Politicians who proclaim eagerness to defend Ukraine from Russia but who are not even thinking of protecting the American people from Russia’s nuclear-tipped missiles combine “the unbridled tongue and the unready hand” — Theodore Roosevelt’s definition of ultimate stupidity in foreign policy.
Russia, China or any government capable of firing a significant number of such missiles at us can mount a geopolitical challenge to our vital interests confident that, after bluster and impotent measures, any U.S. president will back down rather than risk a missile strike that America cannot stop.
The U.S. government can’t defend America against more than a small handful of missiles — most likely only if they come from North Korea — because doing only that while remaining vulnerable to serious attacks has remained government policy since the days of Robert McNamara a half-century ago. Symbolic announcements and heated rhetoric about missile defense, plus billions of misspent dollars, have only blurred that fact.
So strong has been the American ruling class’ pervasive opposition to missile defense, so thoroughly and for so long has it restricted the technical horizons of U.S. programs, that virtually no one now in a position of authority on national security knows why our programs cannot defend America, or what we could do to defend ourselves if we were to try. That includes military officials, immersed as they are in current, expensive, dead-end programs.
This, however, does not stop politicians and pundits from talking in brave generalities about asserting America’s geopolitical interests against all comers. Vice President Joe Biden promises to protect Poland and the Baltic States. Sen. Robert Menendez, Democratic chairman on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says that U.S. opposition to Russia should be “more firm.” The committee’s ranking Republican accuses the Democrats of “wishy-washiness” and wants “more resolve.” Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona wants to confront Vladimir Putin so as to “restore the credibility of the United States as a world leader.” They all say that they would not consider military measures against Russia. Yet some want to station U.S. troops in the Baltics.
What if Russia were to take chunks of Eastern European countries to which America had promised protection and maybe even where U.S. troops were stationed? After all, Russia just got finished taking a chunk of Ukraine, whose territorial integrity the United States had solemnly guaranteed in 1994. Common sense advises either to shut up and make the best of a worsened world, or to prepare to back up whatever words you speak as far as may be required. Instead, while politicians and pundits have made various levels of menacing noises, none has suggested finally getting serious about U.S. missile defense.
Mr. McCain is emblematic of those who seem not to care about what it takes to do what. In The New York Times, he regretted that “United States missile defense plans were scaled back” — presumably proposing to reverse President Obama’s 2009 decision not to build a radar in the Czech Republic and to locate 10 interceptor missiles in Poland to defend against some five missiles coming from Iran. Since the U.S. government had crafted those devices — carefully and at very great cost to make sure that they would not interfere with Russia’s ability to strike America — reinstating them would add zero margin of safety for America vis-a-vis the Russians and give false hopes to the Europeans, who fear their neighbor to the east.
In fact, because any and all of our current missile defense are designed above all not to interfere with Russian or Chinese missiles, even multiplying these programs by an order of magnitude would not provide us the basis of safety upon which the U.S. government could face geopolitical challenges safely and effectively. Though President George W. Bush sonorously ended U.S. adherence to the U.S.-Soviet ABM treaty of 1972, his administration, like its predecessors and successors, have adhered to its essential elements, all of which preclude a serious defense or the United States.
Two examples among many: First, all of our programs consist of surface-based radars and interceptors — a hangover from the 1950s. Since the radars cannot be close enough to the missile launch points (or far enough away from U.S. targets, given U.S. geography), the interceptors must be launched late. This means that interceptors have to be exceptionally fast, high-tech, expensive, few and inefficient. They could be made more functional by switching their information systems to orbit-based, infra-red devices and computers. The ABM treaty, though, banned better substitutes for surface-based radars.
Second, we still have not taken the plentiful technical opportunities we have to equip ourselves to destroy offensive missiles when they are most vulnerable — soon after launch — by using the orbit-based “other physical principles” already foreseen in 1972 but sidelined by the treaty — quite simply because such devices would effectively eliminate Russia’s and China’s capacity to strike the United States.
Not incidentally, space-based anti-missile weapons would also be capable of destroying enemy satellites while protecting one’s own.
Thirty years ago, the United States had a monopoly on the technology for very highly effective missile defense systems and space control. That is no longer so. No one should doubt that sooner rather than later, China or Russia or both — neither of which is shy about asserting geopolitical interests by force of arms — will unveil anti-missile and space-control systems that the U.S. government continues to shun.
Today, our vulnerability to Russia’s and China’s missiles restricts what we can do to limit these empires’ expansion of their influence in their neighborhoods. Tomorrow, that continued vulnerability, coupled with their own serious missile defenses, may make it impossible for us to retain influence in our own.
Angelo M. Codevilla is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University and author of the forthcoming “To Make Peace Among Ourselves And With All Nations” (Hoover Institution Press).