BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
Now that President Donald J. Trump has made the first, necessary step toward making real peace with North Korea, the time to be realistic is at hand. Even if the Trump Administration can achieve full de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the fact remains that there are other significant threats to the United States from rogue states (notably Iran).
This is to say nothing of the threats that China and, potentially, Russia pose in the area of nuclear warfare.
We will never have the certainty that doves hope for in the realm of diplomacy. Yes, we must be more willing than we normally have been to engage in open, fair, and reciprocal diplomatic negotiations with enemies and friends alike. However, in this era when the margin of error is so tight–and the potential for cataclysmic destruction is so high–the United States must seek defensive certainty from its own military and scientific capabilities.
Unstable Regimes Create Unstable Outcomes
Even if North Korea continues talking with the United States, things can still change. After all, the North is a sclerotic, hermetically-sealed “kingdom” in which all life revolves around the “glorious leader” in Pyongyang.
We already know that, while the Chinese are cautiously optimistic about the prospects of a U.S.-North Korean entente, up until last February the Chinese were actively scheming to remove Kim Jong-un from power.
Why else would Kim’s half-brother have a Chinese government security detail surrounding him at all times?
Until recently, Kim Jong-un himself had been ratcheting up pressure with the Chinese. When he first took power, Kim killed his uncle (who was Kim Jong-il’s consigliere), as well as a senior cadre of military officers, and his aforementioned half-brother, for having been involved too closely with China.
Kim is always suspicious of the potential of either assassination or removal from power. He is not only worried about the United States and South Korea, but more seriously, he fears that China seeks to replace him with a more stable and pro-Chinese leader in Pyongyang.
What’s more, even if Kim remained in power indefinitely, he is still human (despite what North Korean state television claims). At some point, he will grow old and pass. What comes after him? The upheaval would be tremendous.
In the process of significant political change in North Korea, it is very possible that any nuclear weapons that North Korea possesses would either be lost into the ether of the international black market for weapons or would be used against North Korea’s neighbors and “enemies.”
Bottom line, regimes such as North Korea, Iran, even China, and Russia must be dealt with as peacefully as possible–but they cannot be trusted. Even if individual leaders mean well (and it appears that Kim Jong-un might be serious about making peace with the West), should something tragic befall them, things go upside-down quickly.
Thus, an insurance program of sorts is needed. Rather than endlessly building up America’s own nuclear arsenal (we should most definitely modernize and address the problems that Paul Bracken identified several years back), the United States should be investing heavily in moving beyond nuclear weapons as the final line of defense.
Instead, Washington must embrace an actual defensive system–like space-based missile defense–to protect the United States from nuclear attack.
Defense Budget: Is Bigger Always Better?
Since Donald Trump took office, he has pressed ahead with a major expansion of the U.S. defense budget. It was already extremely high. Now, it’s the highest it has ever been. For better or worse, the Department of Defense has all of the money–and then some–it needs to protect us.
Yet, I keep hearing from the folks in Arlington, Virginia that we’re the less safe that we’ve ever been. How can that be? I argued not long ago that it was simply because the money that the Pentagon had was not being spent well.
A spate of reports have come out indicating that the United States, despite its massive financial support for its modern military, is losing the race for hypersonic weapons. Meanwhile, Russia and China both, according to the United States Air Force, are beating us in their development of hypersonic weapons. For the record, China’s defense budget is estimated to be roughly $175 billion (that’s according to official records, so it might be higher).
On the other hand, Russia, as I’ve reported over the last year, has one of the smallest defense budgets in Europe. At the start of this year, the so-called “experts” in Washington, D.C. were caught unawares when Russia announced they were enacting an 18 percent defense budget decrease.
In 2017, Russia’s defense budget was be the smallest that it has ever been since 1998. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Russia spent $61 billion on their national defense–and, between the economic sanctions and the plummeting price of oil–Russian military spending will not recover for some time.
I say all of this to preempt the critics of national missile defense, who disbelieve that the United States has the capacity or the funds to spend on developing such a program. We most certainly do.
What we lack is the imagination and will. That is, we lacked those things. Since taking office, however, the Trump Administration has made moves to refocus America’s ailing and wayward space policy. The White House Space Council has been reconstituted, with Vice-President Mike Pence as its head.
The president has made repeated calls to not only return Americans to the Moon by 2020, but has also supported legislation that would allow for the economic development of space to occur.
More importantly, the Trump Administration has made plain its intention to weaponize space. We have not seen such robust space policy suggestions from a president since Ronald Reagan.
Yet, all of this will amount to nothing more than talk should serious moves be made to convert the lofty rhetoric into rapid action. Specifically, in the case of national security space policy, the United States must take the drastic strides in the next year to begin developing, testing, and deploying a space-based missile defense system. Without such a program, the United States will never be safe in any meaningful way.
Not only are the Russians and Chinese beating the United States out in hypersonic weapons technology, but they are also investing more into their own space-based missile defense systems. These two countries recognize the liberating effect that functional space-based defense systems would have for their people.
Further, both Moscow and Beijing understand how such weapons would herald in a new generation of rapid, scientific advancement that would undoubtedly benefit the country that made the first upfront investment into such new technology–so, in this case, either China and/or Russia.
Don’t Be Such a Downer
Ballistic missile defense is not a new concept. In fact, it’s quite old–as far as missile technology goes. The United States first began investing in rudimentary missile defense when they built the Nike Ajax anti-aircraft missile system in the 1960s.
Yet, at the time, the prevailing “wisdom” among America’s foreign policy graybeards was that all resources should be invested into only the country’s nuclear missile arsenals–so that Foggy Bottom could wantonly trade away those systems with the Soviets in the endless spate of arms control agreements (some good, many bad) that the U.S. crafted with the Soviets.
Even as the United States engaged in what Dr. Mackubin Owens used to refer to as, “the art of self-deterrence,” wherein America’s leaders unilaterally weakened America’s ability to defend itself from threats–in this case, nuclear attack–the Reds copiously invested in their own capabilities.
Each time the United States embarked upon an arms control agreement that limited American capabilities, the Soviets signed the agreement, and then doubled their investment in weapons that were intended to overwhelm the West (thereby negating whatever deal they had signed).
The reason for this American policy commitment to self-deterrence? The foreign policy elite in the country had subscribed to a completely faulty theory on international relations called “mutual assured destruction” (MAD, for short).
American leaders of both parties throughout the Cold War convinced themselves that the United States and Soviet Union had not only locked themselves into an ideological world war, but that the two sides had established parameters for fighting such a conflict.
Thanks to the presence of nuclear arms on both sides of the iron curtain, Washingtonians believed that neither they nor their Soviet rivals wanted to actually fight a nuclear war. Rather, both sides would posture and preen, but ultimately, they would balance against each other.
So long as no real action was taken by either side to upset the “balance of terror” between the two Superpowers, relative peace would reign.
In one telling instance, according to the recounting of the great computer-scientist-turned-international-relations-scholar, Derek Leebaert, members of the RAND Corporation met with former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara at the Pentagon. During that meeting, McNamara engaged in a heated exchange with the head of the RAND Corporation team that had been commissioned to analyze the effectiveness of U.S. nuclear strategy in the Cold War.
Leebaert describes the exchange below:
“McNamara ripped the pointer from Foster’s [head of the RAND Corporation team] hands and slammed it against the charts. ‘No, no, no!’ [McNamara shouted], coloring dangerously. ‘As a Red marshal, I’m going to put them all [nuclear weapons] on the cities!'”
“To McNamara, nuclear war was the end of his world, to be treated with fitting millenarianism.To real Red marshals–Sokolovsky, Malinovsky, and others–who had fought from Stalingrad to Berlin against the best army in the world [the German Wehrmacht], twenty million to forty million dead was experienced historic fact. […] It did indeed make them [the Soviets] grimly confident of enduring in ways that the civilized secretary was fortunate in not being able to imagine.”
Even as Washington convinced themselves that their own people were a greater threat to peace and security than the Reds were, the Soviets were doubling-down on their investment into nuclear missile defense systems.
The Galosh system was created and ringed Moscow from 1968 onward. Sure, it was very rudimentary, but it comported nicely with the Soviet view (however wrong) that a nuclear war was not only winnable–but survivable, under the right, strategic conditions.
Meanwhile, the Soviets from 1968 onward invested heavily in laser weapon technologies, as well as other space-based weapons systems. Technology, like a “space cannon” to compliment what ultimately was their failed (thankfully) Almaz military space station program. Anti-satellite weapons were also a major source of interest for Soviet weapons planners.
The list goes on.
However, the Soviets were thinking of space as the ultimate strategic high ground while the Americans were systematically neutering what once was their supreme advantage in the cosmos.
Recognizing the terminal insanity of matching the Soviets tit-for-tat in the nuclear weapons department, Ronald Reagan entered office with a new idea: building a true defensive system to make nuclear arms irrelevant.
Reagan believed that, only once nuclear weapons were made obsolete by such a defensive system, could true peace and stability between the two sides in the Cold War be achieved.
While Reagan never got his “Star Wars” system (prototypes were built and remain in mothballs today), the mere threat of the highly complex system had the intended effect within the Soviet Union: it forced Mikhail Gorbachev to come to the table and negotiate, rather than perpetuate the insane Cold War paradigm that the two powers had fallen into.
Whatever technical limitations the United States may have faced in the 1980s when it came to the Strategic Defense Initiative, those limits have been broken by the rapid advancement of technology and capabilities today.
Since the end of the Cold War (until the last few years), the United States has not only pioneered but been the primary beneficiary in the high-tech revolution that has disrupted the world order. Now, our potential enemies have started to benefit from these advancements.
Countries like China are even starting to take the lead ahead of us in this area. Due to this, China insists on building their own space defense system. Further, in 2016, the Russians announced their investment into their own space-based missile defense network.
Yes, these two countries still have much time to go before they will have viable systems ready for deployment. But, given the tempo and speed–particularly in China–of their military development, it stands to reason that these states will achieve space-based defensive systems before the United States does.
If they do, then our nuclear deterrent will be rendered irrelevant, and these states will have a significant advantage over the United States.
The United States is right to attempt to embrace realism and balance-of-power politics, as it last did during the Nixon Administration. At present, the United States retains its superior position globally, but it has experienced decline relative to other states. A quasi-multipolar world order is upon us. Thus, diplomacy and restraint will be the key for America’s survival.
That is, until the United States can leapfrog its rivals technologically–as it did in the 1980s. Investing in space-based missile defense will be the leapfrog that the United States needs to maintain its dominance and secure itself from a world gone haywire.