Tom Knapp: ‘Rocket Men: The “Missile Defense” Con Game’

Posted by Thomas Knapp at Center for a Stateless Society:

According to Joseph Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund — addressing the subject of missile defense on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show Thursday — “President Bush was promoting a technology that doesn’t work against a threat that doesn’t exist.”

The policy in question was a plan to place ten “interceptors” in Poland, and a radar installation to control them in the Czech Republic. These interceptors would theoretically (because to date the technology doesn’t work very well) have protected Europe from Iran, had that country launched equally theoretical (because it doesn’t have them) long-range missiles.

So far, so good — except that the Obama administration’s proposed alternative, at least nominally supported by Mr. Cirinicione (who advised presidential candidate Barack Obama on “nuclear issues”) may be even worse.

That alternative starts with the use of a proven system (the SM-3) to be deployed aboard Aegis destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean, extending over time to land-based SM-3 installations and the deployment of subsequent systems to counter new Iranian weapons as those come online.

How could that be worse? Simple: “[A] technology that doesn’t work against a threat that doesn’t exist” is clearly unreasonable on all fronts. Promoting a technology that does work, on the other hand, obscures key facts. Facts like these:

– That the threat in question, if it exists at all, is not a threat relevant to the defense of the United States. The US is simply not within range of the short- and medium-range missiles that this proposed “shield” is intended to counter.

– That putting the US taxpayer on the hook for the defense of Europe against Iran will embolden the governments in that region and allow them to rattle sabers and indulge in belligerent behavior without having to bear the economic costs of that behavior. This makes the prospect of conflict with Iran more, not less, likely, and increases the likelihood that the US will become entangled in such conflict.

The whole “missile defense” scam, in both its Bush and Obama variants, is a classic example of the logic and behavior of governments. I’ve quoted Mencken on this before, but it bears repeating:

“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

In Bush’s variant of “missile defense,” the threat was completely imaginary. In Obama’s variant, the imaginary element is the notion that the threat is one which involves the United States or requires its involvement at all.

Why manufacture imaginary threats, or impose imaginary geographic offsets on real ones? Two reasons come to mind; both equally venal and dishonest, one linked to workaday politics and the other to the more over-arching theme of the legitimacy of government itself.

The workaday reason is that in the defense “marketplace,” competition between firms is predicated not upon quality of product or the utility of that product, but upon political connections. To put it as simply as possible, the essential difference between the Bush plan and the Obama plan is “which “defense” contractors get the sweetheart deals?”

As always, big lobbying money is in play and big campaign contributions are at stake. How that has played out to get us to this particular situation is anyone’s guess, but when it’s all said and done there’s little doubt that it played a bigger part in this scenario than any “legitimate defense” criteria.

The over-arching logic is just as simple: Hobgoblins we must have, and if we can’t find any off our shores, we’ll outsource their creation to eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia … not to wherever they’re cheapest, but to wherever they’ll provide an excuse for the largest expenditure, providing for the biggest bureaucratic rakeoffs and corporate welfare handouts.

“Missile defense” isn’t about defending Poland, the Czech Republic, or even the United States. It’s about empowering politicians by moving money from your pockets to the pockets of Boeing, Lockheed, Orbital Systems, Raytheon, etc. And that’s all it’s ever been about.

Government is a racket, in this as in all things. It is, to steal a phrase from Cirincione, a technology that doesn’t work against threats that don’t exist.

20 thoughts on “Tom Knapp: ‘Rocket Men: The “Missile Defense” Con Game’

  1. Mik Robertson

    Eisenhower warned of this in his farewell address. No need to worry though. As Ronald Reagan said, we don’t have the military -industrial complex that was around in Eisenhower’s day.

  2. Citizens For A Better Veterans Home

    Mike, you are basically factual.

    How ever as much easier defense is than offensive, most defensive measures are total failures.

    The Great Wall of China, the Egyptian Pyramids [safe guarding the king’s body], the WWII French Alsace – Lorine Bunker, and most anti missile missile Lines: total failures —- if put into action.

    I am just so glad that the Cold War MAD [Mutual Assured Destruction] worked out. As a military rocket scientist I bought the steer manure concerning the Viet Nam action and the global fight against god less Communism. These myths were created by high profile honchoes whom realized early and often that it was not a winnable enterprise!

    Defense is not an assured proposition!

    ——- Lt Donald Reis Lakey, 290th SMS

  3. Ross Levin

    Once again, bravo, Tom. If you keep this up – and push for the national initiative a bit, seeing as how you’ve endorsed it – I might have to head to the 2012 LP convention…

    But that’s a while from now. We’ll see what happens in between now and then.

  4. Thomas M. Sipos

    Why cant the Europissants get off their collective ass and defend themselves?

    Maybe because the U.S. is pressuring Europe to be allowed to “defend” them?

    I’m sure many Europeans want the U.S. to shut its bases and leave. (Remember all those protests in the 1980s?) But the U.S. govt wants U.S. bases in Europe.

  5. Melty

    a recent poll of Poles in Poland has it:
    58% say “missile defense” or none makes no difference for Poland’s security
    48% are against this “missile defense”
    31% are for it
    so that leaves 21% indifferent

  6. Melty

    It looks like the White House is ready to drop the idea because of threats from Russia to build its own in Kaliningrad if the States goes through with it.

  7. Thomas M. Sipos

    I heard on the radio, a few days ago, that while the U.S. is backing off from building missile defense for Europe, the U.S. will continue to develop a missile defense system for Israel.

    I’m not sure what that means. Whether we’ll build the technology and give it to Israel, or pay Israel to develop their own missile defense, or what.

    Anyone heard anything about this?

  8. Mik Robertson

    Maybe what they will do is build the missile defense system for Israel then place it in Poland and the Czech Republic. You have to use military intelligence to figure these things out.

  9. John Famularo

    Citizen.. wrote,
    “I am just so glad that the Cold War MAD [Mutual Assured Destruction] worked out.”

    MAD is still in effect and should not be supported by libertarians. If missile defense can be made to work even minimally the U.S. could begin reducing its nuclear retaliatory force. The better it works, the more offensive missiles we can retire. Eventually the Russian or Chinese nuclear threat would disappear. The Russians know this and that is why they they squawk so loud.

    Our use of “strategic bombing” against non combatants is a blight on the USA much worse than slavery. Not only Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the fire bombing of Dresden and Tokyo.

    Not getting ripped off by suppliers is just an element of good management.

  10. Thomas L. Knapp


    Obama’s “alternative plan” to the Busheviks’ land-based, ICBM-intercepting (if it worked — it doesn’t; and if Iran had them; it doesn’t) system in Poland and the Czech Republic is a land- (Patriot batteries) and sea-based (SM-3s on board Aegis destroyers) system to be deployed first in the eastern Mediterranean, i.e. including the Israeli coast, and then extended north across Eastern Europe (including developing land-based SM-3 installations).

  11. Aroundtheblockafewtimes

    Why are we paying for the defnese of Europe?
    So that Germany and Poland, etc. will provide troops for our adventures in Central Asia and that will give the U.S. cover to do stuff as a “coalition.” End this free ride on the U.S. taxpayers. (Even Ottawa needs to step up to the plate more – yes, I know, brave Canadians are dying in Afghanistan )-

  12. Mik Robertson

    @11 “MAD is still in effect and should not be supported by libertarians. If missile defense can be made to work even minimally the U.S. could begin reducing its nuclear retaliatory force. The better it works, the more offensive missiles we can retire. Eventually the Russian or Chinese nuclear threat would disappear. The Russians know this and that is why they they squawk so loud.”

    Why would that be the result rather than the US and other countries building MORE missiles to overcome the missile defenses? If other countries build more missiles, to you think the military-industrial complex in the US would allow a missile gap any more now than they did in the past?

    If it does work and there is an actual reduction in nuclear missiles, how much easier will it be to justify and wage war when only “selected targets” are struck and there is only the occasional “collateral damage”? I’m not sure building more armaments is the way to go about securing national defense.

  13. Michael Seebeck

    OK, y’all are treading into my world now, with a lot of uninformed nonsense.

    First of all, the technology *does* work, and anyone who claims to the contrary either doesn’t understand the technology or isn’t cleared properly to understand it. The issue of sheer numbers is a different issue, often used to distract, which goes into discussions on MAD, tactical first strikes, and other such nuclear information that most people only get on the superficial or from watching Wargames too many times. Opponents conflate limitations with not working within those limits.

    Second of all, the decision to remove the interceptors from Poland (but not Alaska, interestingly enough) is not about MAD and it’s not about defending Europe, who mistakenly doesn’t see Russia as a threat anymore (they are–the Cold War has just taken a long siesta and will reawaken down the road). It’s certainly not about Iran, since posting those interceptors against Iran are best suited in…Iraq! (Yet another reason that the general public never figured out about why we really invaded, besides the oil and the size of W’s balls, that is).

    It’s about strategy. Nobody ever bought into the idea that the KEIs in Poland and Czech were anything more than a posturing for Russia and Putin, who still has that Cold-War mentality. But Russia will not nuke its trading partners in Europe, and the fallout from that blows back into Russia anyway. Trade with Europe is Russia’s best bet to get into the 20th Century, let alone the 21st, and they’re not going to bite the hands that feed them. In all respects, the KEIs are a remnant of fighting the last war, not the next one, because the Russian Army will not come pouring through the Fulda Gap after an initial missile barrage ala Red Storm Rising–which is why we don’t need the 5th Army in Germany anymore either. Russia is still a threat, but now their threat is economic, not military, specifically in a fuel embargo against Europe of Russian oil and gas. Their plan is to lull Europe asleep while quietly rebuilding their military, as they have been doing, most visibly recently with their dealing with Venezuela. But their military buildup isn’t about Europe–it’s about China, Siberia, and their own resources out there–which is also why they’ve stayed mostly out of the Middle East mess–they don’t need to be, and they learned that the hard way in Afghanistan (and we haven’t yet)/

    It’s also about politics. The White House wants to make Russia into an economic ally rather than a military opponent, because we are unable to be the latter anymore with our own stretching out and exhaustion of our own military and resources. By any stretch of imagination, with the exception of China, the day of the tanks-on-the-battlefield-at-twenty-paces war is long gone, and the next war fought will be by remote control and with electrons more than TOWs, Harpoons, and bullets. It will not be nuclear, and frankly, whether it be by MAD deterrent or simple common sense, those missiles are staying in the silos unless a terrorist gets hold of one (which isn’t enough of a disarm argument, either).

    The business of war is changing, and KEIs in Poland just aren’t part of that business anymore, just like other programs that are being cut aren’t part of it. We’re entering a transition from third generation warfare into fourth generation and beginning the fifth, and that third generation hardware just isn’t going to cut it. Some of it can be transformed (which is why ending the F-117 was premature), but a lot of it can’t.

    I’d suggest that if one wants to get a real perspective of what the Pentagon and the intel community is thinking that they peruse their budgets, and from there derive the plan, which isn’t too hard to do.

  14. Robert Capozzi

    ms: I’d suggest that if one wants to get a real perspective of what the Pentagon and the intel community is thinking that they peruse their budgets, and from there derive the plan, which isn’t too hard to do.

    me: please elaborate. It’s my impression that Pentagon budgets are not unlike the corporate budgeting process in that what’s requested is sometimes gamed, that is, not necessarily indicative of actual desires. Share with us why the Pentagon budget is transparent and easily represents their actual planning and priorities. Don’t they sometimes, for ex., overbudget for projects that help the districts/states of congressional committee chairs?

  15. Mik Robertson

    @17 Are you saying that all of this expense and effort is so there can be strategic posturing while the generals figure out how to make the next war more palatable?

  16. Michael Seebeck

    Carpozzi, the Pentagon budget is not transparent, and the classified sections one has to be cleared to see it. 99% of America isn’t, and of the other 1%, 99% of those are only cleared for compartments of it. The unclassified sections are the sideshow that everyone complains is loaded with earmarks, district pork, and programs the Pentagon doesn’t want. Don’t let that hype fool you. You can get a much better feel for what they’re doing by their ToEs and their command structure than you can by any budget in Congress.

    Mik, no, I’m not saying that. You really ought to read up on the various generations of warfare first, as it will illuminate better what you are thinking. has some interesting stuff on this. Remember, the military is in the war business, including the planning, execution, and outfitting, and their business is predicated on interventionist foreign policy instead of simply defending CONUS, AK, HI, and a few possessions we should let go anyway. This is exactly why the Founding Fathers warned against a standing military, because a perpetual army can lead to perpetual war and perpetual war planning. And here we are.

    The expense and posturing is because we’re stuck in French-based Second-Generation tactics, which in a lot of ways are obsolete.

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