January 13, 2009
By James Jay Carafano, Ph.D.
With the "new" century now 8 years old (and counting), it's time
to finally shelve some expired ideas left over from the last years
of the 20th century.
Every facet of Cold War "common sense" that argued against
missile defense makes no sense in the 21st century. deterrence
(threatening to lob atomic warheads at whoever might attack you as
a way to prevent being attacked in the first place) just doesn't
For one thing, nascent nuclear nations -- like North Korea --
may not understand the "rules" of Cold War-style deterrence and
could well blunder into nuclear conflict. For another, rogue states
and non-state actors may not be deterred by the U.S. nuclear
On the other hand, an effective defense against ballistic
missiles is not only achievable, but desirable. In a dangerous
world, strategic defense will make America more -- not less --
safe. In short, there's no rational reason to intentionally leave
the United States vulnerable to ballistic missile attack.
But rather than accept that fact, opponents of missile defense
are just inventing new arguments, even if they don't make much
"Missile defense won't stop nuclear terrorism," Retired Gen.
Robert Gard railed recently on the Huffington Post. Gard is
correct. But that's a pathetic complaint against building missile
First of all, it makes little sense to focus on one threat to
the exclusion of others. America should be able to accomplish the
national security equivalent of walking and chewing gum at one
time. We can defend against more than one danger.
Gard's assertion that any American enemy would obviously chose
to employ a "suitcase" bomb or a "dirty" bomb also bears some
analysis. It is worth pointing out, for example, that nobody has
ever built a suitcase bomb.
The United States and Russia built some "man-portable" nuclear
weapons. (I should know; as an Army second lieutenant, I lugged
around the American version.) The U.S., for sure, got rid of its
supply. The Russians claim they've done likewise. Stories of
"loose" Russian nukes may persist, but none have ever turned
In short, it's unlikely there are many terrorists out there with
the smarts to put a bomb in suitcase -- and it's unlikely there are
any to buy, either.
Sure, terrorists could build a "moveable" nuclear bomb and stick
it on a boat or plane and send it to America without a return
address. But while this sounds like a cool idea for a Tom Clancy
novel, in reality it would be a lot harder to accomplish.
Certainly, no semi-intelligent terrorist would put a bomb in a
shipping container and send it to New York. Containers, after all,
are routinely lost, pilfered, crushed or otherwise waylaid.
Moving a nuclear weapon would likely require 100 percent success
"guaranteed." And that would require a sophisticated smuggling
operation -- one far more effective than drug and arms smugglers
routinely use. Criminal smugglers expect to lose some of their
product along the way (so they ship more to keep the profit margin
up). Nuclear smugglers, by contrast, couldn't afford even one
Nuclear smuggling is also a lot harder than it used to be
because of the Bush administration's Proliferation Security
Initiative. PSI is a multinational effort to thwart trafficking in
materials, technology and actual weapons. It poses a real problem
to anyone interested in FEDEXing nuclear weapons or trying to ship
Smuggled weapons are also not as effective. The danger of "dirty
bombs" (explosives that simply spread radioactive material) is,
excuse the pun, way overblown. A truck-borne small "real" nuclear
weapon detonated in downtown New York might kill 40,000. The same
weapon detonated as the warhead of a missile in a low-altitude
airburst might cause half-a-million causalities. If you wanted to
send a message to America, which attack mode would you chose?
And missile threats are not out of reach for terrorists with
even modest means. Short-range ballistic missiles can be bought on
the open market. They can be launched at ships from sea that never
see an American shore or come near a Coast Guard cutter.
The threat of ballistic missiles is real and likely to grow in
the future unless our government acts. PSI will help, but missile
defense is an insurance policy. And as Gen. Trey Obering, former
commander of the Missile Defense Agency, has observed, "It's better
than insurance, because insurance only pays off after the
Missile defense must be an important part of "providing for the
common defense." If America does not act, its enemies will.
Carafano is a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation
and the author of GI Ingenuity: Improvisation, technology and
Winning World War II.
First appeared on Fox News
With the “new” century now 8 years old (and counting), it’s time to finally shelve some expired ideas left over from the last years of the 20th century.Every facet of Cold War “common sense” that argued against missile defense makes no sense in the 21st century. Deterrence (threatening to lob atomic warheads at whoever might attack you as a way to prevent being attacked in the first place) just doesn’t work anymore.
James Jay Carafano, Ph.D.
Vice President, Foreign and Defense Policy Studies, E. W. Richardson Fellow, and Director
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