Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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"Strategic Defense" – It’s BAAACK! 

(June, 2000 & March, 2002)

In 1983, Ronald Reagan proposed a "Strategic Defense Initiative" – a "space shield" against incoming nuclear missiles. George W. Bush promises to renew the "initiative," despite the strenuous objections of the NATO allies . Missile defense was a bad idea during the Reagan era, and it is a bad idea now.

First of all, it probably would not work, and much more to the point, even if (however improbably) it did work, it would be useless.

In a recent article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, MIT scientist, Theodore Postol, validates what we have heard and read about the feasibility of the scheme. A determined effort by an aggressive power to defeat missile defense, through the use of decoys, would probably succeed. "Tests" of anti-ballistic devices are directed more toward the task of persuading the public and the Congress, and at authentic research and development.  Critics have characterized such "tests" as "strapped chicken demonstrations."  

Back in the Reagan/SDI days, we pointed out the ease with which missile defense might be defeated, and so we will not repeat that argument here. (See "Star Wars: The National Sanity Test," this site).

But never mind all that. Just suppose that we might devise a system that could stop an errant ICBM, launched by some "rogue state." What would that accomplish? Virtually nothing, I suggest.

The trajectory of an ICBM launched at an American city can be plotted with near certainty back to the launch site. If such a missile successfully took out its target, we can be sure that North Korea or Iraq or some such "rogue state" responsible for the launch would soon be reduced to rubble. In short, an ICBM launch is a plain act of personal and national suicide.

So clearly, any national or sub-national entity (e.g., the mafia or al Qaeda, etc.) would choose a delivery system that would hide the place or group of origin. These might include "suitcase devices" in autos, aircraft or ships, or possibly an off-shore "lob". In addition, none of these require the advanced technology, inflated budgets and readily detectable trail of evidence entailed by the deployment of ICBMs.

And none of these far more likely scenarios would be the least bit affected by an anti-missile defense system.

There are other consequences as well. In order to advance the missile defense system, George Bush has announced that the United States will abandon the 1972 ABM treaty with Russia.   Facing an opposing missile defense system, the Russian government will be under irresistible pressure to reactivate and expand its offensive missile forces. This is a safe assumption since it precisely what the West would do if faced with the prospect of a Russian missile defense system.

It takes little historical memory to realize that this is precisely the mind-set that dominated, and arguably prolonged, the Cold War. Despite the advice of wiser and cooler heads among Western European leaders, it is a mind-set that has apparently recaptured the adherence of the Bush administration.

Moreover, this confrontational mind-set is totally inappropriate to the greater nuclear dangers that we face today. As we have learned to our great sorrow, the greatest danger, by far, is a terrorist act, with the nuclear "device" delivered by briefcase or truck, as with World Trade Center in 1993 or the Oklahoma City Federal Building, or by a commercial airliner, as with the World Trade Center again, September 11, 2001. Prevention of such a disaster calls for close cooperation and coordination among international and state security agencies, such as Interpol, the CIA and FBI in the United States, and the FSB in Russia. "Human intelligence" must be cultivated within terrorist groups and "rogue nations," security files and surveillance data of many nations must be integrated, international inspection agencies must be reactivated, and acutely sensitive radiation detection devices must be developed and deployed.

If, somehow, "missile defense" is a technological imperative that cannot be stopped, then it should be made an international project – not merely "shared" with Russia, China, and NATO, but still more openly developed with and deployed by these powers. Only then might we avoid a renewed arms race.

Alas, "integration" and "cooperation" seems furthest from the minds of our national leaders, including it seems the ex-KGB officer who is now the President of Russia. "Strategic theory" that was hard-wired in the heads of our leaders during the cold war and which remains active in numerous careers and investments, still seems to control our policies.

How else are we to explain the return of the "missile defense" fantasy?


Saddam Hussein is meeting with his cabinet in Baghdad.

SH: I would like very much to nuke New York City. When can we do it, and what are our options?

Minister 1: Well, we could put a bomb in a freighter, or we could put it in a diplomatic pouch, or we could put it in the trunk of a car and drive it across the Canadian border.

SH: And when could we do this?

Minister 2: As early as next month, and the delivery system would cost a few hundred dollars. Best of all, the Americans would never be able to prove that we set it off.

SH: Any other options?

Minister 3: Well, we could spend several billion dollars on an ICBM, which wouldn't be ready in less than five years -- provided of course the Americans didn't find out about it first and destroy our facilities. 

Minister 4: Worst of all, the missile would carry a return address. The Americans would know for certain who launched it, and within 24 hours 90% of the Iraqis, included all of present company, would be reduced to radioactive atoms.

SH: Then that settles it. Let's build an ICBM.


If you believe that this transcript is authentic, then you are certifiably bonkers. As crazy as Saddam Hussein is depicted here. And as crazy as anyone in the Bush administration who really believes that the proposed National Missile Defense system has anything at all to do with a supposed threat from Iraq or North Korea, or wherever.

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .