Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Missile madness

Obama's nuclear arms control treaty with Russia is an important step forward in removing the worst immediate danger to human survival.

Sadly, though, we've seen Obama do a kind of "two steps forward, one step back" dance a number of times on various policy issue where he takes a progressive stance. Sometimes, like on his evaporated promise to close Guantanamo, it's more "one step forward, two steps back."

So it's consistent with his approach that we get this: Noah Schachtman, Obama Revives Rumsfeld’s Missile Scheme, Risks Nuke War Danger Room 04/23/10:

The Obama administration is poised to take up one of the more dangerous and hare-brained schemes of the Rumsfeld-era Pentagon. The New York Times is reporting that the Defense Department is once again looking to equip intercontinental ballistic missiles with conventional warheads. The missiles could then, in theory, destroy fleeing targets a half a world away — a no-notice “bolt from the blue,” striking in a matter of hours. There’s just one teeny-tiny problem: the launches could very well start World War III.

Over and over again, the Bush administration tried to push the idea of these conventional ICBMs. Over and over again, Congress refused to provide the funds for it. The reason was pretty simple: those anti-terror missiles look and fly exactly like the nuclear missiles we’d launch at Russia or China, in the event of Armageddon. “For many minutes during their flight patterns, these missiles might appear to be headed towards targets in these nations,” a congressional study notes. That could have world-changing consequences. “The launch of such a missile,” then-Russian president Vladimir Putin said in a state of the nation address after the announcement of the Bush-era plan, “could provoke a full-scale counterattack using strategic nuclear forces.”

The Pentagon mumbled all kinds of assurances that Beijing or Moscow would never, ever, never misinterpret one kind of ICBM for the other. But the core of their argument essentially came down to this: Trust us, Vlad Putin! That ballistic missile we just launched in your direction isn’t nuclear. We swear!
This is a bad idea.

Sharon Weinberger at AOL News offers a cheerleading puff-piece on these plans, 5 Ways to Kill Osama Bin Laden in 2 Hours or Less 04/23/10:

The weapons are under development, though not yet deployed. They would provide "conventional alternatives on long-range missiles that we didn't have before," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last week in a television interview.

Of course, the No. 1 scenario envisioned for Prompt Global Strike is for hitting what is called a "time-critical target," such as a terrorist who is known to be at a specific location but may soon leave. The most-often-cited case is the 1998 attempt to kill bin Laden. President Bill Clinton ordered a strike after receiving intelligence that bin Laden was at a specific location. By the time cruise missiles hit the intended target, the elusive al-Qaida leader was already gone.

But what exactly are these weapons and how do they work? The idea is to have a weapon that could strike anywhere in the world in two hours or less, something that today can only be achieved using a nuclear-tipped missile.
Sounds great, doesn't it? We can nail Bin Laden without having to send soldiers to get him. Shoot, we want have to go to war any more at all, our magic missiles will just blast any bad guys we decide to kill.

Great except that whole likely-to-start-a-nuclear-war thing.

What goes through the minds of our infallible generals when they plan stuff like this? Are they caught up in boys-with-toys fantasies? Are they hoping for cushy post-retirement jobs from arms manufacturers?

Following up on Schachtman's post, Robert Farley writes in Prompt Global Strike: Still Not Actually Dead. Kind of Alive, in Fact Lawyers, Guns and Money 04/23/10:

Yeah, I’m really not sure that changing to an atmospheric quasi-ballistic missile from SLBMs really helps. For one, the shift would somewhat reduce the promptness of the global strike (although probably not by much). More importantly, it doesn’t really solve the dilemma. If Putin/Medvedev/Hu/Whomever are inclined to worry that a detected launch was the prelude to an all-out nuclear attack, they’ll likely not be reassured by the news that it comes from some “special” location in the US. If the US decided to launch a preventive nuclear assault on Russia or China, wouldn’t we initiate the attack in the most deceptive way possible?
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