A Maginot Line for Missiles
[For an update on SecDef Gates’ own analysis of 9/20/09, click here. For a recent post on the growing quagmire in Afghanistan, click here. For comment on Bob Herbert’s column today, click here.]
Remember the Maginot Line? It was an expensive, static line of entrenched fortifications that the French built after World War I. Its idea was to give the French time to mobilize if the Germans attacked again. But when World War II came, the Nazis drove their tanks right around it, and France fell. The term “Maginot Line” became a metaphor for useless, immovable defenses and, more generally, for fighting the last war.
That’s what the President just saved us from wasting our money on in Europe. The static, immovable anti-missile bases in Poland and the Czech Republic that Dubya proposed would have been about as useful in protecting us—let alone Europe—as the Maginot Line was in protecting France in World War II. Here’s why.
You can learn a lot about geography and ballistic missile warfare with a globe and a piece of string. Flat maps won’t do; you have to have a globe that represents the round Earth in three dimensions.
Take your string and put one end on Tehran. Then put the other end on a probable U.S. target for Iran’s long-range nuclear missiles (if it ever develops them), for example, New York City or Washington, D.C. Then stretch the string tight to form a great circle path, i.e., the shortest distance between Tehran and the target on the Earth’s curved surface. Now extend the same path down the Eastern Seaboard of the United States.
If you do this simple experiment, you’ll learn something interesting. The extended great-circle path from Tehran to the target goes right along our entire Eastern Seaboard. The path is not far from all the great conurbations of our East Coast, including Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., the bedroom communities and military installations of Northern Virginia, and even the Research Triangle near Charlotte, North Carolina.
The practical significance of this fact is that it’s much easier to aim a ballistic missile from side to side than it is to get its range precisely right. If a missile aimed at New York or Washington, D.C., along the great-circle route from Iran overshot or undershot, it might still hit something important. If the missile came from the side instead, an undershot would put it in the Atlantic, while an overshot would throw it into the Appalachians. So the great-circle route from Iran to our Eastern Seaboard gives errant Iranian missile technology the greatest chance of doing us devastating harm.
Now keep your great-circle string in place and note where it goes through Europe. Yup. Right through Poland. If you move the Tehran end of the string west to Iran’s remotest western border (where I guess our intelligence thinks Iran may have or build a missile base), it goes through the Czech Republic.
These simple facts—which anyone can verify with a globe and a piece of string—compel two conclusions. First, Dubya’s plan was never intended to protect Europe; it was intended to protect us. It was a twist on Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” daydream designed to shield us from Iran. Second, had it been built, Dubya’s program would have been about as useful in protecting anyone from incoming Iranian missiles, including us, as the Maginot Line was in protecting the French in World War II.
Let’s explore the logic behind these conclusions.
However little you may know about ballistics, one thing should be obvious. A missile defense system designed to shoot down a missile with another missile had better be deployed between the incoming missile’s launch site and its target. So the mere fact that Poland and the Czech Republic were the proposed deployment sites excludes all of Southern Europe from the protected zone.
Equally important, a missile defense system works best when it can shoot down missiles in their boost phases or (at worst) at the apex of their paths, just as they are becoming ballistic. As a ballistic missile falls from its apex, it moves faster and faster and becomes harder and harder to shoot down. So targets close to the missile defense deployment site are hard to protect, even if they are on other side of the defense site from the incoming missile launch site.
Put these two facts together and look carefully at the globe and Tehran, and you come to an interesting conclusion. Dubya’s proposed missile defense system would have protected little, if any, of Europe from ballistic missiles from Iran. It might have offered some protection for the British Isles and Scandinavia, and maybe even parts of northern Germany. At best, it would have shielded parts of Protestant Northern Europe but left nearly all of Catholic Southern Europe undefended, including the two host countries. So you might call Dubya’s plan “Martin Luther’s Revenge.”
The second point is even more important. Ballistic missiles may have to travel great-circle paths in their ballistic descent phase, depending on how sophisticated their guidance technology is. (There are ways of directing and guiding a missile even in its ballistic descent phase.) But missiles don’t have to travel great-circle paths in their boost or ascent phase, when they are still under power and remote or automated guidance. Non-great-circle paths are entirely feasible; they just require more fuel and a bit more sophisticated guidance and control technology in the ascent phase.
That’s where the Maginot Line comes in. Dubya’s plan would have guarded the great-circle route from Iran to our Eastern Seaboard. But the defensive systems, like the Maginot Line, would have been fixed and immovable. (A helpful graphic from the Wall Street Journal (bottom of page) depicts the defensive missiles in silos, and that’s probably how they would have been deployed. Missiles designed to shoot down long-range ballistic missiles are much bigger, heavier and more complicated than the short-range protective missiles in the new Obama plan.)
Offensive missiles from Iran (or anywhere else) don’t have to follow great-circle routes. Iranians are not stupid. As Dubya’s Maginot Line were being built (a process that would take half a decade, even if feasible), they would design, build and program their long-range missiles to use non-great-circle routes. Hitting their targets would be harder, because their missiles would be coming in the from the side, not along our whole Eastern Seaboard. But in the end they could bypass our fixed and immobile missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic just as the Nazis bypassed the Maginot Line in World War II.
The Obama plan is infinitely more intelligent for four reasons. First, the missile defenses it contemplates will be mobile, not fixed. Initially, they will all be mounted on ships. The result will be like giving the French army its own panzer divisions to fight the German tanks, i.e., a fighting chance to win in mobile warfare. Second, because our defensive systems will be much closer to Iran (in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas), they will be able to shoot down Iranian missiles earlier in their boost phases, when they are moving more slowly and are easier to hit. The Obama plan is therefore far more likely to offer an effective defense.
Third, the Obama plan uses existing, proven technology, not stuff still on the drawing boards. Finally, by deploying in seas between Iran and Europe, the new short- and medium-range missile shield will offer effective defenses to all of Europe, including Catholic Southern Europe. France, Italy, Spain and the Pope should breathe a huge sigh of relief.
The sole mysteries in this affair are two. First, how could our Pentagon ever have been so stupid as to approve an American Maginot Line in the first place? Maybe it was That Idiot Rumsfeld’s idea.
The second mystery is whom the President’s Republican detractors think they’re fooling. They know nothing. They understand nothing. They won’t even accept the solemn analysis of the Secretary of Defense, a holdover from their own party. All they can do is use demagoguery to excite angry opposition from people just as stupid as they. God save us from such “leaders.”
UPDATE (9/20/09): SecDef Gates Speaks OutToday Secretary of Defense Robert Gates—a Republican whose brains and skill were instrumental in turning around our debacle in Iraq—confirmed many of the points in my analysis above. He did so in an unusual two-page defense of the President’s plan for missile defense published in the New York Times.
SecDef Gates made a point of saying (right away, in his second paragraph) that he approved the old Maginot-Line plan “just days after becoming secretary of defense[.]” That’s about as close as any politician ever comes to saying “this dumb idea wasn’t mine.” A thoughtful and clever man, Gates would never have supported such a stupid idea if he’d had time to think about it. What he did was pass on a fait accomplis of the previous SecDef, That Idiot Rumsfeld, as I had supposed.
Why did it take nearly three years to jettison such a bad idea? Gates explains that, too. He devotes a whole paragraph to a military mindset “bordering on theology that regards any change of plans or any cancellation of a program as abandonment or even breaking faith.”
It’s probably a good thing that our military leaders are stubborn. They don’t give up a fight easily. But it’s not such a good thing in strategic planning, which requires flexibility in responding to rapidly changing technology, geopolitical realities, and intelligence about them. You have only to contemplate the original Maginot Line—or the now-jettisoned but similar bad plan for missile defense—to understand how military stubbornness can produce some really bad ideas.
Gates also noted two advantages of the Obama plan beyond the four I mentioned above. First, it will get a missile defense in place around Iran much faster than would a Maginot Line in Poland and the Czech Republic. It therefore provides some strategic leeway for errors in our intelligence estimates of Iran’s missile capability. Second, unlike the Maginot-Line plan, which would have relied on fixed, ground-based sensors in the two host countries, the new plan will use a variety of sensors, including mobile ones in space (satellites) and in the air (on planes).
The latter point is a key advantage. In this electronic age of near-instantaneous global communication, sensors can be anywhere. The more of them, and the more geographically dispersed they are, the better. But the intercepting missiles work best if launched as closely as possible to the offensive missile sites, where they can “catch” the target missiles as early as possible in their boost phase. The Obama-Gates plan offers both advantages, the old Rumsfeld plan neither.
Bob Herbert on Racism and Hatred in Politics. Bob Herbert is by far the New York Times’ most courageous and outspoken pundit. Leave it to him to expose the deep fear that every decent person has but doesn’t want to name. That’s what he did in his column today, which began with a discussion of racism directed at the President.
There will never be an end to the dispute about racism, because we all see the subject through different lenses. You can argue all the anger is about policy. You can point to that old Internet photo of Dubya’s face morphing into a monkey’s, which I still have on my computer.
But like me, many whites will go to their graves believing that Joe Wilson never would have screamed “You lie!” to a 100% white president. Southern culture is nothing if not respectful and decorous, as long as you are entirely white.
Yet all the ink spilled over racism in nearly 500 comments missed Mr. Herbert’s most important point. His last paragraph is the key. There he names the fear that decent people have been bottling up, in part to keep from giving wing nuts any ideas. If anything happened to President Obama, the progress we have made since his election would vanish in an instant, and our national future would snowball downhill.
Those of us who lived through the sixties have seen it happen with our own eyes. We never want to see that happen again. My wife and I, who love this country deeply, have made serious plans to emigrate if the worst occurs. The fact that we have even begun to plan shows the depths of our fear.
When the camera pans from the podium and you see all those thousands of faces and popping flashbulbs, you realize how hard a job our Secret Service agents have. They must react to real threats in an instant but leave harmless nuts untouched. So far no one has even accused them of overreacting, and that worries me. A split-second delay could destroy the most promising administration of my lifetime (I’m 64) and our nation’s future with it.
Our kids and grandkids depend upon that future remaining bright. So all of us have the duty not to turn our backs and leave protection to the Secret Service alone, let alone proper respect and decorum. We must speak out.
When people far too young to know call the President a “Nazi,” a “fascist” or a “Communist,” we must speak out, and loudly. When people bring weapons to political dialogue, we must stand up and object. And when commentators use our public airways to foment unreasoning hate against our elected leader, we must boycott their sponsors and bring them to heel.
If anything does happen to our President, we will all feel ashamed for having done too little. Too late, we will remember the lesson of the Holocaust and World War II: evil triumphs when good people do nothing.
So our job is not to analyze how much racism is responsible, but to stand up and fight, with all our intelligence and economic power, the hatred and violence that threaten our way of life, whatever their cause. I hope that Herbert’s column today will motivate more good people to do so.