It is the conventional wisdom of a large number of people, that the United States is now the World's only "Super Power" equivalent to the power once yielded by ancient Rome. But this is a myth, because the U.S. can neither now, nor in the foreseeable future, protect itself from a nuclear attack. Many people believe the United States can protect itself from a ballistic missile attack by the deployment of an advanced missile defense system. This belief, which is considered by many as "dogma", is both naive and dangerous. It is naive because such a system has no chance of working. It is also dangerous, because it could make the United States act as it were an invulnerable superpower, which it is not.
Former President George W. Bush sought to remedy the problem of US vulnerability by deploying a two-stage interceptor in Poland, and a radar site in the Czech Republic. It was to become operational this year, 2011. Called the Ground Based Interceptor (or GBI), this system was an addition to the already deployed 26 three-stage interceptors in Alaska and 4 deployed in California. Although initially only 10 anti-ballistic missiles (or ABMs) were to be deployed, that number was expected to increase significantly in the following years. The missile chosen was a mid-course interceptor. That means it was to intercept an enemy nuclear warhead during the middle of its flight as it traveled in the vacuum of space between one hundred and three hundred miles above the surface of the earth. The enemy warhead was to be destroyed by a "kinetic kill vehicle", which destroyed its target by simply ramming it. Initially the interceptor missile would be guided by radar to the general vicinity of the enemy warhead. Then infrared sensors in the kill vehicle would home in on its target and destroy it.
Officially, the potential enemy nations to be protected against were the North Koreans by the two western sites, while the third site in Poland was to protect against a possible Iranian missile attack. In reality, the interceptor missiles were also to protect against the two dozen or so nuclear warheads from a Chinese attack as well. There was no way these defense systems could protect against a potential 1500 warhead attack from Russia. However, it was thought that these defense systems, especially the one located in Poland, might protect the United States against a limited accidental Russian attack. Considering that the threats from a nuclear attack by either North Korea or Iran were far into the future and might never materialize, many people believe that China and Russia were, and are, the "real threats" that the interceptors were to protect the US from. It just wasn't, nor still is today, politically correct to say so. When plans for the deployment of a "third missile site" in Eastern Europe were announced, circa 2005, Russian, the world's other great nuclear superpower (together the US and Russian have over 90% of the world's nuclear arsenal) became very alarmed, and the relationship between the two countries sharply deteriorated. Although 10 interceptors were no threat to them, the Russians realized that the number of interceptors could easily be increased to several hundred. This was a potential threat to them. From the Russian point of view, the United States was threatening to destabilize the "Balance of Power" between the two nations, and thus, make the world a more dangerous place for everyone.
Fortunately, when President Obama entered the Oval Office, he canceled the "third site" in Poland. However, he did not cancel an Eastern European missile defense system, he just delayed it.
There are now tentative plans to deploy a new more advanced missile interceptor, the Standard-3 Block -2 B, in Eastern Europe circa 2020. Furthermore, sooner or later a Republican candidate will be elected to the Oval Office. It is very likely that given the history of the Republican Party's predilection for missile defense, the new President will advance the deployment date for an Eastern European missile defense site.
However, the Russians need not be worried, because an effective defense against a nuclear attack is an impossible dream. The reasons for this statement shall now be given.
First. It is very difficult to shoot down an incoming missile warhead with an anti-ballistic missile. Ballistic missile warheads are very small (ours are typically about six feet long and eighteen inches wide at the base and rather resemble a large artillery shell) and travel 10 times faster than a rifle bullet (a typical ballistic missile warhead travels at about 15,000 mph). It is the equivalent of trying to shoot down a bullet with a bullet. In about seventeen tries since 1991, anti-ballistic missile interceptors (sometimes called ABMs) have successfully intercepted eight incoming missile warheads for a success rate of just under 50%. And this was under unrealistic conditions where the defenders knew everything there was to know about the "dummy" warhead's characteristics, trajectory, launch time, and no countermeasures were used by the offense!
Second. It is critical to realize the unbelievable destructiveness of nuclear bombs. They are powered by the same energy source that powers the sun where the temperature exceeds 15 million degrees Celsius (or about 27 million degrees Fahrenheit) at the core. The temperature generated by a one megaton bomb is three times hotter than this. A single H-Bomb, can utterly destroy an entire city. These weapons unleash energies that are indescribable on a human scale. These devices are energized by the same process that drives the stars. Nuclear weapons are, in fact, star bombs. Accordingly, even if only one warhead, out of a multitude, reach the intended target, the results are still utterly devastating. The crux of the situation is this: Nuclear weapons are star bombs and because of their unbelievable power, any defense that is less than 100% effective, is next to useless. It should be noted, that pound for pound, a nuclear weapon is about 100,000 times more destructive than the TNT explosives of a conventional weapon.
Third. Due to available counter-measures, no defense will be anywhere near 100% effective. Many ICBMs can carry 3 to 10 warheads and about 30 to 100 decoys. It is possible to make decoys that are virtually indistinguishable from warheads in the vacuum of space (not only can decoys be made to resemble warheads, warheads can, in turn, be made to resemble decoys). These decoys can fool both ground-based radars and infrared sensors aboard the interceptors with little difficulty. As of this date, none of the interceptors tested have ever been able to distinguish the decoys from actual warheads. Decoys are relatively easy and cheap to make and so can overwhelm the defense, by saturation alone. Suppose a single ICBM carrying 10 warheads and 100 decoys were launched against the US..In that event, no less than 110 interceptors would be needed.. As if this were not enough, warheads can also be placed inside of balloons (which can be covered by metallic foil, and impervious to both radar and/or heat detection), thus making recognition, not just difficult, but impossible. A kill vehicle could hit the balloon (which can be made very large) and still very likely miss the relatively small warhead inside1.
Fourth. Metallic chaff can be dispensed, blinding the radar. Some of the decoys could carry small active transponders (which can send out false radar echoes), further confusing the radars. Warheads can be coated with radar absorbing materials rending them invisible to radar. Also, special heat-absorbing aerosols can further confuse the infrared sensors. Even worse, the warheads can be jacketed in containers of refrigerated Freon, and so eliminate any heat signatures (which the Russians have done with their latest warheads). All of these counter-measures are relatively easy to implement2.
Fifth. Warheads can also be made to maneuver, and do so in unpredictable ways. making interception practically impossible. This is not just a theory, for the Russians have such a missile right now, the SS-27 (or what the Russians call the Topol-M). This type of warhead is called a MARV (Maneuverable Reentry Vehicle), and while only the Russians have it now, other nations are likely to follow. Even these methods are by no means the limit of tricks the offense can use.
Sixth. A single nuclear weapon detonated at a high altitude generates a huge, expanding envelope of ionizing radiation two-hundred miles across which will blind radar for more than three hours. During this period of radar blockage, enemy warheads can sail overhead undetected by any ABM defenders; radars are very vulnerable and can be easily destroyed in a pre-emptive attack. Nuclear weapons also cause an "E.M.P." effect (or Electro-Magnetic Pulse), which disables micro-electronic systems at long ranges. A one megaton bomb detonated in outer space can disable an unprotected satellite at a range of 15,000 miles. While satellites and other electronic devices can be "hardened" against these effects, they are only of moderate effectiveness, and still relatively vulnerable. The detonation of nuclear weapons in space, also knocks out all radar and radio communications on the ground, and blinds the infrared sensors on the interceptors. In short, even the most capable ABM system imagined, would become instantly useless, once nuclear weapons were detonated in outer space. In fact, it is precisely because of these effects, that no proposed ABM system carries its own nuclear devices to destroy incoming enemy warheads. Nuclear explosions would simply disable the defensive system. Unfortunately, there is nothing to prevent an enemy from deliberately detonating a few of its own bombs in an attack. Nuclear warheads can also be salvage fused (rigged to detonate on impact) in case of collision with an interceptor3.
Seventh. There are other more exotic methods of missile defense like lasers, however they are in their infancy and not ready for deployment. The US is experimenting with an "air borne laser" called the ABL. The laser is fired from a large Boeing 747 airplane. This system has actually shot down a liquid-fueled missile at a range of about 50-plus miles. However, attempts to extend the range by a factor of three have so far failed. In order to be effective against the boost phase of a missile's flight (note: the warhead itself is invulnerable to any laser as the warhead must survive the enormous heat generated by re-entry in the atmosphere) the range must increase by factor of 20 or more. The difficulty of increasing the range can be seen when it is realized that the power requirements increase as the square of the range. Again, simple counter measures can defeat the system. Since the dwell time (i.e., the time it takes a laser to burn through the metal skin of a liquid fueled rocket--solid fueled rockets are much more resistant) is about two minutes, the laser beam can be defeated by simply rotating the rocket in the ascendant stage. Also, a rocket can easily be protected by lining the booster with a layer of one-inch cork. This is exactly what the Russians have done with their latest ICBM (or Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile), The RS-24.
Eighth. Some people believe satellites are the solution to missile defense, either using lasers or small homing rockets (called "brilliant pebbles"). Neither concept has any merit. Many problems make these ideas untenable, like cost, vulnerability to simple counter-measures, vulnerability to nuclear weapon effects, time (it would take decades to place the several hundred satellites required in orbit), inability to supply the required power for lasers, the fact that satellites (because of their predictable orbits) can easily be shot down, and finally that the Space Shuttle is being retired this year with no immediate replacement. Suffice it to say, the US Missile Defense Agency (or MDA), the government agency charged with the testing and deployment of missile defense for the United States, "has never had any serious interest in satellite defenses"!
It should be noted, that there are other types of missile defense besides the mid-course one described above. A missile trajectory is basically divided into three stages. First, is the boost stage. when the rocket carrying the warheads lifts off and accelerates from zero to 15,000 mph. This stage lasts about 3 minutes for a solid-fueled rocket, and 5 minutes for a liquid-fueled one. The second stage, is after the rocket has been discarded and the warhead, decoys, chaff, and other penetration aids coast through the vacuum of space several hundred miles above the earth. For an ICBM, this phase usually last about 20 to 25 minutes. Finally in the third stage, the warhead re-enters the atmosphere (which looks like a shooting star), and detonates on its target. This phase usually last only about one minute. There are different methods for intercepting an enemy missile both in its boost phase and terminal phase, though each has own intractable problems. However, since the US Missile Defense Agency has absolutely no plans for these types of defense, the author will not bother to examine them.
Finally, let us now be extremely optimistic and imagine that all difficulties were somehow overcome and that ABM's enjoyed a kill-rate of nearly 100% against all ballistic missile warheads no matter what counter measures the enemy deploys. Couldn't the United States now be defended? In a word, NO. Several nations have, or are in the process of acquiring modern submarines. Submarines can carry cruise missiles. Cruise missiles are designed to skim along the earth's surface at 200 feet or less (ABMs on the other hand, are constructed to intercept ballistic warheads above the atmosphere, and so, are utterly useless against cruise missiles). North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, China and Russia have submarines capable of firing cruise missiles (cruise missiles can be fired from conventional torpedo tubes). Modern submarines are very quiet and extremely difficult to detect. Nor do cruise missiles have to be delivered by submarine. Since cruise missiles are the size of torpedoes, any ship (such as a merchant ship or fishing trawler) that passes within the cruise missile's maximum range could serve as a launch platform. Indeed, any country in Central America would make a suitable launch site. Cruise missiles can also be launched from aircraft flying far offshore. Cruise missiles are relatively cheap (only about one percent the cost of an ICBM), stealthy, and have ranges exceeding 1500 nautical miles (range enough to reach any American city from the sea). Their low-cost means that many cruise missiles can be launched for the cost of one ICBM. Flying at treetop level, cruse missiles are exceedingly difficult to shoot down, and even against anti-aircraft guns antiaircraft missiles, and fighter interceptors, a large number would get through (just ask the Serbs and Iraqis for a validation of this statement). In fact, submarines wouldn't have to launch cruse missiles at all. They could deploy large nuclear mines off our coast (during the early fifties, Russian submarines carried torpedoes with large nuclear warheads specifically designed to destroy coastal cities.
There are also several final observations which can be made by studying military history. Before World War Two, the Germans believed that it would take only 50 rounds of an 88 millimeter anti- aircraft gun to bring down an enemy bomber. In actual fact it took over 12,000. Also many "experts" believed that anti-aircraft guns would be able to shoot down between 30% to 50% of attacking aircraft. On average, the actual rate was only 3%. Anti-aircraft missiles haven't fared much better. In the Vietnam War, the kill rate for surface-to-air missiles was only 2%. Nor has there been any improvement since then. It's true that surface-to-air missiles have improved, but so have aircraft and their associated counter measures. In the war with Serbia in 1999, the vaunted Serbian air defense forces (using advance radar and computer fire control for both anti-aircraft guns and surface-to-air missiles shot down only 0.03% of all attacking allied aircraft. Now when one considers that a ballistic missile nuclear warhead is much smaller, has as many available counter measures, and goes over twenty times faster than aircraft, then the absurdity of missile defense becomes apparent4.
As a final example, this author would like to use a historical air raid to prove the impossibility of a defense against nuclear weapons. This example was illustrated by the military strategist Bernard Brodie shortly after the end of World War Two. Remember this was before the missile age, and bombers were the only method of attacking targets. In 1943 Germany was getting half its vital oil supplies form the oil fields in Ploesti Romania. Because of its importance the Germans spared no effort for its air defenses. The site was ringed by all types of anti-aircraft gun emplacements including anti-aircraft guns mounted on special trains, which could follow the bombers both to and from Ploesti, and defended by hundreds of fighter aircraft. Although heavily defended, the Allies decided to attack it because of its strategic importance. In one of the first air raids, on August 1st, 180 B-24 Liberator bombers, flying from airfields in Libya a thousand miles away, attacked the seven oil fields of Ploesti in a low level raid. In the air battle that followed, 54 bombers were shot down. This was a loss rate of 30%, and was the highest casualty rate ever suffered by aircraft in any World War Two air raid. An equal number of planes were so badly damaged that, though they made it back to the airbase, they never flew again. There was some damage to the oil fields, but not as much as had been hoped. In fact, the oil fields were repaired and operating again in several weeks. The economic cost of the air raid was actually higher for the Allies than the damage done to the Germans. The raid was judged to be a disaster. All subsequent air raids were made at high level. The damage the Allied aircraft inflicted wasn't quite as great as before, but their own losses were much less. A few months later, the Russian army captured the oil fields, and the air operations ended.
Now, let us suppose that these bombers had been carrying atomic bombs and not conventional ones. At the time of Brodie's writing, a new bomber, the B-36, was coming on line. It could carry four atomic bombs. These bombs were of the more primitive atomic bomb types (i.e., the type of bomb that India, Pakistan, possibly North Korea, and maybe eventually Iran, would have). Today the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, France, and possibly Israel are armed with the much more powerful hydrogen bomb. Both the atomic and hydrogen bombs are nuclear weapons, but the hydrogen bomb is much more powerful than an atomic one (for example the US B-83 bomb is 40 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima). If only two bombers had survived to attack Ploesti, the oil fields would have been destroyed for years if not decades. The attack would have been a resounding success, even had 99% of the airplanes been shot down! Thus, such is the power of nuclear weapons, that no defense is possible. Brodie understood a fact that is as true today as it was then, which is the only defense against a nuclear attack is deterrence. This strategy often called "mutual assured destruction" (or MAD), is the only viable defense option available both now and for the future. Many people, including this author, don't like this nuclear strategy, because it is essentially a strategy of revenge and not traditional defense. However, technology provides no other option, and we must accept the reality of the situation if we are to survive the nuclear age5.
In conclusion, we may categorically state there is no defense against a nuclear attack either now or in the foreseeable future. Richard Nixon intensively studied the ABM question during his presidency. In the end, he concluded, "every instinct I have motivates me to protect the United States, but it is impossible to do so, and we must all learn to live with that fact."
Finally, one may ask why are missile defenses so popular. Of course, there are many naive people who have a natural desire to feel safe. But there is another, more sinister reason. That is, the conspiracy of "the military-industrial complex" which President Eisenhower so appropriately warned about in his farewell speech to the nation on January 17, 1961: "The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power," Eisenhower stated, "exists and will persist6."
This cabal of industrial CEOs, some retired or nearly-retired senior military officers (though by no means all), and some misguided conservative politicians have come to realize that there is a huge fortune (hundreds of billions of dollars, perhaps much more) to be made by perpetuating the myth of nuclear missile defense on a naive public. This is probably the greatest "con job" ever perpetrated in the history of the United States. In this new age of austerity, when we can ill afford such extravagance, the American people will lose both security and treasure, if they do not realize the myth of nuclear missile defense!
2. “The European Missile Defense Folly”, by George E. Lewis and Theodore Postal: THE BULLETIN OF THE ATOMIC SCIENTIST, May/June 2008. [Note: Dr. Lewis is a physicist and associate director of the Peace Studies Program at Cornell University. Dr. Postal is a physicist and professor of science, technology, and national security at MIT. He has been involved in numerous studies of the US missile defense program].
3. “Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems”, by Richard L. Garwin and Hans Beth. SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, March 1968. [Note: Dr. Hans A. Bethe, won the Nobel Award for Physics in 1967, for showing how the sun works].
4. Chapter-8, Air Defense, HOW TO MAKE WAR, 2003, by James F. Dunnigan. [Dunnigan is a noted writer on military history and military affairs].
5. THE ABSOLUTE WEAPON, 1946; by Bernard Brodie. He was the first person to write about "Nuclear War Strategy". He predicted that defense against nuclear weapons would always be impossible, a proposition which has turned out to be historically true.
6. THE 20TH CENTURY DAY BY DAY, 1999, by D. K. Publishing, Inc, p. 860. Editors Clifton Daniel and John W. Kirshon.
"The Dangerous Delusion of Nuclear Missile Defense by George Simmons Roth" is ©2011 by George Simmons Roth. All contents of Crazed Fanboy and Nolan's Pop Culture Review are ©2011 by Nolan B. Canova.
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Other articles by George Simmons Roth: Books by George Simmons Roth:
"A Solution To Prevent Accidental Nuclear War" (2006)
"The Fallacy of Major Conventional War in the Nuclear Age" (2009)
Battle in Outer Space (2007)
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