Missile defense is an offensive strategy
Nov 22, 2010

Missile defense is an offensive strategy

NATO leaders have recently agreed on a US led expansion of the so called missile defense shield. The media is buying into the normal misconception of missile defense as being indeed a defensive weapon. There is much talk of protecting the civilians of European cities, for instance. What it misses is the uncontentious fact understood by all sides in military doctrine that "missile defense" is an offensive weapon.

To put it more accurately, it eliminates the deterrents of the enemy that demotivates aggression thus paving the way for aggressive acts to occur. The idea of a deterrent is a weapon like a nuclear bomb which prevents an attack because the deterrent could he deployed if attacked. The consequence of a nuclear retaliation is considered too great to justify an attack. However, missile defense reduces the effectiveness of deterrents, reduces the threat of retaliation, and hence facilitates an offensive war. In this context, large destructive weapons like nukes are defensive and missile defense systems are offensive.

This distinction is more than a pedantic one, because it reflects the strategic reality of the missile defense shield. While Turkey lobbied hard to remove explicit mention of Iran from the agreement, the clear implication is that the first and foremost worry is with regards to Iran with of course a nuclear Iran being the primary worry. Indeed if one just takes what is explicitly said, there is no legitimate offensive threat named that this shield is supposed to defend against much unlike previous iterations which explicitly identified the soviets as the offensive threat. The simple reality is that even if Iran were to acquire the ability to launch nuclear missiles, they are never going to use them in an offensive manner. If they did, the world would unanimously rise against them and the US alone certainly has the capacity to level the country if such an attack occurred. The offensive use of nukes by Iran is equivalent to suicide. On the other hand, if the US or Israel were to attack Iran, the nukes could be fired against, say, Tel Aviv and as such they represent a deterrent to American or Israeli aggression. As such, the primary result of such a shield is to accomplish a singular thing: leaving the capacity open for western military aggression against Iran or any other country that goes along its path.

Now it should be noted that this consideration of missile shields is one that applies under the asymmetrical military power of the world. No country presents an existential threat to the US but the US presents an existential threat to many countries like Iran and certainly has shown this capacity and willpower in Iraq and Afghanistan. When this asymmetry was less striking and both sides represented existential threats to each other, the original meanings of defense systems being tactically defensive and likewise for offensive held relevance. The idea, for instance, that the US or the SU  would conduct nuclear attacks was very much prevalent and so cold war era missile defense could be in part considered as a defensive weapon. It still retained in part the offensive use as described above however. The point here is that whether the intended use is offensive or defensive depends on the context an had changed through history. In the current unipolar ordering versus rogue states, the context is the asymmetrical one where defense shields are primarily facilitating offensive action by the established world powers.

The other region outside of the middle east that has a similar consideration is the Koreas. North Korea has a large deterrent against South Korean/US offensives through conventional artillery across the DMZ which could easily level Seoul. The so called De-Militarized Zone is ironically one the most militarized regions of the world, incidentally. Likewise, US/SK airpower is so strong that any all out NK attack on SK would result in the end of any NK military and governmental infrastructure (whether SK/US could ever hold the NK with its enormous and presumably loyal ground army is an entirely different question). The result is a tactical stalemate. The north can't attack the south and the south can't attack the north and this has persisted for over 50 years in a conflict which has a truce but no peace treaty. If one of the sides were to be able to reduce the capacity of the deterrent of the other, that would enable offensive action. Nuclear weapons, incidentally, don't much change the tactical situation regardless of the recent brouhaha about it as NK has revealed its capacity is perhaps larger than previously thought. The deterrent (leveling Seoul) exists regardless of whether it is or is not nuclear.

UPDATE: Since the writing of this, NK and SK engaged in a brazen exchange of artillery fire. This is best considered in the above context, namely, knowing that there is a tactical stalemate allows NK to engage in these kinds of highly confrontational activities (along with the sinking of a ship previously) knowing that retaliation can ONLY be minimal since the threat of war is reduced via the dual deterrents. 

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