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”)