"Love Thy Missiles"
December 30, 2000
Greetings. It's been announced that Donald Rumsfeld, the Defense Secretary
under President Ford a quarter century ago, will emerge from mothballs to
reprise that same role for the Cheney-Bush administration, lending ever more
weight to the "Ford-redux" aura now forming in Washington. Comedian Chevy
Chase could be in for a serious new payday!
The incoming administration has also made it clear that pushing for a ballistic missile defense system to protect against "rogue" countries is very high on their priority list.
An experienced defense analyst tried to explain it all to me:
"Mr. Turgidson, thanks very much for speaking with me today," I said.
"Just call me 'Buck' -- everybody does!"
"Buck, let me cut right to the heart of the matter. If you spend the billions to build this system and it works to protect us from the limited missile threats the administrations have been talking about, won't it still anger our allies, trigger increases in nuclear weapons deployments around the world, and just generally make the world less safe for everyone than it is today?"
"Lauren, I just can't let that fly by without contradiction -- you've got one critical fact completely wrong!"
"What's that?" I asked.
"Well, you're assuming the system will work. Of course it won't work! But that's not what the system is for or why we need it. This is about money and perceptions, not missiles."
"Uh, the system won't work?"
"C'mon Lauren, think about it. Reagan's old Strategic Defense Initiative program couldn't ever have done the job and this one won't either. Hell, if you're launching missiles, you can just shoot the whole wad at your target, pile on the decoys and interference to screw up the interceptors, and pretty much low-tech your way to getting most of your babies through to your adversary. But trying to defend against that, man, that's tough. Everything has to work just exactly right with the radars and computers and whatnot, and even then you'll probably still be overwhelmed and sidetracked by the decoys and other surprise goodies that get thrown at you."
"Well, Buck, won't our own testing get the bugs out of the system before anyone gets to that point?"
"Testing? Boy, we've been failing most of the important tests. Oh sure, eventually we'll figure out how to rig them so that at least we won't be screwing up in public, but those tests don't tell us diddlysquat about the real-world operational environment. Forget it, Lauren, it ain't gonna work. But you still have to build it! Even Clinton was about ready to move on it. Politically, it's a sure bet regardless!"
"But if it can't work ..."
"Let me give you an example. Why do we have all those x-ray machines and guards at airports?"
"To protect against hijackers," I said.
"And do you think that those high-turnover folks being paid minimum wage to run antique scanning equipment at the airports really would stop a determined and intelligent nasty from getting a weapon or bomb onto a plane?"
"Well, uh, I've assumed ... "
"Lauren, security is all about perceptions. It doesn't much matter how secure you really are, so long as the people involved on all sides think you're secure. And the money, and political points, are made by building the systems that provide that perception, even when the systems can't really work as advertised."
"But that seems incredibly wasteful. Couldn't the money be better spent providing real security, or in other useful ways?"
"You're missing the point again. You have to spend the money on stuff that people believe will do them some good, even when it really won't. Missile defense is easy for people to understand. The bad guys shoot a missile at you, so you shoot it down. Seems easy if you don't understand the technology involved. But how would you propose spending money to protect against some random crazy carrying a small nuclear bomb into the country in a suitcase, or shipping it into port in a container full of videogames? Or how do you spend your way into protecting against biological weapons that could be thrown together in a basement lab and kill millions for pennies? There just aren't convincing ways to spend the big money against those kinds of real and largely intractable threats!"
"So Buck, what you're telling me is that missile defense is all about politics and money, and that the reality of what the system technically can or can't do is completely irrelevant?"
"Exactly! And look at the benefits! Not only do we make people feel better, we pump up the economy by keeping the ol' cold war research labs and factory complexes churning away in high gear! Congress loves that! It's win-win-win! And if Russia or China or the Europeans don't like it, well, that's a small price to pay."
"It all still seems pretty strange ..."
"Lauren, just stop worrying and learn to love the missiles!" said Buck.
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For information about the author, please see: http://www.vortex.com/lauren
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