- President Donald Trump’s administration released a review of US missile defences on Thursday that totally reimagined how the US will fight nuclear wars.
- Unlike past missile defences that have only tried to protect the US from limited strikes by North Korea or Iran, Trump now looks to confront Russia and allow the US to stop any missile attack.
- Russia already says US missile defences are their reason for buildin insanely dangerous new nuclear weapons, and this will likely make the problem worse.
- The US’s missile defences don’t really work, but the weapons Russia builds to counter them likely do.
- Missile defence is a losing battle in that it destabilizes nuclear parity and costs a ton of money without providing any real safety.
President Donald Trump’s administration released a review of US missile defences on Thursday that totally reimagined how the US will fight nuclear wars, and in doing so made a massive shift towards confronting Russia.
Today, US ballistic missile defence for the homeland takes the form of ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California. But the system doesn’t really work and cost $US40 billion.
Rather than trying to protect the US from more than 1,000 nuclear weapons Russia keeps trained on the country, the US’s ballistic missile defences have been nominally to protect against small states with limited arsenals, like North Korea and Iran.
But that changed on Thursday.
Trump’s vision of nuclear warfighting takes on Russia
“Our goal is simple: To ensure we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the US any time, any place,” Trump said at an event announcing the Missile Defence Review’s release.
Trump’s Missile Defence Review calls for a number of bold new strategies to thwart nuclear and conventional missile attacks on the US that range from innovative, to unlikely, to straight-up science fiction.
Missile defence represents one of the most difficult engineering challenges in defence. It requires tracking a warhead travelling at a dozen times the speed of sound through outer space, sometimes paired with decoys, sometimes dipping and diving at random, and firing a second missile to ram into the warhead.
Essentially, missile defence requires hitting a bullet with a bullet, but the bullets are going many times faster and in space.
To combat this challenge, Trump’s review proposes looking into things like drones with lasers and F-35 fighter jets to shoot down missiles before they leave earth’s atmosphere, space-based interceptors and tracking, and potentially more missile launchers on the ground.
“Given the current ineffectiveness of US BMD, it makes sense to intensify the study of ways to improve it instead of pouring good money after bad into expanding the existing systems,” Bruce Blair, a former US Air Force nuclear missile launch control officer and a research scholar at Princeton, told Business Insider.
But even researching ways to stop Russia’s missiles from hitting the US could spur Moscow to diversify it’s already wildly dangerous nuclear forces, and according to Blair, that brings the world closer to nuclear war.
Russia already states US missile defences as causes for its new nuclear weapons. In March 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin hyped up no less than four distinct nuclear systems purpose-built to defeat US missile defences.
One of these systems, called the Poseidon, ditched the entire concept of an above-ground missile for an underwater torpedo with 100-200 megatons of nuclear explosive power that could cripple entire continents for decades. Russia routinely talks about this doomsday device as a response to US missile defences.
Additionally, now the US will have to look at every unidentified high-speed undersea movement as a potential world-ending nuclear attack.
“Some of these new weapons deployed in response to BMD have increased the risks of nuclear attack false alarms,” said Blair. “During the Cold War none of the false alarms in the US missile attack warning system rose to the level of real-time presidential notification. By contrast in the past 10 years our warning system has notified presidents on multiple occasions and actually trigger the early stages of the presidential launch protocol.”
Missile defence a losing battle
Opponents of missile defence say that a good offence is the best defence. How has the US kept Russia’s thousands of nukes at bay for decades? Because if Russia ever nuked the US, the US would nuke Russia back with missiles squirreled away in airbases and on submarines.
In this scenario, both countries, and the world, lose.
But missile defence represents another losing battle in the cost it imposes on the US. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimated the US could spend $US300 billion on space-based missile interception without any guarantee the project would work.
Trump’s review suggests using a drone with a laser on it to pick off missiles before they reach space. But an adversary could simply give the missile a mirrored surface or make it rotate in flight to thwart the laser.
The review suggests F-35s can direct missile fires to shoot down the missile before it gets too far, but can the US afford to patrol the Russian airspace with hundred-million-dollar jets around the clock?
According to Blair, such is the simple truth of missile defence. “It is more expensive to build than for advanced adversarial nations to defeat, and their deployment provokes countermeasures that upset the strategic balance and increase the risks of inadvertent or accidental use of nuclear weapons.”
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