What's the reasoning behind threatening to shoot down North Korea's missle?
June 23, 2006 11:48 AM   Subscribe

The Bush administration is reported to be considering using a missile defense system to knock down North Korea's ballistic missile test. Why? The chances of our antimissile systems actually working are, in my uniformed opinion, close to zero. Why would the administration remove any doubt about the complete ineffectiveness of our missile defense systems by actually using it?
posted by rdr to Law & Government (32 answers total)
According to this article on CNN, the U.S. missile defense agency has successfully shot down 7 out of 8 missles in testing so far. This appears to be a joint effort with Japan.

"It is the first time a U.S. ally has taken part in a sea-based missile defense test after Tokyo agreed to develop missile defense technology with America last year.

Tokyo became interested in developing the technology after North Korea last test-fired a missile, firing it over Japan's main island, according to The Associated Press.

posted by zyfly at 11:57 AM on June 23, 2006

Scare tactices. The USA doesn't need a working missle defense system, they need the threat of having a working missle defense system. (see Star Wars)
posted by blue_beetle at 11:59 AM on June 23, 2006

other than saber rattling, there do seem to be (admittedly minute) improvements to the whole 'shoot a missile while its moving' thing. After decades of failures they did have a success recently on the test firing range. A related similar technology (bombing a stationary target from an F-22 raptor travelling at mach speeds) also had some success recently. My guess is the technology will eventually "work" (ie, not perfectly but enough for defense budgeteers to green light its production; kind of like patriot missiles which are far from perfect but have an occasional success that seems worthwhile) - if nothing else for the propaganda effect, something that in itself is a considerable weapon).
So there are two separate issues here, in my opinion. ONe is whether the system actually works. Like you, i'm sceptical that it will work well at all, even if it occasionally does "work". However, the propaganda effect both for the domestic and external audiences ("we have a shield") is a value-added thing which i'm sure our orwellian government considers to be worth gazillions of dollars. Maybe it is, who knows.
posted by jak68 at 11:59 AM on June 23, 2006

Based on everything I've read, it appears that we (US) have at least a 50% chance of success at this point. Given the stakes, that's not too bad a figure to begin with -- and as pointed out in a MeFi thread earlier today, even in it doesn't succeed brilliantly, such a test will give the scientists and engineers more information to continue improving the system.
posted by davidmsc at 12:03 PM on June 23, 2006

Best answer: Think about it in terms of extremely high-stakes poker. It's all about bluffing and the threat that you will actually show your cards.

The Koreans want money and power -- they threaten to test a missile to prove an offensive capability, which provides them with other forms of political leverage. The U.S. wants a docile Korea, threatening to display the capability to take the Korean threat off the table and retain their own political leverage.

What if both sides can do what they say they can do? What if both sides cannot. What if one side can and the other can't?

For example, it would certainly suck for the U.S. to prove that it cannot deal with the threat. But imagine how much it would suck for the Koreans if their missile is knocked out? What if their missile explodes on the launchpad, all by itself? In both cases, they will have "shown their cards" and lost.

Neither side really wants to show their cards. The U.S. doesn't want to have to prove its capability -- because in this case, it's enough to make everyone think it might have this capability. It's another card that might be played.

After all, what is the alternative? For the U.S. to point at the missile and exclaim, "Holy shit, there's nothing we can do short of retaliatory strikes after the fact and/or invasion!" That's a bad situation to be in, since these options have their own serious repercussions (e.g. all-out war).
posted by frogan at 12:03 PM on June 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

Why would the administration remove any doubt about the complete ineffectiveness of our missile defense systems by actually using it?

You are missing the point that the administration (and those involved in the program) probably think that the system will work.
posted by stupidcomputernickname at 12:15 PM on June 23, 2006

There are some who argue that it would be better to blast the missile while it is still on the ground rather than risk the embarrassment of our antimissile system failing. This would also deny them launch data. Of course, this risks pulling apart the coalition currently negotiating with North Korea.
posted by caddis at 12:19 PM on June 23, 2006

The success rate is more like 1 in 8 and that is at a predetermined known target. Don't ask me to cite. Let's just say a friend of a friend.
posted by Gungho at 12:26 PM on June 23, 2006

I've also heard stats closer to Gungho's.

My best guess is that if the US is threatening to shoot it down, they have reason to believe that it wasn't going to be launched anyway... and they wanted to look big and tough.

Current American foreign policy consists of pretending to be a big badass mofo... and then getting owned in the asymmetrical battles that follow the main one. But everybody's supposed to forget about that latter part.
posted by I Love Tacos at 12:36 PM on June 23, 2006

(And besides, even though the US is getting owned in Iraq, they're killing a shitload of Iraqi civilians, which is a form of a deterrant.)
posted by I Love Tacos at 12:36 PM on June 23, 2006

in my uniformed opinion...

Exactly. So assuming the interceptor system is actually used, there are two possibilities: either your uninformed, random guess happens to be correct and it's likely to fail; or the people tasked with making the decision have information that you don't which leads them to reasonably conclude that the system will succeed.

(Or you could take the word of anonymous Internet users who claim to have access to SCI-clearance intelligence.)
posted by cribcage at 12:47 PM on June 23, 2006

The stats for the sea-based missile defense is 87.5% success but considering the sample set is only 8 this really isn't that impressive. I wouldn't take the chance on a potential war or even huge international incident based on those odds. It would be a huge mistake to try and interfere with NK over this test.
posted by JJ86 at 12:49 PM on June 23, 2006

On the other hand, do we really want to let them develop a missile capable of hitting the US?
posted by caddis at 12:58 PM on June 23, 2006

caddis, I don't believe this is an either "we blow up their missile" or "they develop a missile to blow us up" proposition. I believe there are a thousand other possiblities here. If we get lucky and blow up their test missile, it will not change anything for the better.
posted by JJ86 at 1:14 PM on June 23, 2006

I think it would be a much more peaceful world if every nation had a nuclear weapon. Look at what it's done for India/Pakistan relations. A nuclear weapons virtually assures that your sovereignty will be preserved because no one is going to rob your house when you can unleash a rabid dog with a push of a button - therefore you no longer have to act batshit insane every time some other country threatens your sovereignty- see Iran/North Korea/Iraq/Palestine. Oh and don't bother with the whole "rogue nation" argument. There is no nation on earth right now more "rogue" than the United States.
posted by any major dude at 1:15 PM on June 23, 2006

Also in MetaFilter.
posted by Neiltupper at 1:18 PM on June 23, 2006

I haven't read that any of the Bush admin people are considering shooting down the NK missile; what I've read is a former Clinton admin who's highly respected on NK policy has advocated such. To which almost all other Dems have reacted with horror.

However, it's hard to imagine that Cheney and Co. would not be contemplating such a move. I've probably just missed the reports that they are.

Anyway, this isn't, um, rocket science. This missile that NK is testing is reportedly intercontinental and would be capable of hitting the US. NK is a true rogue counry with nuclear ambitions, is beligerent, and isolated from the rest of the world. Them having the (eventual) capability of reaching the US with a nuclear weapon is a real and true and huge thread to US security in a way that none of these threats perceived by the Bush admin have not been. Everyone agrees on this.

The Clinton admin guy suggested using a cruise missile with a high-explosives warhead. This would be plenty effective, as not only would it destroy the particular missile in question, but the launching facility surrounding it is a big deal and losing it would set them back quite a bit. So an actual strike would do real damage to their program.

However, it's hard to imagine that NK wouldn't respond to such an attack, and it's well within the realm of possibility that a response would be an attack on SK, which could be truly horrifying in terms of loss of life. This is the argument against such a US attack.

The argument for threatening such an attack is to make NK truly aware of just how high the stakes are involved in its missile and nuclear programs and how seriously freaked out the US really is. (Not to mention Japan, which is rebuilding its military capability mostly because of NK, but also China.)

Sabre rattling is not necessarily the result of some war-mongering instinct. In some cases, and this is probably one of them, it can be smart diplomacy that averts a war rather than hasten one.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:28 PM on June 23, 2006

The chances of our antimissile systems actually working are, in my uniformed opinion, close to zero.

cribcage, I believe that rdr may in fact be subtly indicating that he is a top-ranking military official with inside knowledge of our missile defense system.
posted by cobra libre at 1:33 PM on June 23, 2006

I think it would be a much more peaceful world if every nation had a nuclear weapon. Look at what it's done for India/Pakistan relations.

Actually, it would be a more peaceful world if every nation DIDNT have a nuclear weapon. ;)

As for nukes gauranteeing peace, that only works (and even then, badly) if the nations involved are democracies (so there is SOME level of accountability of the leadership, however slight) and only works if their economies are intertwined (the 'capitalism eventually brings coexistence' argument, which, like all of these arguments, has its weak and strong points -- depending on the context).
In other words - give a non-democratic nation (try: marxist ideologues looking for world revolution - or better, try: religious ideologues with explicit goals of world conversion-or-death) and their having nukes DOES NOT work, for anyone. Cuz in fact they've declared war on the world quite explicitly.

And with all their faults, democracies are a hair more accountable in these things, to their people and the world, than non-democracies. And while ideally no one should be messing with nukes, with all thats at stakes, I'd be willing to say non-democracies (i.e., OPENLY religiously or ideologically evangelistic regimes) cannot be allowed to have nukes, PERIOD.

And for the democracies that do have them, I'd say we need to do a lot more to keep pressing for accountability in nuclear policy decisions. But atleast the institutional framework is there, it exists, even if we're not taking advantage of it as citizens, like we should.
posted by jak68 at 1:48 PM on June 23, 2006

Oh, regarding India/Pakistan, in fact there are plenty of people in non-democratic and religiously extremist pakistan who cannot WAIT to use nukes on India (this is a documented fact, by the way; and is one of the reasons why we're supporting the (secular) dictator Musharraf, since as bad as he is, he is nearly single handedly keeping the nukes out of the hands of the Taliban types who WOULD be much more willing to use them in a first strike). Contrast with India -- India's nukes, though regrettable, are under the control of a democratic government and decisions regarding their use are NOT made by dogmatic decree. India also, therefore, has (and can afford to have) a no-first-strike policy. And lastly, with its economic investments, India has much more to lose in a nuke war than pakistan.
In other words, there is an ASYMMETRY here, between the two -- one is non-democratic and largely a closed economy - and has much less to lose in a nuke fight.
So this is actualy a BAD example of nuclear-proliferation-as-deterrent, in my humble opinion. Because until Pakistan moves forward in its institutional systems, it is in fact a ticking time bomb and continues to be so today. Just cuz it hasnt happened YET...
posted by jak68 at 1:53 PM on June 23, 2006

Our missile defense system doesn't work if it's raining.
posted by kirkaracha at 2:14 PM on June 23, 2006

Oh, come on, people!

The US would not use its missle defense system take out a North Korean rocket on its pad. That system is for defending against unexpected attacks. The (cruise) missle which would destroy the North Korean launch site, or maybe just the rocket on the pad, would be launched from an aircraft carrier in the Sea of Japan, or from an airplane.
posted by Rash at 2:46 PM on June 23, 2006

defense system to take out
posted by Rash at 2:47 PM on June 23, 2006

The test results people are quoting are from rigged missiles.
I've heard this statement many times, usually in a context that implied cheating on the part of the testers. A system as complex as an ABM defense would not be tested end-to-end until all the component parts were tested. Therefore, tests would be planned to show that the missile launch could be detected, that the trajectory of the missile could be correctly calculated, that the interceptor could be vectored to the intercept area, that the interceptor could track and kill the missile, etc. If I wanted to test only the last part, I would devise a plan that would put the missile and the interceptor in proximity, e.g., something like a GPS beacon. Once in proximity, I would observe the interceptor's capability to use other means of tracking and destroying the target. If it was capable of doing that, I would declare the test a success.

Our missile defense system doesn't work if it's raining.
That article didn't say the defense system was defeated by rain. It said the testing was postponed. It's possible the target missile would be affected by rain. It's possible the atmospheric conditions would limit the range of the telemetry streams. It's possible the chase aircraft would not be able to fly in stormy weather. It's possible the flight termination systems (safety devices for destroying aberrant missiles) would be affected by rain/atmospherics/lightning. In other words, it's the test that doesn't work in the rain, not necessarily the defense system.

ICBMs are best destroyed during the boost phase. They are larger targets then (still have the booster rockets), the warheads don't have sufficient velocity to reach the target, and debris (including chemical or biological agents) will fall on the launcher's country rather than on a friendly country. However, the boost phase only lasts 1 - 5 minutes, depending on target range and fuel type. The launch would have to be detected, the trajectory calculated, the commitment to intercept made, and the interceptor would have to be launched and make it to the intercept point within that time. The missile defense system just isn't up to that task right now, so destroying the missile would involve a pre-launch strike as Rash suggests.
posted by forrest at 3:24 PM on June 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

That's a lot of speculation there.
What makes you think I'm speculating?
posted by forrest at 10:19 PM on June 23, 2006

jak68 wrote:

democracies are a hair more accountable in these things, to their people and the world, than non-democracies.

your point has no historical validation. The only country to ever use a nuclear weapon in combat was a democracy - and there are plenty of people in our own administration that want to use tactical nukes - including Donald Rumsfeld. Do you think nations that employ suicide bombers are more apt to use a nuclear weapon than those who do not? Why? I've yet to see any leader of a terrorist organization strap on a bomb and detonate himself for his cause. These people are just as cowardly as our leaders about facing the afterlife.
posted by any major dude at 10:55 AM on June 25, 2006

you're right that the only nation to actually use nukes was a democracy. And you're right that there are plenty of people in our democracy who would like to use nukes again.
However, thats not what I said. I said "accountable". That doesnt mean we wont use them.
Its like this: The taliban uses torture. The americans use torture. But there's a difference: when we use torture, there is a realistic chance that our system can be made - if the citizens push for it - to hold the torturers accountable. There is no such possiblity on the taliban side. And in fact, we DO denounce torture - EVEN THE REPUBS HAD TO; and there HAS been a trial. This does not mean the process is ideal. but it also does not mean that the difference is meaningless.
On the taliban side, even these small things are not even possible; its just not an option.
Thats what I meant. I'm not saying we do it right and they dont. I'm saying the small differences though, are not meaningless, given whats at stake.
Given a choice I too wish everyone would lose the nukes. But if my only choice is between a democracy and fascism, I'll take the former every time, while doing what I can to keep it functional. The two are simply NOT equivalent, no matter what the historical record of violence is, they're just NOT.
posted by jak68 at 3:16 PM on June 25, 2006

jak68, why do you allow yourself to be swayed by lip service? When you say even the Republicans denouced torture, what does that mean when they do absolutely nothing to end it or to even bring those who condone it to account? Last I remember Donald Rumsfeld was still the Secretary of Defense.
If you think that putting a couple of low level pawns in jail has put an end to torture then you just really aren't paying attention. It's happening in secret prisons all throughout eastern Europe. Maybe you don't want to face the fact that the United States has become a fascist state. We have an unpopular government that acts on it's own without the consent of the majority, an electoral system that millions upon millions have absolutely no faith in - and a government that resists attempts to reform it, a government that allows corporations to write its laws with no regard for individual rights. The Germans have a saying: "Wehret den Anfängen!" -- I think it's a little late for that. I believe we are on that same sorry path as the Germans were in the 1930's, the only difference is that there is no superpower left on earth to slap us down.
posted by any major dude at 5:39 PM on June 25, 2006

The Republicans do not renounce torture, they embrace it. They just love to see those fucking brown terrorists in Guantanamo get theirs. If you don't do anything wrong, you don't have anything to fear.
posted by caddis at 6:14 PM on June 25, 2006

Maybe you don't want to face the fact that the United States has become a fascist state.

fellas, we're on the same side as far as criticizing our govt and the repubs -- I'm just not as ready as you are to declare the above, which I think is too easy. The US has a history of imperialism and has strong fascist tendencies. But it is simply not a fascist state. Ask anyone who has actually lived in one.
I'm fine with comparing individuals like Bush with OBL.
I'm not yet fine with comparing a democracy with a fascist regime.
posted by jak68 at 8:33 AM on June 26, 2006

when was the last time in American history so many reasonable scholars have insinuated that America has turned fascist? This is not partisan politics. I don't remember a time in the nineties when a partisan republican called Clinton fascist. The reason I included the German quote "resist the beginnings" is because when you can be reasonably sure your state has turned fascist - it's too late. Fascism is the convergence of corporate and political power. If you don't see that happening with FTAA, NAFTA, WTO, IMF, Wolfowitz taking over the World Bank and now with the War on Terrorism then you are somewhere between hopeful and deluded.
posted by any major dude at 11:17 AM on June 26, 2006

then you are somewhere between hopeful and deluded.

Someone once said (I think it was Vico): Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.
I think thats the kind of middle ground i'm shooting for... ;)

I'm just saying even during Watergate, which was (aside from the present period) the closest this nation came to a "real" executive fascism, the nation had institutional options (and, though it was touch and go for a bit, they did work). Options that "real" fascist regimes dont even have available.

While I agree with you that we're in such a period once again, I dont want to declare the patient dead before it has died. I understand and share your concern about the sickliness of our current democracy and I'm doing what I can. If you look JUST at the administration, we look an awful lot like the taliban. But taken as a whole we are nowhere near them.

I think part of the problem is we keep talking about "the US" as if it were monolithic. We're a nation divided 49-51, if the last two elections were any indication. I'm not ready to damn the 49% just because the 51% just squeaked by and are currently bullying us. On the other hand, in pakistan or under the taliban (to take two obvious contemporary examples of religious/ideological dictatorships), its not a 49/51 issue, and whatever percent of the population is willing to speak up, is brutally suppressed. There are no mass pro-freedom demonstrations against the administration in these places. If anything, there have been mass demonstrations in SUPPORT of even more religious fundamentalism (remember the cartoon controversy demonstrations?). THATS a culture under ideological dictatorship. I'm sorry but we're just not there yet. The 49% is alive and kicking here, even if we on the left are a bit confused for the moment about how to best articulate our ideals in a post-marxist, post-modern, and post-9/11 world. THATS our biggest problem - not the right, if you ask me. Once we figure that out (and it will inevitably happen in due course), we'll likely take our 2% lead back.

So yes, I'm not ready to declare us a fascist regime, despite the gloomy contemporary political situation. And yes, its awfully gloomy. But thats still a long, long way from pakistan or the taliban.
posted by jak68 at 11:10 PM on June 26, 2006

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