Countering China and North Korea

North Korea underlined its threat to America by choosing July 4 to launch its first intercontinental missile, and followed it with another launch into Japanese waters. We had hoped China might intervene, but its continued support of North Korea showed how unrealistic that was. China regards the Kim Jong Un regime as a useful a pawn for breaking the U.S-South Korea-Japan alliance.

So some U.S. response is called for. But what? An attack on North Korea’s nuclear program would start an offensive war for which we have no plans and no objectives. Since economic relations with China are mutually beneficial, commercial sanctions on China are a double-edged sword. We should do something, but by highlighting our frustration U.S. officials have reassured China and North Korea that their plans are on track.

Instead, President Trump and Secretary of Defense Mattis could have issued one sentence: “From this day on, it is the policy of the Untied States to protect against any and all ballistic missiles coming from anywhere.” Presuming they meant it, that would have shown China’s support of North Korea to have been counterproductive. It would increase America’s security, and strengthen our alliance with South Korea and Japan.

This would represent a change because today, and since the late 1960s, the policy of the United States has been not to defend against ballistic missiles coming from Russia or China. President George W. Bush’s much ballyhooed 2002 withdrawal from the 1972 ABM Treaty masked the reality that the U.S. government has chosen to divide antimissile programs into the artificial categories of “theater defenses” — carefully designed not to interfere with Chinese or Russian missiles – and “national defenses,” carefully designed to be inefficient and un-expandable, respectively.

Much of Chinese diplomacy, and of Russian diplomacy as well, is aimed specifically at keeping this policy in place. It serves them as a trump card in major confrontation. In addition, an America that chooses not to build the equipment necessary to protect itself finds it difficult physically and politically to protect allies. That is why a reversal of this U.S. policy with regard to our defense would cut the ground from under Chinese and Russian bellicosity.

In 2017, however, it is essential to be clear about the meaning of the much abused word, “policy.” A policy is not a set of wishes or preferences, nor any discrete actions (e.g. it is our policy to do this or that). Nor is it “softness” or “hardness.” Least of all is policy to be confused with that Washington DC cleverish invention, “declaratory policy”: words advertised to mean something other than they say.

Charles de Gaulle gives us an accurate definition of policy: “that ensemble of continuing objectives, of matured decisions, of measures brought to term…” In practice, it means that the government thinks of the many ways by which to achieve what it wants, decides to do the many things that it takes, and sees them through.

Ironically, keeping America undefended against major missile threats has been very much our policy. Since the 1970s, the arms-control community and its allies in Congress have effectively policed Pentagon programs to make sure that they would not produce capabilities to defend America. Thus the Army was forced to “de-scope” its newest interceptor, which eventually became the Patriot that is now deployed from Japan to Saudi Arabia. The anti-missile system now being deployed in South Korea survived only by calling it “Theater High Altitude Air Defense” (THAAD) and curtailing its anti-missile properties. For decades, the Navy was afraid to admit that its Aegis anti-aircraft radar, fire control system, and missiles could shoot down missiles, lest they be cut back. All these systems are less than they could be.

The “national defense” arsenal was limited to one site in Alaska (plus a token force in California). That gives us a handful of super-expensive, hemisphere-spanning interceptors. But none of these are allowed to be launched before incoming warheads come over the radar horizon. The kicker? Even as North Korea gins the capacity to hit Hawaii, the U.S government prohibits the Aegis test facility on Kauai from “going operational” to protect the islands. Not defending U.S soil is a policy indeed, by now hard-wired into Pentagon managers and their industrial contractors.

If Trump and Mattis meant to reverse this, they would have to show similar thoughtfulness, employing people who understand that geography requires a decisive use of orbital space for defense of U.S. territory, and thoroughness in sorting the useful from the harmful in current programs. Changing the major policies of a major government requires intelligent stick-to-itiveness. Seriousness is the prerequisite.

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