This is a guest note, exclusive to The Washington Note, by James P. Pinkerton — a contributor to the Fox News Channel and frequent poster at FoxForum.com. Pinkerton is also fellow at the New America Foundation, and contributing editor at The American Conservative magazine.
AMERICA NEEDS A DEFENSE THAT DEFENDS
I. Whose Defense Is It, Anyway?
When are we going to have a Defense Department that defends?
For the last few decades, US “defense” policy has oscillated between two ideological polarities, neither of which have much to do with the actual physical defense of America. On the left hand, we’ve had an emphasis on arms control, disarmament, and spending reductions, mostly without regard to the military designs of other countries. And on the right hand, we’ve had “wars of choice,” “regime change,” and “nation-building” — and, of course, as an obvious consequence of such ambitious policies, a fixation on counter-insurgency.
But what’s been lost in this left-right back-and-forth is a steady focus on actually defending America, and its allies, from attacks on their homelands. Those attacks have come, are coming, and will continue to come — but Uncle Sam has decided, in effect, not to prepare much for any such attack.
In this polarized political climate, few are willing to speak up for the simple non-ideological proposition of defense. That is, to protect this country, as well as other countries. That’s the commonsensical middle ground that neither party’s ideological wing has chosen to occupy.
If another country threatens you, and you can’t adequately defend yourself, what’s the best course of action? Issue a stern statement? Take your case to international organizations that obviously have little or no heft? Pretend the problem isn’t really real?
In regard to the North Korean weapons programs, both atomic and ballistic, the Obama Administration has taken all of those non-action actions. But in fairness, it must be noted that the Obamans have merely continued the Bush administration’s Korea policy — although in war, of course, nothing is fair. And if North Korea could nuke America, or one of our treasured allies, then we should be able to do something about it. And fast.
Unfortunately, effective action is not being planned. This weekend, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a holdover from the previous administration, threatened “painful” sanctions against North Korea if it continued on its current course of firing rockets and detonating a-bombs. Then he added, “At the end of the day, the choice to continue as a destitute, international pariah, or chart a new course, is North Korea’s alone to make. The world is waiting.”
In other words, according to Gates, the world will wait to see what North Korea does. And if North Korea continues on its current aggressive and threatening course — a course to which it has held steadily for most the last decade — then sanctions, and other efforts, such as the US-led Proliferation Security Initiative, will undoubtedly be ratcheted up a bit. And for their part, the North Koreans will ratchet up, too: On May 27, the Pyongyang regime renounced the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War.
So it’s not impossible to imagine a real war erupting yet again on the Korean peninsula. But if such a real war were to come again, could the Department of Defense defend America from spillover?
The answer is a firm “maybe.” But don’t take my word for it. Take the word of Dr. Charles E. McQueary, outgoing Director of Operational Test and Evaluation at the Pentagon, who for the last three years has been the Senate-confirmed top adviser to the Secretary of Defense on weapons testing. McQueary told Bloomberg News on Friday that it’s “likely” the US could shoot down a North Korean missile; “I believe we have a reasonable chance,” he said, of a successful interception.
Well, isn’t that just a little bit disconcerting? Isn’t it disconcerting that a mouse, North Korea, could roar and the US could suffer a possible city-cataclysm? The United States has a population of more than 307 million and a gross domestic product of over $14 trillion. By contrast, North Korea has 23 million people and a GDP of $40 billion, or 1/350th of ours. Indeed, the Pentagon’s budget alone is 13 times the size of the North Korean economy. So why are we the least bit vulnerable to a missile attack from such a tiny country?
The answer, of course, is that we are vulnerable because we haven’t prepared. We have had other priorities. Even during the Reagan years, when the Strategic Defense Initiative was launched, missile defense was never more than a tiny fraction of America’s defense budget. Today, at around $9 billion, missile-defense expenditures are less than two percent of all military spending.
And if we aren’t sure we’re ready for an attack from pipsqueak North Korea — and indeed, it looks to the world as if we have acquiesced to Kim Jong Il’s membership in the “nuclear club” — then how strong do we look against Iran, which is a much larger and wealthier country? Or Russia? Or China? Surely any nuclear power, or would-be nuclear power, finds it comforting to think that the US won’t bother to defend itself against nuclear saber-rattling or blackmailing.
Somewhere in our national future, an enemy — state or non-state — will develop a nuclear strike capacity to be used against us. And that enemy will not be stopped by stern words, sanctions, or even deterrence. Sometimes, the only way to stop a threat is simply to stop the threat. Since first-striking is no longer a plausible option (if it ever was), then we must be able to stop threats in mid-flight. Yet that’s what we can’t reliably do, as the Pentagon’s Dr. McQueary has just reminded us.
Since 9-11, the cliche has held that the US is ready for “conventional” wars, but not for “asymmetric” warfare, such as terrorism. But today, we are much more prepared for asymmetric warfare, as opposed to conventional fighting, because that’s what we’ve been focusing on these past eight years — even if we had to create a Department of Homeland Security to do what the Defense Department was originally created to do. We are getting good at twilight warfare; we can fire drone missiles into houses in Pakistan, we can “turn” insurgents in Anbar, we can squelch the opium trade in Kandahar. But what we can’t do is defend our own country, or our own military assets.
In March, the US Naval Institute, based at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, assessed the Dong Feng 21, a Chinese anti-ship ballistic missile: “Because the missile employs a complex guidance system, low radar signature and a maneuverability that makes its flight path unpredictable, the odds that it can evade tracking systems to reach its target are increased. It is estimated that the missile can travel at mach 10 and reach its maximum range of 2000 km in less than 12 minutes.” In other words, China could sink any and all of our aircraft carriers within range in rapid time. As the Naval Institute further notes, Dong Feng 21 “marks the first time a ballistic missile has been successfully developed to attack vessels at sea. Ships currently have no defense against a ballistic missile attack.” [emphasis added]
So again, what have we been doing? We’ve been warned, but what are we doing to stop the threats? And in the meantime, what will the Chinese be doing, other than extending the range of their various missiles?
It’s been said before that our vaunted supercarriers are like so many medieval knights at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. That is, they look great, and they are great on the attack against similar-type enemies, but they are no match for a single projectile — back then, the English longbow. But in fact, our whole country looks more and more like a French knight in shining armor. Not because we don’t know about the emerging threat of ballistic and cruise missiles, but because we have chosen to ignore the threat.
Yes, of course, we have nuclear deterrence. And that should work fine against China – unless, of course, the Chinese figure out how to blind all our satellites and perfect a missile-defense system of their own. But even absent such a Chinese breakthrough, nuclear deterrence theory is challenged, even abrogated, by a multiplicity of potential foes, regular and irregular.
And if we can’t defend ourselves against ballistic and nuclear threats, then every tinhorn dictator can potentially use a nuke to elevate his status, from reviled and sanctioned pariah to respected, or at least feared, negotiating partner.
Today’s military analysts might laugh at France’s wildly overoptimistic Plan XVII, launched at the beginning of World War One, calling for offense a outrance — offense to the utmost. Yet zealous French infantry and cavalry attacks against German machine guns failed, because Marshall Joffre wrongly presumed that elan and cold steel could substitute for strategy.
And at the same time, of course, the Germans outflanked the French by going through Belgium. Only later, and only in the nick of time — after suffering hundreds of thousands of casualties in futile offensives during the first few weeks of fighting — did the French wake up and realize the need to defend their capital, Paris.
II. So How Did We Get Here?
As noted, American defense policy has oscillated between two extremes:
On the one extreme is the neoconservative doctrine that the US should, and could, transform the world. Channeling the “roll back” ideology of the early Cold War, neocon dogmatists declared that America should seize the “unipolar moment” to spread the blessings of democracy and neocolonialism to others, like it or not.
Unfortunately, these neoconservatives “regime changed” President Bush’s mind in the days after 9-11, thereby setting his presidency on a course toward ruin in Iraq. And so a President — and a Defense Secretary, Don Rumsfeld — who had championed missile defense during the 1990s suddenly lost interest in the basics of homeland security. And by 2005, while Bush was busy being “mayor of Baghdad,” a city in the US, New Orleans, was engulfed by disaster and slow response. Meanwhile, today, a trillion dollars later, we are publicly hedging on the question of whether or not we can defend the US against North Korean threats — threats that sprang up on Bush’s watch.
Yes, the Bush administration was always for missile defense, but it was always a low priority, overwhelmed by higher priorities, including the need to stay on good terms with at least some Democrats, as well as by the need to cut some spending somewhere.
Now, for its part, the Obama administrations seems determined to a) clean up the messes it sees left over from the Bush era, and b) pursue its own vision of the transformation of the world. So defense will be downgraded, and cooperation on foreign aid, as well as environmental goals such as greenhouse-gas reduction, will be upgraded.
But if the Bush plan of rolling back Islamism did not work, one has to wonder about the Obama plan of conciliating enemies.
Certainly the North Koreans haven’t gotten the message, and it’s not at all clear about Iran. Yet even so, the new administration projects cutting defense spending down to three percent of GDP by 2019, down from the current 4.7 percent. That’s the lowest level since the 1930s. And so we might ask: Has the world really become that safe? Or do the Obamans, like the Bushies before them, have other priorities that rank higher than defense?
In fact, Obama put his personal ideology on the table in his April 5 speech in Prague, in which he proclaimed a commitment “to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”
Obama’s speech was regarded by Washington veterans as harmless pie-in-the-sky, a left-wing version of “boob bait for the bubbas,” words intended to excite one-worlding college professors, not words to guide future military policy. But the problem is that while such utopian talk might not cause the elimination of America’s nuclear arsenal, it could cause the elimination of any serious effort at nuclear defense for years to come.
Why? Because the left still seems hypnotized by the experience of the Cold War, which taught liberals that the balance of terror, while not a good alternative, is the best available alternative. And yet confidence in deterrence is based on a tiny data set — the singularity of the US-Soviet relationship over barely more than 40 years.
By contrast, the next few years will see many nuclear powers confronting each other in various faceoffs — the geopolitical equivalent of a Quentin Tarantino movie where the gangsters all have guns pointed at each other — bringing a more difficult test for the calm logic of deterrence.
And all the while, if present trends hold, America will be mostly defenseless. We have various air defense programs ongoing, including some that might (or might not) save us from a North Korean nuke, but their budgets are being flatlined, as mainstream media reporters cheer.
Today, nobody in the military, or in the military-industrial complex, thinks that strategic defense is any sort of priority for the White House or the Congress. The message is clear: If you want to get ahead in today’s military, figure out ways to secure foreign cities; American cities are on their own.
III. Israel Faces An “Existential” Threat From Iran — and Redoubles its Defenses Against the Palestinians
But surely, one might say, the steely-eyed “never again” Israelis are free of ideological blinders, right or left, that might impede their own national defense. Knowing they face threats from every direction, they have taken prudent no-nonsense steps to defend themselves, right? Wrong.
Mostly thanks to the US, the Israeli Air Force boasts 600 combat aircraft. But all that airpower notwithstanding, the Israelis don’t have the power to defend their own airspace.
During the 2006 Lebanon war for example, Hezbollah fired approximately 4000 missiles and rockets into Israel, killing 44 civilians and injuring another 1500. And even after the 2008-9 Israeli incursion into Gaza, when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was visiting Washington in May, Hamas fired a number of rockets into Israel.
Yes, the Israelis can retaliate for each and every strike with multiples of force, but, for optical-political reasons, they choose not to retaliate. And what they most definitely cannot do is prevent the rocket firings in the first place, or even interdict the rockets in flight.
Tel Aviv University defense analyst Reuven Pedatzur recalled recently:
Hezbollah launched 4,000 rockets from South Lebanon during the Second Lebanon War, and their effect on northern Israel has not been forgotten: Life was nearly paralyzed for a whole month. Since then the Lebanese organization’s stockpile was replenished and enhanced, and it now has some 40,000 rockets. Israel does not have a response to those rockets. The rocket defense systems now being developed (Iron Dome and Magic Wand) are still far from completion, and even after they become operational, it is doubtful they will prove effective against thousands of rockets launched at Israel.
Could little Israel afford to build a missile-defense system on its own? Probably not. But like the Americans, the Israelis have chosen to make other objectives a higher priority. So AIPAC uses its lobbying muscle to persuade three-fourths of the Congress to sign a letter supporting the status quo in the West Bank. And one cost of focusing on the settlers in the territories is a neglect of the technology that Israel will need to survive in a hostile region.
And so we come to Iran. It’s said that Tehran poses an “existential threat” to Israel; indeed, a Google search using the words “Iran existential threat to Israel” yields up more than 261,000 hits.
But why, exactly, is Iran such a threat? After all, the two countries are 600 miles apart. The answer is that Iran could fire a missile, today, that could probably hit the Israeli nuclear reactor at Dimona, causing enormous devastation. And if the Iranians could put a nuclear weapon on such a missile, a strike could cause the end of the Jewish state.
And so what is Israel doing in response to this dire threat? Even as it is agitating against American action on the Palestinian question, it is agitating for American action against Iran. If George W. Bush didn’t agree with this Israeli line, it’s obvious that Barack Obama likes it a whole lot less. So the likelihood is a stalemate: The Israelis won’t do anything about the West Bank, and the Americans won’t do anything about Iran.
But if Middle East politics are thus frozen, technology is not — and so the nuclear magma is flowing, first through North Korea and soon, undoubtedly, through Iran. Under the headline, “World War III has started,” Eitan Haber, a former aide to Yitzhak Rabin, wrote recently, “One needs to be deaf, blind, and an idiot at this time in order not to understand that the nuclear bomb tested in North Korea two days ago also exploded in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem.”
Furthermore Haber added:
The North Koreans blatantly disregarded the Americans and publically presented them as a meaningless power, yet officials in Jerusalem are still reciting the “Road Map” and making note of the evacuation of some minor West Bank outpost. The world is changing before our eyes, yet here we see Knesset members earnestly explaining that the Americans will agree that we stay in Judea and Samaria if we only evacuate some tin shacks.
In other words, Israel is gaining, tactically, and losing, strategically. AIPAC’s Capitol Hill letter-signing campaign may insulate Netanyahu’s government from another Camp David-type arm-twisting session, but it can’t defend Israel against a nuke. And which is more important?
Long before the Bush 43 administration, Israel put most of its strategic chips on the doctrine of preemption, as seen, most spectacularly, in the Israeli air raid on Osirak, Iraq, back in 1981, or the equally successful attack on a Syrian nuclear facility in 2007. And maybe the Israelis will yet bomb Iran.
But they haven’t yet, and many analysts think that they won’t, for the simple reason that they can’t. And if that’s the case, then the Israeli version of offense a outrance will have hit the same brick wall that American overoptimism hit in Vietnam, and then in Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan; eventually, the people being bombed figure out effective counter-strategies.
So perhaps Israel, as well as the US, should figure out how better to defend itself. If Israel can’t attack Iran, at least it ought to be able to defend itself against Iran. And defend itself, too, against threats from Lebanon or the Palestinian territories. If it seems absurd to think that Israel could stop a volley of rockets from coming across its frontier, it’s worth recalling that it was once absurd to think that a rocket could even be fired in the first place, from anywhere. But the Chinese figured out how to do it, many centuries ago, and then the Europeans got hold of the idea — and the rest is bloody military history. If aerial offense can be made to work, then aerial defense can be made to work.
And if it’s expensive? If it takes a huge commitment from America? Well, then that’s a good persuasion mission for AIPAC to undertake, not only on behalf of Israel, but on behalf of every country that values the skyline of its national capital in its current configuration.
So enter, we might hope, a new emphasis on missile defense, for the US and its allies. Israel is all for it, albeit, as we have seen, at a tragically low level of priority. The Pentagon is for it, even if the hot DOD careers are in counter-insurgency, or in traditional glamour missions, such as combat aviation.
But Obama and top Democrats are most definitely not for missile defense. Why? One reason is that they still link missile defense to Ronald Reagan’s much-criticized SDI program.
For his part, President Obama, looking to the success of his own foreign policy, should realize that in the absence of such a comprehensive defense — a virtual wall, if that’s what it takes, between Israel and the Palestinians — then the Israelis will likely never agree to a real deal for an independent Palestine. Today, the Palestinian Authority can’t prevent Hamas from hitting Israel with rockets from Gaza; what if tomorrow Hamas could hit Israel from the West Bank as well? Since a 20-foot wall has stopped almost all suicide bombings over the past few years, then maybe what’s needed for the future is 20,000 foot wall, however virtualized, to stop missiles and rockets.
And if missile defense is a good idea for Israel, then surely it’s a good idea, too, for America.
IV. America: This We’ll Defend
In his 2006 book, The American Way of Strategy, Michael Lind makes the valuable point that America has usually been wise to fight “stand off” wars, far away from home, to keep the fighting and devastation away from our own population. For this and many other reasons, it is advantageous to have allies, and to protect them.
But when new technology makes moot the advantage of distance, allowing the enemy offense to reach the American homeland, then a new commitment to better defense is needed.
Some will argue, of course, that in the age of terrorism, there’s more to homeland defense than missile defense. And they certainly have a point. We might ask: Who controlled the skies over America on 9-11? The answer: Not the US Air Force. On that day, four airplanes were hijacked, and three of those airplanes crashed into buildings, as the Air Force merely watched. Later, it was pointed out that Al Qaeda’s suicide-flight scenario was lifted from a 1994 Tom Clancy novel, Debt of Honor. Indeed, insofar as Clancy is one of the best-selling authors in the country, it’s a depressing commentary on military intelligence that Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, could say a month later, “You hate to admit it, but we hadn’t thought about this.”
Champions of the air-power status quo — leaning, as they do, toward silk scarves and spiffy flight suits — might argue that such counter-terrorism is someone else’s job. That’s buck-passing, bespeaking a narrow and parochial vision of defense, but for the most part, the jet-jockeys, like the aircraft carrier drivers, have been following the lead of civilian leadership.
But the time for blameshifting, and turf-battling, is past. If the confident and offense-minded language of “force projection” and “nation building” is now mostly inoperative, except for a few places, we need to learn a language of defense, dealing with all threats, wherever they come from, however they come.
And we can’t leave such national defense to civilians, who must also worry about earthquakes and hurricanes and floods. We need our men and women in uniform to confront the challenge posed by other countries’ men and women in uniform.
We all need to remember, and live by, the motto of the US Army: “This We’ll Defend.”
Having failed to make America safe by transforming the world, we need to make America — and its allies — safe by transforming our own defense.
That’s a costly proposition, to be sure. But recalling the way that the Cold War played out for the US, we can take some comfort in the likely economic impact of a profound and far-reaching missile defense program. If we could invest as wisely in the 21st century as we did in the 20th century — on such spinoff-rich defense-funded wonders as radar, the integrated circuit, and ARPANET — then we could be safer in the 21st century, and enjoy, too, an economic boom.
Some will argue that missile defense simply doesn’t work. But all of history argues that a defense can work if there’s a persevering commitment to making it work. As the late science-fiction visionary Arthur C. Clarke observed toward the end of his long life, “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”
In decades past, a mutant version of the right has sought offense a outrance, while the orthodox left has demanded defense de minimis. As a result, not only is the US inadequately defended, but so is South Korea, Japan, and Israel — and every other civilized country.
So much work must be done. The whole world has the same problem; our cities, indeed our civilizations, were built as soft targets. That is, they were either built before the advent of air power, or built in spite of the danger from air power. But now the great conurbations of the world are intensely vulnerable, like so many USS Arizonas, sitting ducks at Pearl Harbors all over the planet. As an aside, the residents of those population clusters stand ready, ultimately, to reward, politically, those who would safeguard them — and to punish those who neglect them.
Thus a huge opportunity beckons. A centrist political movement could form around missile defense, as part of an overall recommitment to the essential idea of defense.
That’s a necessity for the nation and the world: A Defense That Defends.
— James P. Pinkerton