When I was a kid in elementary school (1947-1953) we practiced Atomic Bomb drills. Maybe they were not called that, but as kids we all knew that we were supposedly learning how to survive an atomic bomb attack.
There were two drills. The first was when the air raid sirens went off when we were in the classroom. In those days, we had community air raid sirens, an inheritance from World War II. Probably today they are mostly gone, and new communities likely don’t have them anymore. Some things do change, like factory whistles and sirens and complete work stoppages on Armistice Day (now Veterans Day). In the classroom you were supposed to crouch down on the floor under your desk, with your hands over the back of your head. You stayed there until the siren blasted an all clear, usually after five or ten minutes.
The second drill was if you were out of the classroom, which only happened at lunch and recess (when on nice days you were on the school playground outside). You were instructed to go inside the building in the basement and line up against an interior wall. (Schools in those days were primarily brick and mortar, unlike modern schools, which are mostly pasteboard and plastic.)
Neither of these civil defense measures was very comforting; everyone was scared the Russians would launch bombers and missiles armed with atomic bombs. Of course, as kids we felt invulnerable, but there were many bad dreams.
That’s why, during that period, along the east coast of the United States the government was installing crude missile defenses. Near the time I moved from elementary school to junior high school the first Nike Ajax air defense system was installed in Lumberton, New Jersey, only a few miles from my school. It was put there to protect the Philadelphia metropolitan area. It was not capable of stopping Russian missiles, but it could shoot down Russian bombers. In 1956, the Russians introduced the Tupolev long range strategic bomber, so the timing of the Nike Ajax deployment was very important. Surprisingly, the Tupolev-95 – a four engine contra rotating dual prop behemoth that carries nuclear weapons – is still in service.
Next came the Nike Zeus (versions A and B), which was the first air defense system that could intercept Russian missiles in the upper atmosphere. It became controversial and was opposed, firstly by the US Air Force, because it was operated by the Army. Next, the scientists piled in against the Nike Zeus, as the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) took hold. The underlying thesis of MAD is that missile defense is destabilizing and would block the possibility of rapprochement (later called “detente” by Henry Kissinger) with the USSR and of nuclear arms reduction agreements. The Kennedy administration, in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis and as it started to push for detente with Moscow, cancelled the Nike Zeus in 1963.
Since then, the US has pursued missile defense half-heartedly at best. Most of the country is not covered by any missile defense system, including its East Coast and industrial heartland. The limited systems we have in Alaska, California and Hawaii are far from able to protect against multiple missile launches from either China or North Korea. The US relies primarily on the THAAD system because it is a high altitude exo-atmospheric missile defense system using “hit to kill” technology. But that technology is, for the most part, outdated. Israel’s Arrow-3 system is also exo-atmospheric, but it has a more sophisticated hit to kill technology that, in its first use, worked.
THAAD was recently deployed to South Korea and augmented beyond its original number. One presumes this means active stocks in the US were necessarily depleted.
We are now at a stage where the US and its friends and allies in the Pacific – namely Japan, South Korea and Taiwan – need to make decisions about missile defense, or simply remain sitting ducks for both intimidation and, in the worst case, nuclear attacks from either North Korea or some future Chinese regime overrun by warlords.
Currently, the South Koreans have no missile defense program of their own and are relying on America’s deployment in their country of the THAAD system. But if the North Koreans launch missiles at Guam, Japan or the US, the latter will try to stop them using the nearest available THAAD, meaning South Korea immediately becomes a combatant and a target. The Koreans would help themselves by being able to defend themselves, but they can’t right now.
The Japanese government, which is moderate in outlook, is also trapped by its mentality of leaving its defense to the United States. It has only been doing what we did as kids in atomic bomb drills, ducking and covering. This will not protect the country from attack or provide reassurance in a country that has experienced destructive earthquakes and typhoons. People know there is almost nowhere to hide.
The real question for all players is how to respond concretely to an evolving, unpredictable and lethal threat. One piece of the puzzle is missile defense. The US could show some leadership if it had a real program to provide missile defense on home soil, but right now there seems little movement on that. This leaves our allies and friends wondering who will help them, or even if being an ally and friend of the United States is good for their future.