Dr. Strangelove’s Missile Defense

The Obama Administration is contemplating whether to proceed with a Bush Administration plan to base missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic (http://www.voanews.com/english/archive/2009-02/2009-02-10-voa54.cfm?CFID=146462046&CFTOKEN=94452708&jsessionid=8430901fb663afb65aba5613473a7861103f).  I am opposed to the development and deployment of a national missile defense (NMD) system for financial and political reasons.  However, if we are going to do it we might as well do it right, which means we should arm our interceptors with nuclear warheads.  The currently envisioned NMD system will rely solely on non-nuclear interceptors; primarily kinetic energy or “hit-to-kill” vehicles.  Yet nuclear-armed interceptors possess technical advantages over hit-to-kill interceptors and offer a better alternative for protecting the US from rogue state intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). 


One advantage is that they do not need to be nearly as accurate as hit-to-kill vehicles.  Hit-to-kill vehicles need to physically collide with an ICBM in order to disable it, whereas nuclear-armed interceptors can destroy ICBMs with the blast of their nuclear warheads and only need to get within a few kilometers of a target to achieve success.  A second advantage of interceptor nukes is that they are less vulnerable to enemy countermeasures.  To thwart US NMD radars, enemy ICBMs could deploy decoy warheads, chaff, or other penetration aids in order to make it difficult for kinetic interceptors to locate and destroy the real warheads.  However, such countermeasures would be less effective against nuclear-armed interceptors because the interceptors’ blast radius would likely be large enough to destroy all objects on radar.  Now I am sure many missile defense advocates will point to recent “successful” tests of hit-to-kill interceptors as an argument for pursuing that type of system, but those tests are rigged to give the interceptors a significant chance of hitting their targets.  Until the tests are realistic I will continue to doubt the effectiveness of kinetic interceptors.


Technical issues aside, arming interceptors with nuclear warheads has several policy implications.  First, firing nuclear-armed interceptors during the initial boost phase of an enemy ICBM flight would be problematic in light of the following factors: the potential for misidentification of a space-launch vehicle as an ICBM; the inevitable political—and literal—fallout resulting from the detonation of a nuclear device inside the atmosphere over foreign territory or international waters; the need to delegate nuclear launch authority to someone besides the president given the short decision-time-cycle involved in boost phase intercepts.  Second, detonating nuclear warheads in space during the midcourse phase of an enemy ICBM flight could damage satellites owned by the US, US allies, or neutral countries.  Third, using nuclear-armed interceptors during the terminal phase of an enemy nuclear attack would likely disperse radioactive particles over US soil.  Fourth, some argue that launching the interceptors would eliminate the global norm discouraging the use of nuclear weapons in war.


Certainly, attacking ICBMs with nuclear weapons during the boost phase would be an imprudent policy option for many reasons.  But using nuclear-armed interceptors during the midcourse phase, or the terminal phase if necessary, would significantly increase the chances that the US would be able to prevent an incoming nuclear warhead from striking an American city; thus, the benefits of using them would far outweigh the costs.  And regarding international norms, I do not see how using nuclear weapons for purely defensive purposes in a manner described above would legitimize nukes as offensive or first-strike weapons, especially since the interceptors would only be used in response to a nuclear attack.


In summation, if US leaders plan on deploying a NMD system in the near future, which I would oppose, such a system should rely on nuclear-armed interceptors given the technical advantages they have over hit-to-kill versions.  Is that idea crazy, or is it so sane it blows your mind?


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