A New MAD, MAD World?

The Trump administration’s funding priorities display an apparent strategy to play “catch-up” with the growing Russian and Chinese hypersonic threat capabilities — and to rely totally on the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) strategy of the Cold War. Does President Trump really want a new Cold War, now involving a multilateral offensive nuclear arms race?  I hope not! 

I am deeply disturbed because the Trump Administration has no apparent game plan for building a truly effective ballistic missile defense (BMD) system, even though we are spending a lot of money on what we are doing. The last time I wrote in these pages about my concerns was on March 10, 2020. Click here to reread that message that was whimsically titled, “Whither BMD and the Space Force?”  Key bottom lines were that:

Our overall policy underpinning our BMD acquisition strategy is confusing, at best. The National Defense Authorization Act for 2020 — NDAA(2020 ) stated as a matter of policy that the United States would “rely on nuclear deterrence” to address sophisticated, large ballistic missile threats from “peer” or “near-peer”  (read Russia or China) competitors of the United States, while improving our defense against “rogue states” (read North Korea and Iran). 

This bifurcation seemed a step backward from the Trump administration’s strategy announced in its 2019 Missile Defense Review (MDR) that at least implied the United States would defend against all types of ballistic missile threats regardless of  likely objections by Russia and China. 

The apparent Trump administration policy intent appears to be, in perpetuity, to stake the security of the American people on the Cold War nuclear deterrence theory — the so-called Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine for all comers. During the Cold War, that MAD strategy amounted to a U.S. mutual suicide pact with the Soviet Union. It now appears that current missile defense programs are aimed again at underwriting such a strategy, indefinitely against at least China in addition to Russia, because there is no apparent effort to develop effective defenses against their offensive ballistic missiles.

Note this is the same strategy that in the 1960s and 70s led to a major nuclear weapons arms race between Russia and the United States — ended only by President Ronald Reagan’s strategy that employed a major effort to build effective BMD systems, the apparent success of which motivated the Soviets to agree to the first ever major reductions in offensive strategic arms.

So now, we are apparently returning to conditions that could, and likely will, lead to another offensive arms race, this time a multipolar one that includes at least Russia and China — while aspiring nations, like North Korea and Iran, continue to develop and deploy threatening nuclear arms.  It is not at all clear why anyone believes a MAD strategy in such a multilateral nuclear world can be stable in the same context as it was alleged to be during the bilateral nuclear world of the Cold War.

I recall that the Heritage Foundation conducted tabletop exercises a couple of decades ago, demonstrating that strategy would be destabilizing in the Cold War sense  — and that involving effective defenses would be much more stabilizing. And we are technically capable of doing much better today with space-based BMD systems, which we proved were possible three decades ago during the SDI era (1983-1993).

After then no administration — Democrat or Republican — has revived the most cost-effective BMD system then possible: one based in space that could intercept attacking missiles in their boost-phase before they can release their nuclear weapons. Programs proving that ability is possible were cancelled in early 1993 when Secretary of Defense Les Aspin “took the stars out of Star Wars” as he famously bragged.

Reinventing such a capability today would be a preferred way to defeat the hypersonic threat — that can defeat all our current and planned BMD systems. But the Trump administration has no program developing that capability. Our response seems to be to show we can also build hypersonic systems — as we first demonstrated decades ago and then dropped them.  Why pray tell don’t we want to defend against them now?

Click here for Michaela Dodge’s excellent March 5, 2020, Real Clear Defense article, The Backward Step on Missile Defense in the FY 2020 NDAA that includes a pdf link to her complete National Institute for Public Policy report with the same title. She covers many of the above points. 

So, what should we be doing?  I also addressed  this question a month ago — which I will now repeat. 

Click here for John A.Tirpak’s March 5, 2020 Air Force Magazine article based on a speech by USDRE Michael Griffin, pertinently entitled, “Griffin: America Needs to Adjust to Reality of Great Power Competition.”  Tirpak’s lead-in quoted Dr. Griffin: “The U.S. can’t wish away great power competition with Russia and China, and it needs to get serious in structuring for it over the long-term” and then he noted that Space defense, despite boasting a new service and new thinking, is still oriented toward outmoded ideas.

Tirpak then quoted Dr. Griffin as saying the threat from China’s hypersonic weapons is particularly tough to counter. Good technical people enjoy meeting such a challenge, but that does not make addressing such challenges the right thing to do — and certainly not the only thing to do. And I know Mike does not believe that it is.

While I encourage you to read Tirpak’s entire article on Mike’s views, I want to emphasize several of his points:

Since the early 1990s, there’s been inadequate U.S. research in the technologies that will provide an advantage in the 21st century.

Preoccupation with wars in the Middle East that were “important, but not existential” threats and led to too little being spent on leap-ahead and stay-ahead technologies, Russia and China took advantage of the opportunity to steal a march on the U.S.

Those countries, and others on the rise, “don’t respect Western values” and are challenging the U.S. and its ideology.

“Western liberal democracy, Western thought, is under attack.” U.S. adversaries do not share values such as “the rule of law, property rights of individuals, the right to freedom of movement, the right to free markets, and many other things.”

“We need to accept that we are once again in Great Power Competition,” and invest accordingly. . . “It won’t be easy convincing the nation the situation has changed, but I believe we will step up. That’s why I took this job.”

To deal with the new threat, the U.S. has to rethink its space architecture. “We have the architecture I would design if we didn’t have a threat. But in case anyone hadn’t noticed, we have adversaries and we have a threat to our architecture, and so we need, above all else, to be far more resilient, because space is absolutely critical to everything about the way the United States fights wars.”

America’s space architecture still consists “of a relatively few very high value, extraordinarily exquisite, unbelievably capable space assets.” For which, “the other name is targets to the adversary.”

“We cannot give the adversaries even the faintest idea that they could disable our space architecture. So we need proliferation.” We need “to proliferate in all orbits, with assets that are individually lower-value but collectively very high value, so that they don’t give the adversary a …desirable aimpoint.”

China poses a particularly important threat. China’s hypersonic weapons threat is “real and increasing.” “They outrun and out-range our best radars. We have to be prepared to deal with raids of not one and two, but many”… which “We can do.”

“You will not hit a target that you cannot see.” Until the U.S. can spot and track “dim upper stages without being dependent on exquisite radar assets, we will be concerned.” Chinese hypersonic weapons are “20 times dimmer, or more, than the targets we are able to track” with the Space-Based Infrared System, or SBIRS.

Adding more “exquisite” radars is either not an option or would only create more targets for an adversary. Thus, the U.S. “can only do the target acquisition and fire control problem from space … We need to be closer to the action, or we need very large optics, which, again, creates more high-value targets.”

Finally, Griffin reportedly said allies can play a big role in technology development. “To defend those values requires not just the United States as the Lone Ranger, with maybe some sidekicks, but really, full and open partnerships, and we are working with allies on many of these technology areas.” Most, he said, he cannot discuss, but “it is incredibly valuable. … We wouldn’t succeed without our allies and partners.”

Sure sounds like reinventing Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative.  To which I say, “Amen” and “Amen!” Please remember that SDI is credited by many as having brought to an end the Soviet Union, or as Britain’s  Former Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher memorably said, “SDI ended the Cold War without firing a shot.”

Wouldn’t we prefer a repeat performance to engaging in another nuclear arms race, this time with at least two “peer” or “near-peer” nuclear powers?

But will it come to be?  The current missile defense programs appearing in the Trump administration’s public discourse don’t appear to give any promise that Mike’s (and my) desired outcome has any chance of becoming reality.

I briefly summarized my latest thoughts on this frustrating current reality in my April 10, 2020 Newsmax article repeated in full below.