Challenge and response has been the dynamic of warfare since the beginning of civilization. Whether it be the bowmen on chariots or cavalrymen countered by the hoplite infantrymen arrayed in phalanxes, Marshal Ney’s cavalry crashing into ruin on the British squares, Grant’s charge at Cold Harbor foundering bloodily in front of the Confederate trenches, the tank neutralizing the trenches and machine guns of World War I, or the counter-insurgency doctrines that stabilized northern Iraq, historically innovations in technology or tactics have responded to military challenges. The challenge of explosives delivered by missiles has already begun to be met with systems like the Israelis’ Iron Dome and Arrow. There’s no reason to think that such development will stall, if we have the will to spend the money on anti-missile defenses and deploy them.
But the problem is as much one of morale as of technical development. The apprehension about ballistic missiles sometimes is reminiscent of the fear of aerial bombing in the 1920s and 1930s. Theorists like K.A. Bratt, Lionel Charlton, and Giulio Douhet speculated about the ability of bombing to deliver a “knock-out blow,” the supremacy of airpower over land forces, and the efficacy of strategic bombing of cities and factories. Popular novels like H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come luridly described the destruction of London, as did pacifists like C.E.M. Joad and Bertrand Russell. Military historian J.F.C. Fuller predicted that after an enemy air-raid “the homeless will shriek for help, the city will be a pandemonium,” and the government “will be swept away by an avalanche of terror.” Churchill estimated that 30,000-40,000 would be killed or injured in 7-10 days, and 3-4 million Londoners would have to evacuate. During the Cold War, Harold Macmillan wrote, “We thought of air warfare in 1938 rather as people think of nuclear warfare today.”
Such projections and the anxiety they created influenced the foreign policy of the late 1930s. Earlier in the decade, the future prime minister Stanley Baldwin famously counseled his fellow citizens the “the bomber will always get through,” and that “The only defence is in offence, which means that you have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourselves.” By the infamous Munich Conference of 1938, which took place as Londoners dug trenches in parks and passed out gasmasks, it was clear that the English did not have the stomach yet for that kind of fight. Indeed, in his report to the cabinet after his second meeting with Hitler at Godesberg, Chamberlain mused about flying back to London over the Thames, and “asked himself what degree of protection we could afford to the thousands of homes he had seen stretched out below them, and he had felt that we were in no position to justify waging a war today in order to prevent a war hereafter.” Of course, the capitulation at Munich meant war had to be waged anyway.
In the event, new technologies such as radar, and improved fighter planes like the Spitfire and Hurricane blunted the German attacks during the Battle of Britain. Even including fatalities from V-1 and V-2 rockets, casualties were around 90,000, twice Churchill’s earlier estimate, but not even close to delivering the “knock-out blow” in a few weeks that would end the war. And Germany paid a high cost in planes and pilots to achieve that result.
Today missile defense is similarly a question not of technology, but of morale and politics. As part of the “reset” with Russia, for example, President Obama mistakenly put on hold the missile defense systems intended to protect Europe from Iranian missile attacks. Some argue that Russia has been emboldened by such a move in its aggression against Ukraine, and Iran encouraged as well in its adventurism abroad. Domestic economic politics, which have significantly shrunk the military budget in recent years, could in the future drive reductions in funds budgeted for development of anti-missile systems, particularly if money is needed for sustaining entitlements, as it surely will be down the road. Moreover, the unlikelihood, for now, of a rogue state possessing nuclear missiles that can reach our shores may create a complacency among voters in a democracy, who as Tocqueville once noted, “are more apt to feel than to reason; and if their present sufferings are great, it is to be feared that the greater sufferings attendant upon defeat will be forgotten.”
Yet the proliferation of missile technology, particularly missiles that can deliver nuclear warheads, represents an insidious danger to our security and interests, especially from rogue states like North Korea and Iran. We cannot be frightened into thinking that the “missile will always get through,” that there is not a response to that challenge and so we must negotiate appeasing treaties with our adversaries. Nor can we assume that the technical difficulties of creating weapons that can carry nuclear warheads to our country is a reliable safeguard because of the lack of development infrastructure in some nations. If a failed state like North Korea can manufacture a nuclear weapon, it likely will eventually successfully develop nuclear-tipped missiles.
Anti-missile research and development must be adequately funded, and systems manufactured and deployed across the globe to protect our allies and military bases. We cannot lose our nerve or sacrifice “guns” for more entitlement “butter.”