Dissuasion and the Logical Fallacy in Trump’s Missile Defense Review

The Trump administration has finally released its long anticipated, and long delayed, Missile Defense Review.  The Review itself contains a little fossil that hints at a tortuous drafting and redrafting process. At page 44 the MD Review states; “a network of SKA sensors will be placed on orbit by the end of 2018.” That is a reference to the space based kill assessment programme which consists of a network of small sensors on commercial satellites. The way that sentence is structured suggests we have an early fossil too. The Nuclear Posture Review was released in February 2018 and it was expected that the BMD Review (the B is dropped now for reasons that will become clearer) would be completed and released around that time as well. The earliest expected date was late 2017. The Kim-Trump summit at Singapore occurred in June 2018.

This sentence appears to be a fossil from a version of the MD Review written before that summit i.e. before June 2018.  This little fossil suggests the MD Review has undergone an interesting process of evolution shaped by the external political environment especially the bilateral denuclearisation talks with North Korea and the shellacking Trump received in the midterm elections (no bucks, no Buck Rogers).

Upon the release of the MD Review President Trump stated, among other things

Our goal is simple: to ensure that we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States — anywhere, anytime, anyplace.

…Our strategy is grounded in one overriding objective: to detect and destroy every type of missile attack against any American target, whether before or after launch…

…Regardless of the missile type or the geographic origins of the attack, we will ensure that enemy missiles find no sanctuary on Earth or in the skies above…

…My upcoming budget will invest in a space-based missile defense layer.  It’s new technology.  It’s ultimately going to be a very, very big part of our defense and, obviously, of our offense

There are two ways that you can read those Reagan type remarks. They can be taken as hyperbolic bullshit or as aspirations. I’d take them as both. The Missile Defense Review itself does not call for a Star Wars type missile defence system that would render missiles “impotent and obsolete,” although that said it did say the US would not accept limitations, either qualitative or quantitative, on its missile defence capabilities. Trump’s statement is hyperbolic to the extent that it both greatly exaggerates the contents of the Review and what missile defence technology can physically do. The best repost to this hyperbole is Richard Feynman’s refrain, made when investigating the causes of the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, “for a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.” This is why missile defence has always had a flexible empirical testing regime and why this Review further reinforces that flexible testing regime. When you can’t fool nature the obvious response is to change the empirical goal posts, like with string theorists (of whom Feynman was an early critic), so you can at least fool everybody else especially those paying for the exercise. That said, the statement is aspirational to the extent that the Missile Defense Review is a step toward reviving the full blown version of Reagan’s Star Wars which would require explicitly working toward developing a missile defence capability addressing relatively large first strike missile attacks from both Russia and China, a vision inhibited by, at the very least, current technology and the wider political context.

That brings us back to the fossil, for fossils are originally laid down in times when the environment was different. What did the Review look like in drafts written prior to the denuclearisation talks and Trump’s midterm shellacking? We do not know.

That’s a long segue into something else that I want to write about. The Missile Defense Review emphasises defending against missiles (including cruise missiles and hypersonic glide vehicles so hence the dropping of the B as in Ballistic) in all phases of their flight, including boost phase defence, and defeat (both kinetic and nonkinetic) of missiles prior to launch labelled as “left of launch” capabilities. Toward that end the Review emphasises both the upgrading of existing capabilities and the development of new capabilities. In so far as the latter goes, the items discussed in the Review that have attracted the most commentary and analysis are developing a new interceptor for boost phase interception to be launched from modified F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, working toward Unmanned Aerial Vehicle deployed compact high energy lasers for boost phase interception, a layer of space based sensors to augment Earth bound sensors, and space based interception. These capabilities are discussed in the Review because it argues that the missile defence mission must recognise the threat environment has changed since the 2010 BMD Review. This is a central claim made in the 2019 Missile Defense Review. It is indeed “the fundamental starting point” of the Review

This 2019 MDR also emphasizes that the missile threat environment now calls for a comprehensive approach to missile defense against rogue state and regional missile threats.  This approach integrates offensive and defensive capabilities for deterrence, and includes active defense to intercept missiles in all phases of flight after launch, passive defense to mitigate the effects of missile attack, and attack operations during a conflict to neutralize offensive missile threats prior to launch

The new threat environment is directly linked to the new missile defence concept (i.e. dropping the B) and the expanded capabilities outlined in the Review

The United States will develop innovative approaches and new technologies that stay ahead of the rapid advances in rogue states’ offensive missile threats to the U.S. homeland and provide the needed defense against regional missile threats. To do so, DoD will increase investments in and deploy new technologies and concepts, and adapt existing weapons systems to field new capabilities rapidly at lower cost

The Review develops an analysis of that new threat environment by discussing the growing missile strike capabilities of North Korea, Iran, Russia, and China both collectively and individually. This is not the time for a review of that discussion, although I should note that in just about every instance (bar North Korea) an undefended inference from capabilities to doctrine is made.

In the case of Iran, that goes from Iran’s missile capabilities to a categorical statement that they show Iran seeks to achieve hegemony in the Middle East. Yet, a more realistic and sober reading is that Iran’s missile programme is for deterrence not hegemony. China, by the same token, is investing in upgraded and new missile strike capabilities because Beijing seeks hegemony in the IndoPacific and so therefore desires the capability to dislodge the US from the region. That’s an unsupported inferential leap that does not follow from a consideration of capabilities alone. Russia too has revisionist geopolitical ambitions and its investment in growing missile strike capabilities follows from this and is on a par with Moscow’s supposed “escalate-to-deescalate” nuclear strategy. All these inferential leaps are contestable, in fact I would say they are unwarranted. With regard to North Korea the assertion that it has not yet completed the development of a capability to credibly threaten the US homeland with a nuclear armed long range missile strike has been repeated. That too is contestable.

This brings us back to topic. One of the key doctrinal concepts that has been used in support of missile defence has been “dissuasion.” This strategic concept was first formally articulated by the George W Bush administration. This is how dissuasion was outlined in the controversial 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States of America

Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States

It’s a bit like me wanting to go up against Usain Bolt in a 100m dash. Why bother? To bother would be irrational.

Ballistic missile defence was a key part of this. The Bush II administration publicly released mere excerpts from its Nuclear Posture Review. Here’s one of those excerpts on missile defence and dissuasion

“Defenses can make it more arduous and costly for an adversary to compete militarily with or wage war against the United States. The demonstration of a range of technologies and systems for missile defense can have a dissuasive effect on potential adversaries. The problem of countering missile defenses, especially defensive systems with multiple layers, presents a potential adversary with the prospect of a difficult, time-consuming and expensive undertaking”

The Trump 2019 Missile Defense Review quotes the Obama administration’s 2010 BMD Review to the same affect

There is bipartisan recognition of the potential role missile defense can play in dissuading rogue states from pursuing ICBMs. The 2010 BMDR noted that through the U.S. commitment to missile defense, “the United States seeks to dissuade [rogue] states from developing an intercontinental ballistic missile

The Trump Review goes on to repeat this claim regarding dissuasion

As U.S. missile defense capabilities improve to stay ahead of missile threats, they may also help dissuade missile proliferation among potential adversaries by reducing the value of their investments in ballistic and cruise missiles as effective instruments of coercion or war. If so, this dissuasive effect, together with other counterproliferation measures such as sanctions, will contribute to U.S. diplomatic efforts to limit proliferation, assure allies, and hedge against future missile threats

And therein lies a key fallacy in the Missile Defense Review. The Review states that there is a new threat environment because rogue states and revisionist powers (read Russia and China) are developing more advanced missile strike capabilities. That is, furthermore, “the fundamental starting point” of the Review. That’s why missile defence must further evolve toward boost phase interception, toward defeat not just defence, toward space and so on. But, alas, missile defence was supposed to dissuade that new threat environment from coming to be in the first place.

Missile defence dissuades rogue states and revisionist powers from investing in qualitatively and quantitatively expanding missile capabilities. Rogue states and revisionist powers nonetheless invest in growing missile capabilities. A new missile threat environment thereby has emerged. Missile defence dissuades rogue states and revisionist powers from investing in qualitatively and quantitatively augmented missile capabilities. Missile defence therefore must expand in scope and scale given the new threat environment in order to dissuade further augmentation of missile strike capabilities against the United States.

The fallacy should be clear.

Of course, the Trump statement is more cautious than the Obama statement it cites. It uses expressions such as “may also help dissuade” and “if so” that are qualified. There’s good reason for this, given the obvious fallacy at work here. The fallacy becomes worse still upon realisation that the new threat environment, in part, is precisely a direct result of missile defence. For example, Russia’s research and development programme on hypersonic glide vehicles and nuclear propelled cruise missiles are, partly, Moscow’s long term response to BMD.

The qualifiers obscure a more fundamental point that goes right to the heart of missile defence advocacy. One would expect a rational adversary to be dissuaded from developing missile strike capabilities to the extent that missile defence works as advertised. The logic is the same as the Usain Bolt example. Bolt can run 100m in less than 10secs. I know that to be the case, so I am dissuaded from challenging him to a race for no matter how hard I try I know that I cannot match him. Dissuasion does not work, but if missile defence works one would expect missile defence to dissuade a rational adversary. Either North Korea, Iran, Russia and China are irrational, in which case both deterrence and dissuasion are neither here nor there, or missile defence does not work to the extent that its proponents would have us believe.

Surely dissuasion is fallacious because missile defence does not work as well as its advocates have been claiming and, what’s more, Moscow and the rest know this to be true (which then says a lot about Putin’s hyperbolic rhetoric on the topic).

There’s an element of the irrational and absurd at work on missile defence that is best resolved through an analysis of the needs, interests and concerns of respective, both putative defender and attacker, military-aerospace-industrial complexes.

We should always remind ourselves of Feynman’s refrain cited above for the situation with missile defence can be no better encapsulated; “for a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

This is related to an even more well known Feynman truism which missile defence amply confirms. Nature cannot be fooled, true, but we are the easiest to fool.