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Phil-osophically Speaking: December 21, 2012

The Iron Dome

With North Korea firing long range rockets and Iran intent on building a nuclear bomb, is there any hope for civilized nations to defend themselves? There is and we just saw a dramatic demonstration of it in the Middle East. The Iron Dome, a sophisticated, technological marvel devised by Israeli engineers and physicists, almost certainly prevented a gut wrenching, cinematographic scene of death and violence at the hands of Iranian-backed terrorists hell-bent on killing innocent civilians. During the Second Lebanon War in 2006, some 4,000 Hezbollah rockets landed in Northern Israel. The only defense was to run for cover. Things worked out differently this time around as the Iron Dome proved itself the first successful anti-missile system in the history of military combat.

The Dome, which can target multiple types of rockets at ranges of 75 kilometers, can also be swiftly moved to wherever threats materialize. The new technology is a game changer in the ever voluble, often violent Middle East. As terrorists in Gaza fired their supersonic rockets at Israel, the Dome was able to down more than 85 percent of those aimed at populated areas. As the technology improves and expands, this new development may turn out to be one of the most pacific developments in the future, worth more than the potpourri of ceasefire agreements and treaties that have papered over the troubled history of that implacable region.

Absent the Iron Dome, the damage inflicted on Israel would have been intolerable, triggering a ground invasion that could have widened into a regional conflict. By denying the terrorists their tools of intimidation and destruction, Iron Dome has actually strengthened the prospects of a negotiated peace. The anathematic rhetoric about Israel’s destruction continues unabated, but the missile attacks have stopped. The Iron Dome success should prompt us to examine our own strategic thinking as nuclear weapons proliferate among criminal and fanatical regimes.

After WWII and throughout the 1950s, the United States used its overwhelming nuclear superiority to keep the peace and the Soviet Union in check. Brinkmanship or massive retaliation deterred the Soviets and Eastern Europe from using their superiority in manpower and conventional weaponry to launch an attack on Western Europe and its outliers. According to historian Stephen Ambrose, influential thinkers in the military tried but failed to convince Eisenhower to launch a first strike against the Soviets before advances in weaponry and delivery systems put them in relative parity with the U.S. These strategists were using a simple but effective means of persuasion: Cold Fear. What if the Soviets, ideologically hostile to the U.S. achieved the same terrifying capabilities? Nuclear superiority of the U.S. was the reason the Soviets retreated during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. The Soviet leadership was determined to avoid future humiliations and invested enormous resources in their nuclear arsenal. The arms race, furiously competitive, gave way to a new doctrine that John Von Neumann coined with the acronym M.A.D., or mutually assured destruction. It based deterrence upon a balance of terror, a belief that nuclear war would result in complete, effective and irrevocable annihilation resulting in unacceptable losses for each side.

Modernization and augmentation of these weapons continued throughout the 1960s and ’70s in a kind of keeping up with the Joneses military mentality. This was inevitable since MAD is inextricably based on relative parity. A treaty here and there intruded upon the inexorable escalation, but not very effectively. Innovations such as multiple warheads known as MIRVS made quantitative and qualitative calculations regarding nuclear war more difficult and uncertain. Some even began to think the unthinkable. Would a full blown nuclear war be survivable —- perhaps even winnable?

The brilliant scientist and futurist Herman Kahn, who had once worked for the Pentagon, pondered these apocalyptic questions with an inquisitiveness that was breathtaking in its detached, coldblooded analysis. Kahn thought MAD was a useful metaphor but absurd when pushed to its logical conclusions. Speaking of a post-nuclear war with no more disagreeableness than if he were addressing a spell of bad weather, Kahn thought such a war was indeed survivable and that pockets of civilization would go on, albeit more unpleasantly. He actually advocated that the government offer homeowner insurance against nuclear bomb damage and that the limited food supply that would result in such a war could be apportioned so that the contaminated food was consumed by the elderly who would die before the delayed onset of cancer caused by radiation poisoning.

Nuclear war may have been survivable, but unlike Herman Kahn, I did not wish to be one of the survivors. In his novel Einstein’s Monsters, written in the 1980s, Martin Amis captures the unimaginable starkness of a post-nuclear war world by having his protagonist muse that if he survived such an event “then —- God willing, if I still have the strength, and, of course, if they are still alive —- I must find my wife and children and kill them.”

The high-stakes game of nuclear poker between the two superpowers was a grim and troubling reality in those days. Most troubling was that there was no other option save the dismal hope that these destructive agents were so nightmarishly appalling that men’s fears would compel them to keep the peace. In 1983, Ronald Reagan introduced the “Strategic Defense Initiative” popularly known as “Star Wars” that would serve as a missile shield. I actually pondered this possibility as a teenager when feasting on Star Trek reruns. Obliterating oncoming projectiles with laser-like weaponry was standard fare for Captain Kirk and company. Why couldn’t the U.S. develop an orbital satellite defensive system based on those similar principles?

While Reagan’s proposal was mocked (it’s still not fully embraced), it would utterly undermine the precepts of MAD by actually protecting civilian populations instead of holding them hostage. It was a reversal of a time honored axiom, “A good defense is a good offense, but one that addressed the new reality. The very prospect of the U.S. developing SDI forced the Soviets to spend more of their resources to improve their delivery system to overcome this defensive umbrella or develop their own SDI. With an economy withering from more than 70 years of collectivism, this additional burden on the Soviet economy contributed to the regime’s implosion and the world’s liberation from the communist menace.

Defense matters and missile defense works as Iron Dome has abundantly proved. While the U.S. has some land-and sea-based missiles that can eliminate oncoming threats on the West Coast, the need to deploy a spaced-based missile system is greater than ever in a world where terrorists and rogue states are trying to develop nuclear weapons. When G.W. Bush withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic missile treaty, the last legal impediment to build a missile defense system for this country and its allies was finally eliminated. The only remaining barriers are our own inhibitions and stupidity.