Monday, July 10, 2017

Does the U. S. Need a New Star Wars Program?

On the Fourth of July last week, the world saw one rocket's red glare that wasn't fired in celebration:  North Korea launched the latest in a series of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests.  The timing was intentional, and the North Korean news agency quoted its leader Kim Jong-un as saying, "The American bastards must be quite unhappy after watching our strategic decision."  Not exactly diplomatic language.  Although the test missile went mostly straight up and down and landed harmlessly in the Sea of Japan, if directed toward the east, experts say it could have reached as far as parts of Alaska.  According to the New York Times report, it is unlikely that Pyongyang has a small enough nuclear weapon to fit on their ICBMs, but they seem to be devoting a great part of their pitifully small GNP to reach their ultimate goal of being able to threaten the continental U. S. with a nuclear warhead.

The North Korean government is one of the few remaining bastions of old-fashioned, dictatorial despotism, and rational behavior is not to be expected from them.  But missiles are. 

There are some parallels between this situation and the way the final years of the old Soviet Union played out.  When President Reagan announced his Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars") in 1983, it arguably contributed to the eventual downfall of the USSR as that nation's confidence waned that they could counter the U. S.'s initiative with anything as effective.  As it turned out, Star Wars as originally planned never reached the deployment stage, but by 1991 the USSR had cracked apart, and it wasn't needed.

North Korea is different, in that they will probably never have more than a few viable nuclear ICBMs.  But even one nuclear bomb can spoil your whole day, so since about 2000 the U. S. has been developing a kind of mini-Star Wars system called the Ground-based Missile Defense (GMD). 

Shooting down even one ICBM on the fly is a very delicate undertaking that has been likened to shooting a bullet with another bullet.  Nevertheless, in 18 tests the system has successfully destroyed 10 targets.  These are not encouraging odds, but it's not bad for a system whose funding and support has fluctuated wildly over the years with the political climate in Washington. 

Austin Bay is a retired colonel in the U. S. Army Reserve whose service record goes back to the 1970s, and for some years has written regular columns on national affairs from a military perspective.  I have always found his viewpoints to be solidly grounded in factual information, and before the latest North Korean missile launch, Bay noted in a May 31 column that the GMD program was doing as well as you could expect in view of  the "sparse and fitful" testing it has had. 

Compare the record of an average launch of one per year for the GMD to the series of manned as well as unmanned spaceflights that took place in the 1960s, leading up to the moon launch:  14 launches (3 of which failed) for Project Mercury, 14 launches (two partial failures) for Project Gemini, and 10 successful flights that led up to the triumphal landing on the moon in 1969.  All this happened in only ten years, 1959 to 1969, which saw an average of nearly four launches a year.

The world and the U. S. were very different then, and the 1960s space program ate up a much larger proportion of the federal budget than Washington is likely to tolerate today.  But in North Korea's missile launches, we face a threat that is much less predictable than the old Soviet Union was, and one that could quite possibly lead to hundreds or thousands of American deaths in a nuclear attack.  This is serious business.

In contrast to what worked with the USSR, merely announcing a greatly expanded GMD is not going to make much of an impression on Kim Jong-un.  As Bay points out, the alternative to missile defense is diplomacy, and when the Clinton Administration made an agreement with North Korea in 1994 to quit making plutonium, evidence shows that the regime ignored us and went right ahead with their nefarious plans. 

It looks like North Korea won't quit rattling their nuclear saber until we grab every one they flaunt and crack it over our GMD-equipped knees, to stretch a metaphor.  But we can't afford to attempt a shoot-down of one of their missiles and miss—that would be worse than sitting on our hands.  Bay thinks, and I agree, that the time has come to get serious about ICBM defense, and that means a focused, well-publicized, and well-funded effort, as independent as possible of politics, to come up with a system that can be relied on to shoot down North Korea-style missiles, say at least 90% of the time. 

In the current fractious political atmosphere in Washington, such a plan is way down toward the bottom of most politicians' priority lists.  It may take a genuinely frightening incident such as an apparent attack by North Korea to motivate enough voters to call for protection.  But nobody (on our side, anyway) wants to go that far.

There are other things we can do about North Korea, but unfortunately most of them are not unilateral:  asking China to squeeze them a little, solidifying alliances with Japan, South Korea, and other eastern nations against the crackpot North Korea regime, and so on.  While China doesn't want its little neighbor incinerating the planet by mistake, it is much more tolerant of North Korea's human-rights abuses and other misbehavior than we can accept in the U. S., and there is little hope that the North Korean regime will change in response to anything that China does.

In the meantime, the U. S. needs to defend itself against attacks by foreign powers.  Everybody—Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, you name it—agrees that defense is one of the bottom-line functions of the federal government.  However misdirected the defense budget has been in the past, the problem of North Korea won't go away.  We need to finish the job that the current GMD program has started, and develop and test it to the point that people in Alaska and the rest of the western United States can go to sleep without worrying that a rotund guy in Pyongyang is going to wake up one morning and decide to drop a nuclear bomb on their heads—and nobody can stop him.

Sources:  I referred to a report on the latest North Korean missile test in the New York Times carried on July 4 at  Austin Bay's commentary on previous GMD tests appeared on May 31, 2017 at  I also referred to Wikipedia articles on the Strategic Defense Initiative and NASA's 1960s space program. 

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