9 years ago: A top-secret public speech

April 7, 2004, on this blog: A top-secret public speech

[Sen. Biden] argued forcefully that missile defense was the wrong priority. It took away money needed elsewhere, for more urgent priorities. And it took the administration’s eye off the ball, keeping them from paying sufficient attention to those more-urgent priorities — among them the threat of terrorist attacks.

Condoleezza Rice was going to speak from a prepared text. It was a text prepared to counter Biden’s argument. A text prepared to argue that no priority was higher, more urgent or more deserving of funding than that of missile defense. It was a text prepared to be delivered on Sept. 11, 2001.

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  • Darakou

    To be be fair on the administration, Missile Defense was an excellent arcade game. It’s hard to fault President Bush for wanting to play it all day.

  • TheBrett

    It’s actually not a bad idea to pursue missile defense. Nuclear missiles in general are a destabilizing and unsafe way to use for a nuclear deterrent, so anything that renders them drastically less effective is good. For all the talk about MAD back in the Cold War, we had several instances where we almost came to nuclear war just over misunderstandings, simply because with ICBMs you either have to commit to a full-fledged launch, or hope that you have enough durable missiles to ride out the first attack and still be a credible threat.

  • LoneWolf343

    Yes, but at the time, it wasn’t a problem. We had peaceful relations with all the nuclear power at the time, and it looked like, and still does, that those relations are stable. However, since then an enemy has apparently gained a nuke, and that another is working on getting one as well, so NOW missile defense is a good idea. Note that these comments were made over a decade ago, and that’s a long time geopolitically.

  • joel_hanes

    Missile defense is hard, so hard that many of the engineers and scientists in the field opposed the SDI program because they thought the goals unreachable.

  • myeck waters

    Was the speech text ever made public?

  • P J Evans

    My father certainly thought that way, and it wasn’t completely outside his field of knowledge.

  • TheBrett

    I wouldn’t go that far. The Russians built a pretty solid system around Moscow that they’ve since let fall into ruin (which was legal under the old ABM Treaty), and the US was getting some good skin-to-skin hits with Nike-Zeus in the early 1960s. It’s possible, particularly if you try to hit the missiles during the “ascent” phase.

    Even if you can’t get 100% hits, it still can be worthwhile. Some (classified) percentage of ballistic missiles fail to reach their targets, and you save a lot of lives if you can knock out, say, 90% of them.

  • TheBrett

    Actually, the better time to get it would have been back in the Cold War, when there was a real risk that you could accidentally fall into World War III from a misunderstanding. That realistically won’t happen now, but it still might be worthwhile just in case (it’s not really that expensive as far as military projects go – compare it to the F-35 program).

  • LoneWolf343

    Well, we tried: the Star Wars program. The problem was it just wasn’t feasible at the time.

  • TheBrett

    Some of the crazier stuff wasn’t viable (like bomb-pumped X-ray lasers in orbit), but the more basic set-up was. Like I said, there was precedent for it in the post I did above responding to joel_hanes.

  • There are other, worse problems with missile shields.

    Namely, if you think your enemy is going to erect an impenetrable defence against your nuclear missiles tomorrow, you have basically no reason in the world not to launch your missiles today.

  • P J Evans

    Doesn’t help the people they land on, though.

  • kadh2000

    Timing is everything.

  • Lori

    The problem with missile defense systems is that it takes far more time and money to build a working system than it takes to defeat that system. We talked about this in the grad school class I took on nukes. Missile defense is not a good long term investment and is unlikely ever to be. We’d be far safer if we invested the money is efforts to avoid war in the first place and increasing our resiliency in the event that an attack does take place.

    That doesn’t even get into the fact that the US has goals which work at cross-purposes and frankly argue against the notion that anyone in Washington actually seriously thinks we need missile defense. We spend tons of money trying to build a a system, then we sell key dual-use components to countries that are ostensibly part of the reason that we need missile defense because contractors want to make as much money as possible and there are parts of the government that see promoting exports of US products, any and all, as their primary mission.

  • Or… for who knows what reason. The UN drafted a treaty to help stop the exporting of weapons to terrorists and human rights violators a few days ago. North Korea, Iran and Syria were the only countries that refused to sign it (no big surprises there), but more locally, the NRA and a chunk of the GOP objected to it.

    So… the NRA and GOP think it’s verrry important that we send weapons to North Korea, apparently. You know, that North Korea that we’ll probably be at war with before the end of the year.

  • Lori

    I doubt that the NRA & GOP think we need to send weapons to the North Koreans. The issue is more about the NRA and the GOP than it is about North Korea. The NRA has a fantasy that signing the treaty will result in the UN confiscating guns from US gun owners and the GOP never goes against the NRA no matter what. The GOP generally hates the UN and specifically wants to reserve for the US the right to sell weapons to whoever we damn well please, even if it does happen to be some other human rights violator. Sadly, we have a long history of that. (Although in fairness so does every other country with a substantial weapons industry.)

  • heckblazer

    That’s unfair. They think it’s important that American gun manufacturers should be able to sell their wares to drug cartels, pirates and genocidaires. They claim that the treaty is an end run around the 2nd Amendment, but that can’t be the real reason since the treaty explicitly applies only to international arms sales.

  • Lori

    If we’re trying to be strictly fair gun manufacturers only sell directly to the genocidaires, and even there it’s only some of them.The drug cartels and pirates, and genocidaires who unwisely generate too much publicity get their guns on the secondary market.

    Of course, gun manufacturers are well aware of the secondary market and they have no objection to the way it pumps up demand for their product.

    If anyone is interested in how this works, this book is interesting and readable for the non-specialist:


  • TheBrett

    That’s not how the Russians responded back in the 1980s to it. It actually made them more willing to agree to concessions on nukes and arms.

  • Ross Thompson

    Well, that’s true. But we can’t decide to scrap every preventative measure that isn’t 100% effective.

  • That sort of weird fantasizing about the UN doing anything more threatening than waving a pen is the same kind of crap LaHaye has been shovelling out in his books. I can only hope nobody who’s read LaHaye’s books does something incredibly stupid (read: violent) against a nonexistent UN threat. :|

  • Lori

    As Fred has noted many times, LaHaye got his anti-UN crap from the John Birch society. Violence periodically does arise in that fetid corner of US culture, but I don’t think there’s any particular reason to think that this issue will trigger it.

  • WIth the way North Korea has been lately I’m not so sanguine. :|

  • Lori

    The North Korea situation is really separate from the issue of whether or not some members of the US far Right are going to commit acts of violence as a result about fears about this particular treaty. I don’t think the paranoid Right has the ability to push Obama into wading into another conflict wholesale, even in Korea.

  • Maybe it makes more sense if you’re the sort of person who thinks that a Firm Stance is more important than actual results. If them taking a Firm Stance against abortion and premarital sex is way more important than actually reducing teen pregnancy and abortion, then perhaps it makes the same kind of sense for them to believe that the UN’s Firm Stance in opposition to guns is a huge deal even though it won’t actually result in any gun ownership restrictions.

  • Boot

    mmm… where to begin…

    – if you can threaten to put in place a system that will prevent 90% of an opponent’s warheads landing, that puts a pressure on the opponent to use their strategic advantage while it still lasts i.e. a potentially effective strategic ABM system increases the probability of a strategic nuclear war (the role of government at this level and in this equation is not to protect the people or even the state, but to protect the government’s freedom to act. So, it would be reasonably rational to initiate a nuclear war you could at least bring to a halt by negotiation than to be faced with the situation that you could be threatened with nuclear strikes to which your government could offer no response)

    – the Moscow system is similar to the US Safeguard system, 100 missiles, one area protected. Safeguard was deactivated after less than a year of operation because it was considered that it wouldn’t be very effective – suggesting that the US probably has a similar opinion of Moscow’s defences. (it wasn’t just that Safeguard was expensive, it was that they were out of date, they could intercept 100 warheads – that was the payload of ~10 SS-18 missiles, within a decade the USSR had >300 – the Moscow system at a 1-1 warhead to ABM exchange is good for about 2/3 of the missile from an Ohio Class SSBN)

    – hitting a missile in the ascent phase does solve a lot of the problems of ABM defence against missiles with multiple warheads, but no system has ever been thought likely to be able to hit strategic missiles launched from the interior of a continent during the ascent phase

    – see point 1 in relation to the geopolitical stability implications of getting an ascent phase interceptor working

    – submarine based or long ranged theatre weapons complicate the ABM problem in two ways if they can be fired on a depressed trajectory (i.e. a substantially shorter than expected flight time)

    — the defending nation’s ABM system may not be aligned to the flight paths of missiles that can be launched from mobile platforms (submarines)

    — with short enough flight times, the strategic nuclear equivalent of air defence suppression may be possible (destroying the radar sites and ABM bases before they can fire)

    All of this with without going into the problems of dealing with the effects of high altitude nuclear detonations on radar performance. That couldn’t just be avoided by using hit to kill ABM’s, the attacking side could detonate warheads prematurely such that they would blind the defender’s radar at the moment of interception (and the effect lasts for long enough that the incoming warheads may be landing by the time the first effect of the first interference detonations is clearing).

    In other words – a true ABM shield isn’t something that is very feasible and is probably a bad idea anyway

    That said – in the past week, we’ve been treated to threats from North Korea to use nuclear tipped missiles against various nations. In the North Asian theatre, Korea and Japan can be protected by combinations of THAAD and SM-3 missiles. The greater threat may be that the NK’s ICBM’s could launch a warhead to Denver (or Phoenix or any other large inland city). This is the type of threat that the US missile defence system was set up to negate (and the remote possibility of having to destroy a “rogue” launch). It seems that (and i really hate to say this – because it suggest GWB was getting something right) that as far as protecting US lives go, spending money on the missile system, could be a better investment than the same money spent on counter terrorism. A successful attack on a large US city could cause causalities on a similar scale to the nuclear attacks on Japan (~100k per attack). Counter terrorism spending would need to prevent ~30 WTC attacks to achieve the same return on investment as a single successful ABM interception.