We're losing the arms race with North Korea.

We're losing the arms race with North Korea.

We're losing the arms race with North Korea.

Military analysis.
July 27 2004 6:01 PM

We're Losing the Arms Race With North Korea

What's the optimal number of anti-missile missiles? None.

A bit of news that flew under the radar: Last Thursday, the first U.S. anti-missile interceptor was deployed at Fort Greely, Alaska. And so it begins. President George W. Bush's multibillion-dollar missile-defense program has taken on the threads, if not yet the full cloak, of reality.

The press release from the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency hailed the event as marking "the end of an era where we have not been able to defend our country against long-range ballistic missile attacks." Not that this single interceptor—or the four that will join it by the end of the year, or the five more due to arrive by the end of next year—will truly offer a defense either. The release acknowledges that an "operational" system requires many more interceptors—on land and sea and in outer space—along with an integrated network of radars, sensors, battle-management computers, and command-control-communications gear, none of which yet exist.

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But, the release concludes, the "initial limited capability" established with Thursday's deployment constitutes "a vast improvement" over our previous ability to shoot down long-range ballistic missiles, which, of course, was "nonexistent."

It may seem that a few anti-missile missiles, or even just one, would be better than none at all. In fact, though, that's not the case. In this particular instance, and in several important ways, none is better.

Clearly, this argument is counterintuitive. It may, at first glance, seem absurd. But stick with me.

The missile-defense complex in Alaska is designed specifically to help shoot down long-range ballistic missiles launched from North Korea. But a limited missile-defense system—which is the most we can expect over the next decade—is more likely to multiply than nullify this threat.

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A look at history is useful. In 1972, Richard Nixon signed the ABM Treaty, which severely restricted—and, in a subsequent addendum signed by Gerald Ford, banned—the deployment of ballistic-missile defenses. Why? Contrary to right-wing myth, it was not because of some doctrinal aversion to defenses. True, the theory of "Mutual Assured Destruction" held that the two superpowers should remain vulnerable to nuclear attack so that neither leader would launch a first strike knowing his own country would be destroyed in a retaliatory second strike. But MAD—as the theory was often called—was more theory than policy.

The real reasoning behind the treaty was purely practical. If the United States deployed, say, 50 defensive missiles—and assuming they all worked perfectly—the USSR could outwit the system and break through the defenses simply by deploying 51 offensive missiles. And the cost of those 51 offensive missiles would be a lot cheaper than the cost of the 50 defensive missiles. Finally, the USSR could stay ahead of this game much more cheaply still, because—even under the most optimistic projections—not all of our 50 defensive missiles would work. (For more about the reasoning, click here.)

In short, American, and eventually Soviet, decision-makers realized that missile defenses would trigger a costly offense-defense arms race, which the offense would inevitably win. Moreover, if nuclear war did break out in the middle of this arms race, the damage inflicted would be far greater. Each side would fire many more offensive missiles than it might have otherwise, calculating the need to saturate the other side's defenses. If the defenses turned out not to work so well (as many scientists predicted, back then as well as now), then those extra offensive missiles would simply blow up more territory, spread more radioactive fallout, and kill more people.

The parallel between then and now is not precise. North Korea does not have the resources that the Soviet Union had at the height of the Cold War. But with the deployment of the new missile-defense system, the United States has entered into an arms race with the North Koreans—an arms race we are likely to lose—and nobody in the White House or the Congress seems even to be aware of it.

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As everyone knows, the North Koreans are on the verge of amassing a nuclear arsenal. They have processed enough plutonium, and may have enriched enough uranium, to build at least half-a-dozen nuclear bombs per year. There are several theories for why they are doing this. The North Koreans say they need a "deterrent" to keep a hostile United States from attacking them. Some officials and experts suspect the North Koreans are building up nukes as bargaining chips to trade for economic aid and security guarantees. Others fear they may sell nuclear bombs or materials to other hostile forces for hard currency. Still others think Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader, will use nukes as a protective cover for hostile action or diplomatic pressure against his neighbors. (For more on Kim's nukes, click here.)

All these possible reasons are consistent with the following scenario—that the North Koreans will respond to nascent U.S. missile defenses by building more bombs more quickly. One rationale for the U.S. defenses, especially for placing them in Alaska (along the flight path of a missile fired from North Korea), is to protect the homeland from a nuclear attack. Another explicit goal of the defenses, however, is to neutralize any strategic value that North Korea might gain from possessing—and brandishing—nuclear weapons. Yet in this atomic cat-and-mouse game, the North Koreans could regain their edge by building more offensive weapons at the same rate we build defensive weapons—or even at a somewhat slower rate, given that no defenses can work perfectly.

Several Bush officials, most notably Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, have envisioned a different scenario: that a hostile nuclear aspirant, such as Kim Jong-il, will be so cowed by our missile defense system that he won't bother to field nuclear weapons to begin with, realizing that they won't do him any good.

This theory too has some historical precedent. Kremlin archives clearly reveal that Mikhail Gorbachev was moved toward accommodation with the West in part because he feared (however unjustifiably) that Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" program—the prelude to Bush's missile defenses—might render the Soviet nuclear arsenal obsolete.

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However, the key phrase here is "in part." Gorbachev felt many forces pushing him toward perestroika—of which "Star Wars" was but a minor one—and he had, oddly enough, in Ronald Reagan a foe-turned-partner who rewarded his pushes.

There are no such impulses toward a settlement, or genuine diplomacy, in the current state of U.S.-North Korean relations. Bush is not entirely to blame here; Kim Jong-il is one of the world's great pills. But over the last two years, Bush has brusquely waved off every sign of North Korea's willingness to negotiate over its nuclear program. Only in recent weeks has Bush put a deal on the table; it's similar to a deal that the North Koreans offered at the start of 2002. But it's too late: The North Koreans have made a lot of progress toward a nuclear arsenal since then; dismantling the program now will cost the United States much more.

At some point, Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld clearly thought that the missile-defense program would buy them leverage in their dealings with the dread Kim Jong-il—that it would push him back in his cage, foil his nuclear dreams, restore America's clear supremacy, and perhaps provide protective cover for a U.S. attack (or threat of an attack) on North Korea. It's reasonable to speculate that Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld refused, all this time, to negotiate with North Korea—against the State Department's advice to sit down and talk—precisely because they thought that missile defenses would give the U.S. a stronger bargaining position.

We'll soon find out. The North Koreans know about last Thursday's deployment in Alaska, even if most Americans don't. So far, they don't seem to be cowering. We may end up with a handful of U.S. interceptors and a lot of North Korean nukes.