Monday, January 28, 2013

The best defense....

In these heady days of McDonald's-dominated globalized economies, the idea of a world war seems far fetched. Resources, no matter how scarce, can always be traded for at a lower cost than mobilizing a military and doing some killin'. Conventional thinking is that small, "low-intensity" or "brush fire" conflicts will become more common even as large-scale confrontations become a thing of the past.

And it makes sense. Japan and China will posture for the fans back home about the national importance of some stupid islands, but in the end no one will pull a trigger... because even posturing carries economic consequences.

This is the way rational actors behave.

That leaves the other, crazier side of the coin to worry about. Places like North Korea, which by just about any standard seem to put somewhat random military goals above the welfare of their own people. Such "rogue states" are a major reason why the U.S. has poured billions of dollars into developing missile-defense systems of various kinds.

Some systems, like the one now deployed in Turkey, exist to shoot down shorter-range ballistic missiles that travel a few hundred miles and follow an unsophisticated ballistic trajectory. Thanks to math, they are easy to hit.

Other systems are designed to hit warheads in their "terminal" phase, which is to say after they are on their way down. This is tougher because not only are the warheads involved here generally traveling much faster, but they have to be completely destroyed or their explodey bits and pieces will continue on the same trajectory, landing more or less where they were aimed.

(Yes, that twisty maneuver at the beginning is deliberate.)

And finally, there's the toughest shot of all: the "mid-course" interception. Roughly put, this is the best time to blow up a missile, because it means it won't land where it is supposed to. It's also hard because it is incredibly high up--hundreds of miles--and involves tremendously high speeds.

The third one is probably most important if you're talking about dealing with serious threats from irrational actors. North Korea, for example, could use short-range missiles to hit Seoul, but would need an ICBM, perhaps modeled off their most recent successful rocket launch, to hit the United States.

And if you're shooting a missile that far, it's probably going to be a special delivery, i.e., nuclear, chemical or biological. Fun!

In terms of deterring people with huge arsenals, like Russia, anti-ballistic missile systems make little sense. Indeed, you could argue that they are not just a waste of money, but are destabilizing, because they offer one side the (false) belief that it could shoot first without suffering retaliation.

So again, that leaves the North Koreas of the world as the justification for developing these extremely tricky, extremely expensive systems.

It is on that note that we arrive at the punchline: China, North Korea's closest ally, just announced a "successful" test of a mid-course interception system.

China again carried out a land-based mid-course missile interception test within its territory Sunday.

Xinhua learned the news from the Information Bureau of China's Defense Ministry.

"The test has reached the preset goal," an official with the bureau said.

"The test is defensive in nature and targets no other country," he said.

For all the grumbling about U.S. interference in Asian affairs, it appears the continent's most powerful military is spending its money developing weapons to protect it not from a Western hegemony... but from its next-door neighbor.

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