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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”)

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.