Missile Defense Gets an F

Today’s test of our missile defense system failed to intercept its target, making the score only 8 successes in 14 tests. That would be a failing grade on any exam, and countermeasures are likely to reduce the success rate even further in a real attack. So why do the Russians object so strenuously to our missile defense program? To understand why, consider the following excerpt from my September 2009 post Missile Defense: A Play in One Act:

The potential value of missile defense can be seen more clearly by recognizing that a Russian-American crisis is like a play with two actors, each supremely vulnerable and using every prop at its disposal to mask its nakedness. Neither our Turkish missiles nor the Soviets’ Cuban missiles made a difference to 1962′s balance of power, but they were useful props, giving an ability to project a perception of additional power.

The Russian thus have reason to fear that even a rudimentary, untested American missile defense will allow us to increase the intensity of our bluffs during a crisis. To be afraid of our missile defense, the Russians don’t have to fear that it will give us a military advantage. They don’t even have to fear that our leaders will mistakenly believe that it will. All they have to fear is that our leaders will act as if they believe that it does. In nuclear chicken, the first party to behave rationally loses, so having one more prop to use in our act is dangerous to Russia’s interests.

At first, that might seem to favor the Eastern European missile defense — at least from our vantage point. But appearing more irrational than the Russians is a highly questionable advantage since it increases the risk of a catastrophic outcome. Failure to weigh the chance of a small gain (coming out ahead in a crisis) against the risk of an infinite loss (destruction of our homeland) clearly can have disastrous consequences.

RESOURCE: For more on the role that irrationality plays in nuclear deterrence see my October post, Governator Nukes Idiots.

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." Its soon to open website explains: https://anewmap.com.
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