The CIA's Scary Christmas Message

  • Share
  • Read Later
If you build it, they will come — some other way. And they're probably going to come some other way, anyway. That appears to be the bottom line in U.S. intelligence community thinking on the vexed question of missile defense. "Global Trends 2015," a collective effort by different branches of Washington's intelligence community, offers a wide-ranging assessment of the military threats facing the U.S. over the next two decades. And the bad news is that while America will have no rival on the battlefield, it will be increasingly dogged by unconventional enemies against whom technological superiority isn't the same guarantor of victory.

Threat-assessment is always political, playing into battles over funding for the pet projects of various securocratic fiefdoms. It's hardly suprising, therefore, that the umbrella study that is "Global Trends 2015" offers competing scenarios rather than a definitive set of choices. What is clear, however, is that Cold War–era military threats have clearly abated in the minds of the keepers of national security, while the relentless march of globalization enhances the threat from "rogue" states and non-state actors for whom it increases access to lethal technologies. But while there's plenty in the report to fuel the missile-defense lobby's claim of mounting danger from the likes of North Korea, Iran and Iraq, the report contains just as much material that could be marshaled to argue that missile defense is a diversion of resources better spent elsewhere in terms of the more plausible threats.

President Clinton fudged the issue by committing to a limited version of National Missile Defense (NMD) designed primarily to counter North Korea's missile potential, and the failure of the technology thus far to pass basic tests led him to leave the decision to his successor. But President-elect Bush has been a sanguine backer of missile defense, and his secretary of state nominee, Colin Powell, warned last weekend that the U.S. would press ahead regardless of objections from Russia and European NATO members and build a system far more comprehensive than the one shelved by Clinton.

What now for missile defense?

The debate over the wisdom of spending hundreds of billions, or even trillions, of dollars on missile defense will be a leitmotif of the early years of the Bush administration. But with or without it, the intelligence community has no doubt that for the foreseeable future the U.S. will remain the 800-pound gorilla of world military power — with everyone else measured in chimpanzee dimension by comparison. Even now, the U.S. military is more than double the size of the combined strength of all its NATO allies, and positively dwarfs the combined legions of the world's second and third largest military powers, Russia and China. American economic and technological advantages ensure that no plausible challengers to its dominance will emerge on the world stage for the next two decades at least — indeed, it is this logic that has allowed the Bush team to talk about "skipping a generation" of weapons to march far into the future, because no adversary has come close to matching the present generation of U.S. weaponry.

To be sure, the principles of "symmetry" in force development no longer really apply. During the Cold War, the U.S. would develop weapons systems designed to combat Soviet conventional strength, and vice versa. If the Russians had more tanks ready to roll across the plains of Europe, NATO must have the airborne tank-killing power to eliminate that advantage — and so on. But today, as "Global Trends 2015" warns, the threat to U.S. forces is "asymmetrical," which dramatically undercuts U.S. technological advantages.

Consider the following: "The ship is equipped with the Aegis Combat System which includes: the AN/SPY 1D phased array radar, which scans in all directions simultaneously to detect, track and engage hundreds of aircraft and missiles while continuously watching the sky for new targets from wavetop to the stratosphere; the MK 41 Vertical Launching System, which fires a combination of up to 90 Standard surface-to-air, Tomahawk surface-to-land or surface-to-surface and Vertical Launch ASROC antisubmarine missiles; and the AN/SQQ 89 Antisubmarine Warfare System, with a bow-mounted AN/SQS 53C sonar and AN/SQR 19 towed array. [It] will have deck-mounted Harpoon anti-ship missile launchers and MK 32 torpedo tubes, MK 15 Phalanx Close-In Weapon Systems and a five-inch, rapid-firing deck gun. [The ship] also has the LAMPS MK III Antisubmarine Warfare Control System, with landing and replenishment facilities for SH60B antisubmarine warfare helicopters."

Technology vs. a suicide bomber

The formidable warship described above in a 1996 Navy press release is, of course, the USS Cole. And despite carrying one of the most advanced electronic warfare platforms in the Navy's arsenal, it was nearly blown out of the water by a homemade bomb delivered on a tiny skiff by two men who welcomed death. Thus asymmetrical warfare.

The enemy, in instances such as the Cole attack, has no military assets worth speaking of, and his command and control structures are almost undetectable. Washington's ongoing struggle to find an appropriate response to such attacks was highlighted in 1998, when the Clinton administration retaliated for the East Africa embassy bombings by firing cruise missiles in the general direction of Osama Bin Laden. The Tomahawk cruise missile is a precision high-tech weapon whose pinpoint targeting capability was designed originally to neutralize Soviet ICBMs inside their silos. They cost in the region of $750,000 each, which of course is cheap for an ICBM-killer. And yet firing some 20 of these at a complex of tent camps in Afghanistan and at a factory in the Sudan produced little if any tactical gain for the U.S. in this particular war, although it did boost the prestige of the designated enemy in his designated support base. Not surprisingly, "Global Trends 2015" notes that asymmetrical warfare is the "defining challenge for U.S. strategy, operations and force development" over the next 15 years.

The threats of yesteryear appear to be abating. Russia is viewed as in a state of irreversible decline, and the report predicts that it will be driven to cut its strategic nuclear forces to a sustainable minimum. In an interesting aside on Moscow's likely response to a U.S. missile defense system that neutralizes Russia's fleet, the report predicts Moscow will "invest scarce resources in selected and secretive military technology programs, especially WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction), hoping to counter Western conventional and strategic superiority in areas such as ballistic missile defense."

Taiwan remains a potential problem

China, "Global Trends" predicts, will likely be so consumed by the titanic challenge of maintaining domestic social order in its perilous journey through an economic transformation that its appetite for military adventures will likely be curbed. Nonetheless, Taiwan remains a flash point that necessarily involves the U.S. under current commitments, and China will certainly look to expand its regional influence.

The report suggests instead that the states challenging U.S. security interests are more likely to be some of those that have traditionally assumed a lower profile on the U.S. strategic radar — North Korea, Iran and Iraq top the list right now, although the first two are doing their best to appear as unthreatening as they possibly can, driven by their domestic woes to reintegrate themselves into the international community. So what is the nature of this challenge, and how can it be defended against?

NMD advocates will seize on the report's assessment of the fact that globalization has dramatically enhanced the access to technology of rogue elements and states. It's increasingly possible now for hostile states to acquire earlier generations of missile technology in the hope of some day being able to top them with nukes or biological weapons, the report warns. And it has become considerably easier for both these states and stateless terrorist groups to develop chemical and biological weapons programs. The report warns that China, Russia, "most likely North Korea, probably Iran and possibly Iraq have the capacity to strike the United States, and the potential for unconventional delivery of WMD by both states and non-state actors will also grow."

Using a sledgehammer to crack a nut?

The latter reference cuts to the core question over missile defense, which is not whether there are malefactors out there who would attack the U.S. or its troops abroad with WMD given half a chance, but whether they'd mount such weapons on missiles. On balance, right now, the evidence suggests that a biological or even nuclear bomb being aimed at the U.S. is a lot more likely to arrive on a skiff or in the back of a van than atop a missile. That probability is tacitly acknowledged in the report, although the intelligence community is not about to pooh-pooh NMD. While "asymmetrical" means of delivery are more plausible right now, the report argues, "Non-missile delivery means, however, do not provide the same prestige, deterrence and coercive diplomacy associated with ICBMs." Well, yes, but it's only deterrence if you have enough ICBMs to match the other guy's capacity, which is impossible for any rogue state. And as for "coercive diplomacy," the 1994 standoff with North Korea made abundantly clear that the U.S. is prepared to preemptively blow away any hostile power that may be in the process of developing nuclear weapons to fire at Americans — Washington is unlikely to allow any "rogue" state to even come close to deploying a nuclear capability that could be use to coerce the U.S.

There's no question, of course, that if Washington spends hundreds of billions of dollars on a missile defense system that actually works, the U.S. will be safer from any real or hypothetical threat of attack by intercontinental ballistic missiles. But a better missile umbrella won't be much use against an incoming dinghy.