Friday, January 8, 2016

The North Korea Nuke Test and Missile Defense Systems

Earlier this week, North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test. It was not a hydrogen bomb test as some news outlets, and North Korea itself, initially claimed. Rather, most sources agree that it was not a hydrogen bomb, but a regular atomic bomb. (We know this because the strength of the blast was too small to be a hydrogen bomb.*)

To be sure, this is not a positive development for world affairs. There's rarely an upside when any country announces that they have developed more powerful weapons. In the best case scenario, the weapons are never used and their development just wasted a lot of resources that could have been better spent on anyone else. And in the worst case, of course, the weapons actually are used. But while this is not good news, it is also not a reason to panic.

One reason we shouldn't panic is because there isn't a compelling reason to assume the leader of North Korea is a crazy person. Crazy evil perhaps, but not crazy in the literal sense. This is an important distinction that many people fail to recognize. The fact that he's a horrible dictator does not mean he lacks a rational interest in his own self-preservation. So even if he has a nuclear weapon that he could use against South Korea or Japan, he has no incentive to do so. Yes, doing so might strengthen his hold on power further, but such power is worth very little if your entire kingdom stands to be flattened by inevitable and overwhelming retaliatory force.

All North Korea's ownership of a nuclear weapon really means is that the US is unlikely to initiate force against the country. We don't attack countries that have a meaningful capacity for defense or retaliation. Thus, even though the US and the UN are criticizing North Korea for this latest test, it's unlikely this will escalate to overt violence. That's the other reason we shouldn't panic.

With that said, however, we obviously can't expect politicians to apply this same reasoning. Instead, many are jumping at the opportunity to blame Obama's weakness on foreign policy for this, and one of the favorite proposed counter-measures is to increase support for missile defense systems. Naturally, these missile defense systems are made by the same Defense contractors that make our weapons and tend to be significant campaign donors and lobbyists.

The concept of a missile defense system--shooting down a bad missile with a good one--is superficially appealing. In practice, these systems have consistently failed. And the reason they fail is intuitive. An effective missile defense system has to be able defend against every possible tactic an attacker can use. Meanwhile, an effective attacker only needs to find one method that isn't accounted for. So when dealing with an adversary that has any degree of sophistication, chances are good that they'll get through.** Thus, the only practical purpose missile defense systems usually serve is to transfer taxpayer money to large Defense contractors.

At The Intercept this week, they have a quick article summarizing some of the many costly failures of missile defense systems over time. Here's a link to that article:

*Although it's easy to confuse A-bombs (atomic) and H-bombs (hydrogen), they are actually significantly different. As the great whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg once said, it takes an A-bomb just to detonate an H-bomb. Indeed, H-bombs are about 1,000 times more powerful than A-bombs, and fortunately, H-bombs are also significantly harder to make.

**During the most Gaza War in 2014, the effectiveness of Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system was highly touted but disputed. Ultimately, this is beside the point because the rockets fired from the Gaza Strip are very unsophisticated and would have little in common with a missile that could carry a nuclear warheads.

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