Q&A Friday #32: Could A Missle Shield Lead To Nuclear War?

Question: “Let’s pretend for a minute that you’re Russia or China. You don’t like the United States. You think they’re a bunch of ugly, imperialistic, capitalist hegemons who get their kicks by throwing their weight around the world, encroaching onto your sovereignty, and embarrassing you in front of your regional allies.

Suppose that somewhere down the road, let’s say 15 years from now, those same hegemonic Americans are going to have an impenetrable missile defense system that is essentially going to render all your nuclear weapons irrelevant. You will lose your main bargaining chip on the global stage, and they will be as close to unstoppable as any country has ever been. Now, are you just gonna sit around and say “Gee, I wish I had an impenetrable shield, too”, or are you going to take steps to ensure that it doesn’t come to that?

I say “suppose” because I’m not familiar with the current status of our missile defense systems, but doesn’t this scenario strike you as a probable if not likely scenario for a nuclear war somewhere down the line? Wouldn’t the Chinese and the Russians view the prospect of a U.S. with an impenetrable missile defense system in much the same light as we view the prospect of Iran getting their hands on a nuke?” — maledicta

Answer: Actually, we’ve already seen this scenario play out with the Soviet Union. From my interview with Peter Schweizer:

John Hawkins: Can you tell us a little bit about why the Soviets felt so threatened by the Star Wars Defense Initiative?

Peter Schweizer: I think they felt so threatened by it because it was their key vulnerability. I mean, under communism you lack initiative and incentive for technological innovation and they always respected American technological prowess. With Reagan they had somebody who not only wanted to harness that technological progress but somebody who, they were convinced, was determined to squeeze their arteries, so to speak. He was determined to try to win; so the two of those together, I think, are what made it in their minds such a lethal combination.

John Hawkins: Was there a fear that, let’s say, a couple of decades down the road, they’d be in a position where we could do a first nuclear strike on them and they wouldn’t be able to respond?

Peter Schweizer: Yes, there certainly were some elements in the Soviet leadership who feared that the United States could do that, and these were generally paranoid people, the KGB in particular, but there were a lot of Soviet leaders, the Foreign Minister Gromyko, Dobrynin the ambassador, people like Gorbachev, who knew that the United States was not a threat in that way.

Their fear was that it would take away really the only thing that made them a superpower. The United States was a superpower because of its economy, its cultural influence, its political example to the world. The only thing that made the Soviet Union a superpower was its nuclear arsenal and if you took that away, if you took the fear of that away, they basically would lose all their superpower status and they would become sort of a large third world country. So I think that’s what they were most concerned about, the fact that they were going to lose all the power and influence that came from their nuclear capability.

I’d also add that even 15 years from now, it’s unlikely that a missile defense shield would be able to stop the sort of massive barrage of nukes Russia would be capable of delivering. The same probably goes for China. That far out, the missile shield will probably only be good for stopping countries with smaller arsenals. But, give us enough time working on it and hopefully we’ll be able to block ’em all.

In any case, I tend to doubt that it would lead to a nuclear war. You fire a nuclear weapon at the US, shield or no, and every population center in your country will be molten glass 30 minutes later. So, China and Russia, although they’re not run by very nice people, are at least rational actors and would understand the consequences of firing a nuke at the US. That makes it still possible, but highly unlikely that they’d risk firing nukes at us.

The nations we need to worry about on that front are the ones that might just be kooky enough to launch a nuke despite the consequences. Right now, I’d put North Korea, Iran (if they get the bomb), and maybe Pakistan if Musharraf were overthrown in that category. They’re much more of a danger on the nuclear front than China or Russia.

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