Defense for an uncertain world

U.S. vulnerability and ballistic missile proliferation make a defensive system a necessity.

May 20, 2001|By Mackubin Thomas Owens

ONE OF THE MOST powerful tools for understanding the present and thinking about the future is the use of historical analogy.

For instance, one might argue that today's relationship between the United States and China is similar in many important ways to the one that existed between Great Britain and Germany at the end of the 19th century. In the latter case, the British-dominated international order was challenged by the growth of Germany and its demand for Weltmacht, or world power.

While China is not nearly as far along today vis a vis the United States as Germany was a century ago vis a vis Great Britain, China has signaled its intention to challenge United States dominance.

But those who employ historical analogy need to be careful. As Sir Michael Howard, the foremost military historian of our time, has noted, "Historians are as prone as anyone else unconsciously to formulate conclusions on the basis of temperament, prejudice and habit, and then collect the evidence to justify them."

A case in point is last week's article in The Sun by Carroll Pursell, the chairman of the history department at Case Western Reserve University. The article ran under the headline "Endless Race for Superiority," and it argued that the United States should eschew development of a ballistic missile defense system because history's dustbin is filled with weapons and defenses doomed to obsolescence.

Pursell's premise is incontrovertible, although not exactly profound. Indeed, there is no such thing as the "ultimate weapon." Even the most revolutionary military innovations, those that have fundamentally altered the character and conduct of armed conflict, eventually have been countered.

But his conclusion regarding a ballistic missile defense is a non sequitur because it does not examine antiballistic missile technology in the larger context of policy and strategy and it does not take into account the nature of the threat a missile defense is designed to counter -- the cost of remaining vulnerable.

Just how long the advantage conferred by a particular innovation will last depends on a number of factors: the ability of military organizations to adapt to the new circumstances, the level of competition among major players in the international system, and the strategies employed to exploit the potential of any innovation.

Pursell is not very original when he invokes France's Maginot Line to ridicule the idea of a ballistic missile defense. But in observing that "the Germans simply went around it" he repeats the old saws about this much-maligned defensive system while misconstruing the campaign that culminated in the fall of France in 1940.

The surprise was not that the Germans went around the Maginot Line. That was fully expected. Indeed, a main goal of constructing the line was to channelize a German attack through the Low Countries. The problem was the failure of the French high command to anticipate a German attack through the Ardennes Forest and then to respond once the attack was under way.

But even given the incompetence of the French high command and French operational miscalculations in planning and deployment, the battles that led to the German penetration and breakout were touch and go affairs. The French inflicted heavy casualties on the attackers, and only German tactical prowess and leadership redeemed the German effort.

Logic of obsolescence

But let's turn to something closer to missile defense. Based on his article, I infer that had he been a British citizen in the 1930s, Pursell would have argued against investment in air defenses. His reasoning might go like this: Since all defenses eventually become obsolete, why bother with air defense? Besides, it is too hard to do and it costs too much. Isn't it true, as the air power advocates claim, that "the bomber will always get through?" And don't some optimists see this as a very good thing -- if the great powers possess the capability for offensive air power, i.e. bombers, war will become too terrible to contemplate. In other words, assured destruction by strategic bombers will deter war in the future.

Fortunately for the British, there were politicians such as Winston Churchill and airmen such as Hugh Dowding who ignored the anti-air-defense certitudes of the Carroll Pursells of the time and pushed the development of radar and fighter-interceptors, the legendary Spitfires and Hurricanes. When the "blitz" came in 1940, Britain took a terrible pounding from the air but survived because the foresight of Churchill and Dowding had provided the Royal Air Force with the technology to fight the "Battle of Britain." The pilots of the RAF did the rest.

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