There's a Missile in the Sky for Our Love

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In response to my Stanley Kurtz post, I've been getting a lot of e-mails like this.

Weigel has not explained how he would propose to "stop" a ballistic
missile from JihadLand to NYC. Only a ballistic missile has a 6000-mile
trajectory, and as far as I know, there is no operational ballistic
missile defense for the east coast of the USA against a transatlantic
attack. [There _is_ a nominal BMD on the USA west coast.]

From Navy Times:

By the end of the year, the Navy will have a total of six warships capable of tracking and shooting down ballistic missiles.

Three cruisers—Shiloh, Lake Erie and Port Royal—already have the capability to track ballistic missiles with upgraded Aegis radar. They also have the ability to hit a ballistic missile with an SM-3 missile, shot out of standard Navy vertical launch system tubes.

By year's end, the destroyers Stethem, Decatur and Curtis Wilbur will also have ballistic-missile defense capability, according to Lt. Tommy Crosby, a Navy spokesman at the Pentagon.

The ships patrol the Pacific right now, but I have no trouble believing they'd be redeployed to the Atlantic if we found ourselves in Kurtz's future world, where Iran flings around nukes willy-nilly and soylent green is made out of people. Remember that Kurtz's nightmare scenario—the one more dangerous than the Cold War—involved a rogue power firing a single nuke at the United States. I doubt we'll soon develop the sort of missile defense that could have neutralized a MAD-style situation with thousands of nukes. But one nuke?

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  1. “I doubt we’ll soon develop the sort of missile defense that could have neutralized a MAD-style situation with thousands of nukes. But one nuke?”

    I think we can but the question is will we? The Democrats in Congress had kittens when Bush walked out of the ABM treaty. There are significant portions of the body politic who are dead set against missile defense. Many of the “we can live with a nuclear Iran” crowd is also part of the “we must bring back the ABM treaty” crowd.

  2. Why on earth would they shoot a missile at us, when it would be so much easier to smuggle one in. This would also give them at least a chance at deniability (all it would take for the UN to oppose any US response, FWIW).

  3. I don’t know if it is that easy to smuggle one into the U.S. First, nuclear technology is not all created equal. If and when Iran builds a bomb, it will be of a crude fission type that ways in the 1000s of pounds. There is a big difference between building that and the small warheads the U.S. Soviets built in the 70s and 80s and even those are bigger than you think; the whole suitcase nuke thing is a bit of a myth. Further, getting it in the country is harder than you think. It is not like you can FEDEX the thing or strap to the back of some illegal alien coming across the Rio Grand. It would have to be in a container ship. It couldn’t come directly from Iran. It would have to be shipped through a third party. Further, these things are hard to build and are really valuable. It would be a very bad deal if the thing was discovered in rout. I am not saying it is impossible, but I don’t think smuggling one in is as easy as most people perceive.

  4. As I said before:
    There will never ever be an effective missile defense, for one simple reason. However good our missile defense is, it can be defeated for one one-thousandth the cost to us. So if we throw a Trillion dollars into satellites, seismographs, and smart bullets, a mere Billion dollars worth of balloons, confetti and noisemakers, could slip a nuke right past it all.

  5. What? Soylent Green is people? I think I’m going to be sick.

    I’m not sure that I understand all of the opposition to a missile defense system. It makes some sense, particularly for shooting down conventional missiles. As for nukes, it would be a shame if a single missile were launched and we couldn’t do anything about it, wouldn’t it? However, I agree that a complete missile shield would be too expensive and probably vulnerable to workarounds (like just smuggling your nuke to your location of choice) as things stand today.

  6. The advantage to a missile defense shield is that it would give the U.S. an option besides just murdering an entire country. If Iran or North Korea goes insane and launches a missile, the U.S. would have no other choice but to launch a massive nuclear retaliation. If the U.S. didn’t do that, its nuclear deterence would be rendered usless and it would be open season on U.S. cities. That would be an unimaginable tragedy. I would prefer not to see Iran wiped off the earth. If the U.S. shot a missile and it landed harmlessly in the Atlantic, it would then not have to retaliate. I can’t see how giving the country an option besides murdering millions of people could be a bad thing.

  7. Despite the likelihood of work-arounds, it’s the sort of idea that is worthy of continued effort. As PL said, if we ever do need it we’ll REALLY need it.

    That’s not to say that we should jump on board with any particular design (as Warren points out, there are a lot of work-arounds) but it’s not the sort of idea that we should completely give up on either. There are a few crazy ideas that are worth pursuing, a few impossible dreams that are worth dreaming. The ability to shoot down a nuclear missile is one of them.

    Nuclear non-proliferation is another crazy idea that is nonetheless worth pursuing. I consider non-proliferation a crazy idea in the long term, since I find it hard to believe that any really potent technology can exist forever without eventually spreading and being used. But given the stakes on this one it’s better to try anyway, and at the very least go to the mass grave of the future with some amount of honor.

    (Sobering thought: What if this is the reason why we aren’t receiving any radio signals from alien civilizations? Any civilization smart enough to master electromagnetism can eventually figure out how nuclear energy works.)

  8. You get e-mails addressing you in the third person? Freaky.

  9. Smuggling a weapon, large or small, would not be easy, but it would be nowhere near as hard as building an ICBM. You don’t even have to unload the ship, just detonate as soon as you’re in the harbour.

    As R C Dean points out, it also has the advantage of deniability. Much of the evidence would have been vaporized.

    In terms of (no) bang for your buck, the money for missile defense would be better spent on improved inspection, preferrably done offshore. (The farther offshore the better, due to the likely production of radioactive isotopes of sodium from the salt in the seawater.)

    The bomb doesn’t have to be particularly efficient, either. The 1.5 kiloton explosion in Halifax in 1917 killed 1600 people, and that’s without a radioactive effect.

    Finally, any nation that actually did launch a nuclear missile at the US is going to get a regime change, whether or not the nuke gets through. Even the French, Russians and Chinese would be on the US side in that scenario.

  10. Developing a way to intercept ICBM’s will, of course, cause a change in a potential enemy’s tactics. The same could be said for having a massive, high-tech, first-world standing army.

    After all, if the enemy wouldn’t stand a chance on a battlefield with remotely-guided cruise missles, smart-munitions, Abrams tanks and foot soldiers carrying night vision devices it would be pure idiocy for them not to change their tactics.

    However, claiming that we shouldn’t build a missile defense system because it will just result in the Bad Guys?? changing their tactics seems kind of silly. After all, that’s been the driving development behind all of war since the beginning.

    Still, I think that David is being perhaps a bit overly optimistic about our abilities to intercept ICBM’s now.

    Defense Tech certainly isn’t all warm ‘n’ fuzzy about our current capabilities, nor does this timeline of missile defense tests do much to convince me that we’d be able to intercept a missile.

    On the other hand, I think that the reports of Iran’s nuclear capabilities are overblown (HA!) so there is a silver lining to that cloud.

  11. As I said before:
    There will never ever be an effective missile defense…

    If there will never be an effective missile defense, how come the Soviets didn’t want us to conduct research in missile defense?

  12. This would also give them at least a chance at deniability …

    I wonder what we would/should do if there was a nuclear explosion on American soil, and there were no claims of responsibilty and really no strong evidence as to who was responsible.

    I guess it wouldn’t really need to be a nuclear explosion at all. After 9/11 the imediate thought for most was that radical Islamic crazies had done it. However, the initial reaction to the Oklahoma City bombing was that it was Islamic crazies as well, but it turns out that it wasn’t. We were able to gather enough evidence to conclude that Al-Qaeda was responsible for 9/11. (Assuming you don’t believe conspiricy theories)

    What if it hadn’t been so clear? What do we do if we’re not so sure who has attacked us? What if there had been significantly less evidence leaning towards Al-Qaeda responsibilty for 9/11? Do we still attack Afghanistan? Decide not to attack anyone? Blame Iraq and invade them, just to be safe?

    My hunch is that if the attack is devastating enough we will find someone’s ass to kick. Even if it isn’t necessarily the right ass.

  13. FWIW, to follow up on John’s point about suitcase nukes, this article is a good read:

    The myth of “suitcase nukes.”

  14. TheDumbFish,

    Nuke the moon, man, nuke the moon. There’s a heightened deterrent effect in just seeming a little crazy at times. “Whoa, that America–better not let anyone nuke them, ’cause they’re friggin’ nuts. No tellin’ what they’d do.”

    There’s always the Don Corleone Theory of Deterrence, too. We could just tell Iran that if any U.S. cities go up in a cloud of dust, even if it was because of an asteroid pegging the city, we automatically will blame Iran for it. Ditto North Korea, I suppose.

  15. The advantage to a missile defense shield is that it would give the U.S. an option besides just murdering an entire country.

    The disadvantage is that it doesn’t work.

    And just because the Navy says that in a year or so it will, doesn’t make it so.

    Hey, I agree – a missile defense system, especially if we could keep it to ourselves, would be peachy. Even better if we could each get a pony with it.

    But you aren’t speaking from the reality-based world if you are imagining that the capacity exists now or in the near future. If you are going to base your foreign policy on this fantasy, then you ought to at least make sure you have a backup plan. You know, just in case.

  16. Further, getting it in the country is harder than you think….. It would have to be in a container ship. It couldn’t come directly from Iran. It would have to be shipped through a third party. Further, these things are hard to build and are really valuable…. Sayeth John.

    ! Lessee….a nuke would be harder to smuggle, via various ships & ports, than building a ICBM which by neccessity leave a breadcrumb trail top its point of origin. 10’s of millions of containers, 10’s of thousands of ships. Nahhh. Itll never happen. And then theres the odd notion they are too valuable to ship, but not too valuable to put on a dodgy rocket.
    While the missile interceptor tech is fun, its simply a scam, a wealth transfer racket. It dosnt even have to work- “bugs”, bad weather, the beacon/homing device on the target goes out….how that old saw go: “Give us another couple billion & we’ll move this bomber a couple of feet”. And then theres: “Heres a contribution to your campaign, Congressman”- a few % more overhead, if that much.
    Meanwhile, the USCG, a front line outfit for any ACTUAL national defense, continues to get its budgets cut, its requirements put off, its replacement ships &equipment delayed. THAT tells you all you need to know about these welfare queens & national security.

  17. TheDumbFish,

    Nuke the moon, man, nuke the moon. There’s a heightened deterrent effect in just seeming a little crazy at times. “Whoa, that America–better not let anyone nuke them, ’cause they’re friggin’ nuts. No tellin’ what they’d do.”

    There’s always the Don Corleone Theory of Deterrence, too. We could just tell Iran that if any U.S. cities go up in a cloud of dust, even if it was because of an asteroid pegging the city, we automatically will blame Iran for it. Ditto North Korea, I suppose.

  18. thoreau:

    Earth’s had a really bright EM signal for, what, 70 years? I doubt it will remain that way for long; new technology (ultra-wideband, for example) will decrease our radio emissions, eventually to the point not terribly past background. I give a civilization 500 years as a radio bright object. As for intentional broadcasting — they’re all probably perpetually war with other alien civilizations and don’t want to reveal their location.

  19. T Bone-

    Good point about the likelihood of diminished radio transmissions.

    I feel that this line of discussion would benefit from the input of PL.

  20. Am I dumb in thinking that a single fighter jet could take out a single missle? The only problem would be convincing a pilot to give his life to save millions. I think someone would raise his hand. If not, maybe we don’t deserve to live anyway.

    Just fly up alongside and let it have it. Wouldn’t this work?

  21. Ethan:

    It would depend on the type of missile. A jet fighter could fly up alongside a cruise missile but not a ballistic missile. Cruise missiles generally fly at subsonic speeds close to the ground. Ballistic missiles fly into space and back down. Trying to manuever a jet fighter to be in the same place and time as a ballistic missile would be extremely difficult. It would also only be possible during the early boost phase and the late re-entry phase.

  22. Fine Tim,

    Let’s not spend a dime and just murder every Iranian in Iran. It seems like a stretch to say that it is not “reality based” to think that we could build a system that would have a reasonable chance of shooting down a few missiles. Granted, you are never going to stop a 20,000 missile Soviet barrage. But, how is the system not being fullproof an argument against it? Lets say that the system only has a 25% chance of successfully stopping a missile. 25% sounds a hell of a lot better than zero. Further, in a country that is so rich is can waste billions every year in pork, it seems to me to be a pretty stupid idea not to be willing to spend a few billion for even a 25% chance of saving literally tens of thousands of innocent lives, to say nothing of the millions that the U.S. would kill in retaliation.

  23. Well, between civilizations collapsing quickly–perhaps not even making it to radio capability at all–and a likely quick transition from radio to other means of signal transmission, it’s little wonder that we’re not picking up much. Not to mention that we really haven’t been looking that long or that thoroughly. And, of course, it all depends on how frequently intelligent civilizations develop. When I’m in a good mood, my calculation of the Drake equation gives a high “N”. When I’m feeling pessimistic, I calculate N to be zero. Hey, I said that happens when I’m pessimistic, didn’t I? 🙂

    From what we’ve observed so far, I’m willing to bet that life arises quite easily and universally. Intelligence may be a phenomenon that occurs much more rarely–no way to know for sure just yet. Add to that the fact that we can’t detect nontechnological civilizations, even if they are godlike in intelligence, and you get an even murkier idea of what is going on.

    Throwing reason out the window and extrapolating too much, I think from our lone example that we’ll find technological civilizations to be relatively common. There’s nothing obviously nonaverage about Sol or Earth, unless Asimov is right, and we’re the only planet in the habitable zone with a large moon 🙂 If I were a betting man, I’d say that we’ll hit the jackpot with SETI, Optical SETI, or some other permutation of SETI in a decade or two.

    If the galaxy is chock full of civilizations, the next question is whether Earth is an early civilization or a late one. I can’t decide which is the better situation. If we’re early and are better than average at technological advance, then the rest of the galaxy could have problems. We’re a bit wacko, you know. Still, that might leave us in charge–“Terra, Fuck yeah!”

    On the other hand, if we’re late to the game, then we may either be subjugated (or just made irrelevant), or we may benefit by the greater wisdom of benevolent aliens. Power rings for everyone!

  24. Let’s not spend a dime and just murder every Iranian in Iran.

    Being skeptical about claims made by the Navy or of the idea of a missle defense system in general = Murdering every Iranian?

    If a nation launched a missle that did connect, it wouldn’t necessarily mean turning that nation into a glass parking lot (although it might). It might mean a more limited response. Or, it might turn out that the attack was an accident or the result of a small group of fanatical individuals. Also, if a nation did launch a missle, I think our response to that attack should be the nearly the same whether or not we managed to stop it before it connected.

    I personnally don’t think that a missle defense system isn’t worth the cost to develop for the reasons that other posters have already listed.

  25. “If a nation launched a missile that did connect, it wouldn’t necessarily mean turning that nation into a glass parking lot (although it might).”

    How? It would have to or it would be open season on U.S. cities.

    “Or, it might turn out that the attack was an accident or the result of a small group of fanatical individuals.”

    All the more reason to have missile defense. In a world where missile technology is more an more avaialable to countries that probably do not and will not same failsafe technologies the U.S. and the USSR had and are exponentially more likely to have a rogue general pull a Jake Ripper, the need to be able to shoot down one or two missiles is a lot greater than it was in even the cold war. Further, how does the U.S. know for sure that the attack was a mistake? It is a lot easier to give a country the benifit of the doubt for a splashed missile than it would be for a destroyed city.

    “Also, if a nation did launch a missile, I think our response to that attack should be the nearly the same whether or not we managed to stop it before it connected.”

    So you think we might not fully respond to a successful attack but would to an unsuccessful attack? That makes no sense. If the U.S. shoots down a missile, it has the option of not retaliating fully.

    “I personally don’t think that a missile defense system isn’t worth the cost to develop for the reasons that other posters have already listed.”

    Let’s be conservative and think that there is a 10% chance that a missile would ever be launched at the U.S. and a 25% chance that the best missile defense system shoots it down. A nuclear weapon would probably kill 100,000 Americans. That means that a missile defense system would, assuming absurdly conservative figures, would have a 2.5% chance of someday saving 100,000 American lives. Considering that the U.S. government spends $1.6 trillion dollars a year and the U.S. economy is worth $13 trillion, being unwilling to spend even a $100 billion for such a system is madness.

  26. Also no one in this thread has talked about the possibility of an EPC? attack. If you detonate a nuclear weapon in space over the U.S. the electronic pulse would disable some obscene percentage of the electronics in the in U.S, doing tremendous damage to our infrastructure, economy and ability to defend ourselves. Imagine if every piece of medical equipment in the country stopped functioning at one time. Imagine every car and truck in America that has a computer controlled engine (nearly every one) not starting. Imagine another 9-11 under those conditions. That is in some ways just as or scarier than a direct nuclear attack.

  27. PL

    While I think we may find better ways to communicate, we are likely to find other uses for the Radio/MW portion of the EM spectrum. Further, any increase in the efficiency of energy use is going to be offset by an increased amount used, so the leakage will probably be the same.

    I think any technological civilization (can we coin ‘techciv’ as a new usage here) will remain “bright” in the radio spectrum as long as it endures.

    This is all speculation, of course.

    With respect to the Drake Equation, I have always felt the range of values to be optimistic. My guess is from a high of 10-100 techcivs presently in the Milky Way to a low of 1 arising per billion years. [That’s us, presently.]

  28. Here’s a Drake Equation Calculator for those who wish to join into this subthread.

    I usually come up with 250 or so communicating civilizations when I plug numbers into the equation. However, my intuitive estimate is more like 1,000. That’s pretty optimistic, but who knows? If we continue to detect nada for the next hundred years, I may revise that estimate. It is possible that we’re among the first, which would mean that even if technological civilizations are (or will be) common, we’re too early on the scene to find anyone else.

  29. PL

    We could be the first – Scientific American had an interesting article a year or so back about the abundance of ‘metals’ ( = atoms heavier than helium) in the Milky Way. Apparently – it was only around the time that the sun formed that the abundance in the “habitable zone” of the Milky Way galaxy got high enough for carbon-based life to evolve.

    {Hopefully, we’re not # 2, with # 1 being Boskonia.)

  30. Aresen,

    That’s an excellent point that has occurred to me as well. We know that it took X generations of stars to generate sufficient quantities of higher elements to make us. If we’re typical, then life like us could only have evolved since the magic moment was reached. Of course, whether our way is the only or best way is another question. I rather doubt there’s only one way to build intelligent life.

    I wouldn’t bet much on us being the earliest. We may be among the first group in this galaxy, I suppose, but I doubt it. There’s probably some super race of helium beings out there or something.

    If we are the first, then we better get crackin’ and begin establishing the Terran Empire.

  31. PL

    I always disliked the expression “life as we know it”. It is far too limiting.

    However, it is the only basis we have for extrapolation.

    I really hope they turn up life in Europa’s oceans or under the surface of Mars that doesn’t use adenine-guanine-cytosine-thymine for it’s encoding molecule. Then we’ll have two reference points.

  32. The problem with an EMP bomb is that the launch is highly visible and totally unexpected. Everybody tells everybody else before they launch a satellite or orbital mission, just so nobody gets the idea that an unannounced launch is really a weapon and reacts accordingly. You would somehow have to get the weapon in orbit above the US without anybody attempting interdiction, which means it can’t be delivered from anywhere but a reputable launch facility (NASA, ESA, maybe the Russians). It’s possible, I suppose, to smuggle a nuclear device by launching a fake satellite, but you’d have to get past the inspectors first. I don’t think the Europeans are corrupt enough to let a nuclear device past security, but the Russians might be. They certainly seem rather schizophrenic on security, simultaneously fighting a war with the Islamists on their border while protecting Iran (who supports said Islamists).

  33. EMP. Which is why this crap is so silly, and such a welfare scam.
    And why I keep a point ignition setup for my Harley, and why I dont want “recognition chips” in the butts of my firearms.
    You pimps want endless billions of extorted funds to finance cockamamie “weapons systems”, snivel and whine about paying for PTSD & heavy metal poisoning from DU rounds, and now Brain Injuries!!!, and want to establish US soldiers are just pawns for crackpot Napoleons, or loonie christcreeps.
    I knew Id find y’all on Freep & chickenhawk radio sites. Damned if I dont find you punks here, too.
    Well, there you go: humanities toxic mold. Chickenhawks & epaulette fetishists.
    Glad I found a source of cheaper vodka……

  34. Isn’t one risk of developing a missle defense that we threaten the stability imposed by MAD? Without a nuclear deterant no country to stand up to us. I would hate to think someone is tapping their finger on “the button” thinking this is their last chance to avoid US domination. Of course it would be crazy to nuke us just because they won’t be able to later, but if anything is going to push a government to nuke us it might be the thought that this is their last chance to “defend” themselves. (I imagine they would first demand we dismantle our still incomplete missle defense.)

  35. MUTT: WUTT?

  36. Drake Equation

    From
    http://www.crichton-official.com/speeches/speeches_quote04.html
    +++

    In 1960, Drake organizes the first SETI conference, and came up with the now-famous Drake equation:

    N=N*fp ne fl fi fc fL

    This serious-looking equation gave SETI an serious footing as a legitimate intellectual inquiry. The problem, of course, is that none of the terms can be known, and most cannot even be estimated. The only way to work the equation is to fill in with guesses. And guesses-just so we’re clear-are merely expressions of prejudice. Nor can there be “informed guesses.” If you need to state how many planets with life choose to communicate, there is simply no way to make an informed guess. It’s simply prejudice.

    As a result, the Drake equation can have any value from “billions and billions” to zero. An expression that can mean anything means nothing. Speaking precisely, the Drake equation is literally meaningless, and has nothing to do with science.

    SETI is a religion.

    +++

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