Remember how, back in 2001, George W. Bush abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, previously one of the cornerstones of the international security system? It was one of the first American steps to annoy the then relatively new Russian president, Vladimir Putin, helping launch US-Russian relations on their long downward trajectory. The Americans claimed that it was worth the price, however, because they foresaw a danger from ‘rogue states’ armed with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, and by reneging on the ABM Treaty the US could develop a means of defending itself. And thus was born the National Missile Defense boondoggle.
Sixteen years later and, if we are to believe the CIA and the press, the predictions have come true, and North Korea has finally developed a miniaturized nuclear bomb which can fit inside a ballistic missile, and has also developed missiles capable of hitting the continental USA. Donald Trump is threatening ‘fire and fury’ the likes of which the world has never seen. Something must be done, he shreaks. The United States faces a terrible danger, we are told.
But why? Aren’t the Americans safe by now behind their missile shield? It hasn’t been cheap, and surely given how much has been spent, it must be able to shoot down those North Korean nukes? After all, we are told:
According to Missile Defense Agency (MDA) estimates, Congress has appropriated roughly $190 billion for the agency’s programs between fiscal years 1985 and 2017. That total does not include spending by the military services on programs such as the Patriot system or the many additional tens of billions of dollars spent since work on anti-missile systems first began in the 1950s.
So, why are the Americans running around like headless chickens and threatening blue murder? There is only one answer – they don’t believe that their beloved missile defence system actually works. And they’re right. National missile defence’s latest manifestation is the so-called Ground-Based Mid-Course Defense System. This alone has cost $40 billion. But according to a report issued last year, it is ‘simply unable to protect the public’ – in other words, it’s a dud.
In a world of rational policy making, somebody would ask why such vast sums of money had been wasted on a project which to date has failed utterly to produce what it promised, and which has also incurred broader political costs, such as those associated with the abrogation of the ABM Treaty. In such a world, policy makers would decide that it was long past time to put an end to this fiasco and stop funding immediately. That, of course, is most unlikely to happen. The progress made by the North Koreans will almost certainly instead be used to argue that missile defence has never been more critical, and so to demand even more money to throw even deeper into the hole.
If this were the only such example of massive waste, one could perhaps forgive it (if one was a particularly generous soul). But, of course, it isn’t. In other posts I have, for instance, highlighted the $100 billion plus which the USA has spent on economic aid to Afghanistan, which the American government’s own auditor admits hasn’t achieved any positive results he can identify. And then, there’s the trillion or so dollars the US has spent on its military campaign in Afghanistan, similarly without success. And, I’m sure, it would be pretty easy to find other, equally outrageous examples.
I’m going to say it straight. The military industrial complex is a system of scandalous profligacy and inefficiency, the primary effect of which is not to make the USA (or other countries with similar MICs) any safer but rather to redistribute wealth out of the pockets of the general taxpayer and into the pockets of select constituencies (military personnel, defence contractors, and the like). It also largely beyond democratic control. The foundation of a liberal democratic system is accountability. But the MIC is not accountable. The large and more wasteful its failures, the more it is able to claim that it needs more money: smash up the Middle East and then the resulting disorder enables one to claim that the world is dangerous and one needs more funding; spend $190 billion failing to produce a workable missile defence system, and the fact that you don’t have a workable system justifies even more money in order to try to create one. And so on. In the world of military affairs, nothing is as rewarding as failure.
Will anybody in a position of power now start asking what’s happened to the $190 billion which was meant to protect the USA against North Korean missiles? Don’t bet on it.