the Bush-Cheney team declared that “deficits don’t matter” – while the subsequent Democratic administrations tried to curb out-of-control spending.

Romney doesn’t have that option: the Tea Party wing of his party actually means what it says about both taxes and deficits. So what’s left for him? Well, he could promise to kill even more of America’s enemies than Obama, but he can’t get around the fact that it’s Obama who nailed Osama bin Laden, and Obama who is playing fast and loose with international law by using drones to carry out remote-control assassinations of hostile foreigners.

So Romney says very little about foreign policy because there is little he can say. The closest he has come to specific policy changes was an “action plan” he laid out during the Republican primaries last year, to be accomplished within a hundred days of taking office. It was an entirely credible promise, because none of it really involves a policy change at all.

He promised to “re-assure traditional allies that America will fulfill its global commitments.” A couple of phone calls, and that’s done.

He declared that he would move more military forces to the Gulf “to send a message to Iran,” but he didn’t threaten to attack Iran, or endorse an Israeli attack on Iran. And he can always move them back again if he gets bored.

He said he would appoint a Middle East czar to oversee US support for the evolving Arab transitions. That’s one more government job, but Romney has even less idea than Obama about where he wants those transitions to end up. Besides, the United States has almost no leverage on this issue.

He will review the Obama administration’s planned withdrawal from Afghanistan. Not necessarily change it; just review it.

He will also review Obama’s global missile defence strategy. He might like to change that – Republicans have loved the concept ever since Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” dreams – but he hasn’t got the kind of money he would need for a more ambitious policy.

He will increase the government’s focus on cybersecurity. Ho-hum.

He will raise the rate of US Navy shipbuilding. So far as budget constraints permit, which is not very far at all.

And he will launch an economic opportunity initiative in Latin America. As long as it doesn’t cost much money.

It’s not surprising that the rest of the world doesn’t care much about the US election. Most foreigners, on both the right and the left, are more comfortable with Obama than Romney, but US foreign policy will stay the same whoever wins. They might not like all of it, but they’re used to it.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 15, 16 and 17. (“Romney…taxes”; and “He will increase…money”)



Global Zero

29 March 2012

Global Zero

By Gwynne Dyer

We have just had the second Nuclear Security Summit, in Seoul. It got surprisingly little attention from the international media although 53 countries attended. For the media, nuclear weapons yesterday’s issue, because nobody expects a nuclear war. But a nuclear weapon in terrorist hands is the defining nightmare of the post-9/11 decade, and that’s what the summit was actually about.

“It would not take much, just a handful or so of these (nuclear) materials, to kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people, and that’s not an exaggeration,” said President Barack Obama on his way home from Seoul. “There are still too many bad actors in search of these dangerous materials, and these dangerous materials are still vulnerable in too many places.”

Keeping bomb-grade nuclear material out of the wrong hands requires a high level of international cooperation. Some progress was made on this issue in Seoul, in terms of coordinating police and intelligence operations, but the real problem is that there are far too many nuclear weapons in the world.

Nobody has ever come up with a plausible scenario in which a terrorist group creates a nuclear bomb from scratch. Mining uranium, refining it to weapons-grade material, and constructing a bomb that will actually produce even a 20-kiloton explosion (like the Hiroshima bomb) are tasks that require the scientific, technical and financial resources of a state.

What terrorists need is a ready-made bomb, or at least enough highly enriched uranium or plutonium that the only job left is to assemble the bomb. The only plausible source of a terrorist bomb, therefore, is the nuclear weapons programmes of the various states that own them. And the bigger those programmes are, the greater the chance that either a nuclear weapon or a large amount of fissile material will fall into the wrong hands.

Now, it may be true (or it may not) that the US nuclear weapons establishment is so efficient and experienced that there is little risk of anybody stealing American bombs or fissile material. But American security also depends on everybody else’s nuclear establishments being well protected – and this explains why Obama is a strong supporter of the “Global Zero” project.

No other US president except Ronald Reagan has called for a world with zero nuclear weapons. In 1984 Reagan said: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The only value in (the US and the Soviet Union) possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used. But then would it not be better to do away with them entirely?” Obama seems to share the same goal, but his support for “Global Zero” is more nuanced.

From a high of 65,000 active nuclear weapons in 1985, the world’s stock has declined to about 8,000 active warheads now, 95 percent of them under Russian or American control. There are an additional 14,000 nuclear weapons in storage, all of them Russian or American – and those may be an even greater danger for nuclear terrorism, since they are not under hourly supervision.

The world will probably never fulfill Ronald Reagan’s dream and abolish nuclear weapons, but it would be a much safer place if there were fewer of them around. Not because that would make a nuclear war less horrible if it happened: a hundred nuclear warheads, dropped on major cities, is quite enough to destroy any country. But because the more weapons there are, the greater the risk that some will fall into the hands of terrorists.

So getting the number of active nuclear weapons in American and Russian hands down to 1,000 each, and dismantling all of the “reserve” and stockpiled weapons, is probably Obama’s real goal. The “Global Zero” rhetoric is mainly useful for bringing the old peace movement along for the ride. (And why would they complain? The essence of any political strategy is finding partners to ride with you at least part of the way to your destination.)

However, to get Russia to sign up to a mere 1,000 nuclear weapons, Obama will have to give up on ballistic missile defence. The Russians are hugely inferior to the Americans militarily by every other measure, so they cherish their nuclear parity. Effective US missile defences, if they could ever be made to work, would fatally undermine that parity.

Of course they never have been made to work reliably, even though the United States has deployed them in a couple of places. But the Russians have a childlike faith in (or rather, fear of) American technological prowess, so ballistic missile defence systems have to go.

Abandoning them would involve Obama in an immense battle with the Republican right, and he’s not going to start that battle in an election year. But that is what President Obama and Dmitri Medvedev, the outgoing Russian president, were really talking about in Seoul when they were caught on an open mike.

Obama told Medvedev: “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this can be solved but it’s important for [incoming Russian president Vladimir Putin] to give me space. … This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility.” And so he may.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 9. “Nobody…state”; and “The world…terrorists”)


Ronald Reagan

6 June 2004

Ronald Reagan

By Gwynne Dyer

John F. Kennedy had to wait until he was dead to have New York City’s Idlewild Airport named after him, but they renamed Washington’s National Airport after Ronald Reagan even before he died. Now that he’s gone it won’t be long before his face is on the $10 bill, and there is already a campaign to carve his likeness on Mount Rushmore. It makes sense, in a way: nobody has ever played the role of US president as well as Ronald Reagan.

In fact, he re-defined it. The man who succeeded him, the elder George Bush, was a throwback to the old political style, but both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush exude the same folksy charm that made Mr. Reagan the best-loved of former American presidents. They all made the cold-blooded political calculations that are a necessary part of partisan politics, but somehow they all managed to seem as if they weren’t.

Ronald Reagan did it best because he was a professional actor, but also because he was a genuinely nice man. A nice man with a mastery of doublethink, perhaps, but you really believed that he didn’t grasp the negative implications of his own political strategies.

When Democrats in the 1960s abandoned their traditional base among southern whites by backing civil rights, Mr. Reagan fully accepted the Republican ‘southern strategy’ of winning over those votes with coded support for segregation. He opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Running for governor of California in 1966, he attacked the Fair Housing Act, explaining that “If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, it is his right to do so.”

Yet he wasn’t a racist. He was just very good at playing the political game, and even better at persuading people (probably including himself) that he was doing no such thing. The same applied to Reagan’s tax cuts, a trend that has continued under Republican and Democratic administrations alike until the gulf between rich and poor in the United States is now wider than in any other developed country.

He truly didn’t see the links netween cause and effect in his own actions. When he talked in 1984 about “the people who are sleeping on the grates, the homeless who are homeless, you might say, by choice,” nobody accused him of hypocrisy. They could see that he genuinely thought that any rise in the number of people sleeping on grates was the result of free choice.

Still, that only explains why Americans liked and trusted Ronald Reagan. His claim to be a great president rests on three assertions: that he won the Cold War; that he created the great economic boom of the 1980s; and that he made America (or at least white America) feel good about itself after the traumas of the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement, and the Iran hostage crisis.

His sunny disposition doubtless cheered Americans up, but the key factor in his success was the end of the oil crisis. The huge rise in oil prices caused by the 1973 Middle East war and the 1979 revolution in Iran ended with a steep fall in 1981, just as Reagan took office. That fuelled the economic boom and the good feeling — and it is also what ended the Cold War.

The old Soviet Union was finished long before Mr Reagan became president. Communist central planning was incompatible with a modern economy, and the Soviet economy had effectively ceased growing by the late 1960s. As a result, Soviet military spending, which tracked US spending through the 1970s, swelled in relative terms until it was absorbing 30-35 percent of the economy. High oil prices plastered over the cracks for ten years — the Soviet Union was the world’s second-biggest producer — but when the oil price collapsed in 1981, Communist rule was doomed.

It was the moderate Nixon and Carter defence budgets in the 1970s that dug the Soviet Union’s grave; Reagan’s big increases in defence spending were just flogging a horse that was already dead. Ronald Reagan’s great achievement was to figure that out for himself, with little help from the State Department and the intelligence services, and act accordingly.

He didn’t cut defence spending, which had domestic political purposes as well. He pressed on with ‘Star Wars,’ because in his own mind it really was about getting beyond the moral lunacy of ‘Mutual Assured Destruction.’ But he put huge effort into creating a civilised political relationship with the government of reformist Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev.

Ronald Reagan knew One Big Thing: a mutual suicide pact is a lethally stupid idea. He probably didn’t realise that the old Soviet Union was going down fast until the very end of his second term in 1988 — the State Department didn’t get it until early 1991 — but he did know that a nuclear war would be very bad, and that you need to establish a relationship of openness and trust with your partner in the suicide pact. So we are all still here.

The period of maximum danger is when empires collapse, but we all sailed through the end of the Soviet Union without as much as a torn fingernail. Ronald Reagan’s genuine good-will and common sense was what made the happy outcome possible. He didn’t destroy the Soviet Union, but he probably saved my children’s lives. If they want to carve his face on Mount Rushmore, it’s all right with me.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“He truly…choice”;and “He didn’t…Gorbachev”)