Return to the Table of Contents.
ECHNOLOGIES of wealth and war have always been related. Underlying the problem facing the United States is the spread of technology from Western nations to a wider group of countries, with Asian ones predominant. Asia's industrialization entails military transformation, because it leads to a greater capacity to absorb technology, which further stimulates demand for technology. It is a momentous shift that is barely appreciated in the West -- one as irreversible as the Industrial Revolution. Iraq, Iran, Syria, Israel, Pakistan, India, China, and North Korea all have ballistic-missile programs. No doubt some of these countries are more dangerous than others. But missiles are becoming endemic throughout Asia.
The spread of missiles is greatly assisted by techniques originally used in international business. Iraq's military buildup in the 1980s is illustrative. The government operated hand in hand with multinational corporations. Saddam Hussein schooled his engineers in the West, bought difficult-to-make weapons components from Europe, the United States, Japan, and the Soviet Union, used management consultants, and relied on engineering contract workers from Russia and North Korea to build his arsenal.
Recently another innovation has appeared, one that could have been taken from a Harvard Business School case study on how to internationalize a business rapidly. Scud-missile "knock-down kits" are appearing, courtesy of China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Knock-down kits are familiar to anyone involved in international business; the idea was developed by the multinational automobile giants Ford, Toyota, and General Motors, to sell unassembled cars in developing countries, where the kits could be assembled in "screwdriver" plants. They permit a very rapid expansion of production capacity without the bother of providing infrastructure. Now Syria is opening an assembly plant for Scud-missile knock-down kits. Management innovation of this sort, and not merely the missile itself, is changing the Asian military landscape.
China has married its considerable engineering knowledge to similar international linkages, in order to produce organizations far more sophisticated than anything devised by Saddam Hussein. It is not just that Russia is selling navigation and communications equipment to China. Rather, an understanding of how the technologies work has spread, and new technical institutes have been set up to exploit them. The techno-managerial focus of China's armed forces marks a dramatic change from the political focus of the Maoist era, which was reflected in the world's largest infantry.
AST Asia is developing military technologies at an ever-increasing pace. Chinese ballistic missiles demonstrate this fast learning curve. In 1995 and 1996 Beijing used a series of missile tests to intimidate Taiwan, in response to what China perceived as Taiwanese offenses: President Lee Teng-hui's visit to the United States in June of 1995 and his flirtations with Taiwanese independence during the elections of March, 1996. The missiles carried research equipment, but their payloads could just as easily have been warheads.
Nearly all attention to these tests in the United States centered on the question of what the Chinese leaders were up to with this missile diplomacy. What were they trying to signal? Was it an indication that the political leaders were bowing to pressure from the army, and if so, what did this say about the future direction of Chinese foreign policy? More important than this version of Chinese Kremlinology is what the tests showed about China's missile knowledge.
Over eight months Beijing substantially improved the accuracy of its missiles, enhancing their capacity to strike precise targets in Taiwan. In the first tests, in July of 1995, the Chinese fired two DF missiles daily for three straight days. The DF 15 (for "Dong Feng," or "East Wind") is a mobile missile with a range of 600 miles. It is launched from a trailer, which can be hidden from satellite or aerial reconnaissance in the same way that Saddam Hussein hid his Scuds from U.S. air attack during the Gulf War.
These tests were not a success. Of six missiles fired, one had to be destroyed over China because of a guidance malfunction, and two others hit the outer edge of the target zone. But eight months later, in March of 1996, matters had changed considerably. In this test four missiles were launched at two target areas in the East and South China Seas -- one near the Taiwanese port of Kaohsiung and the other near the port of Keelung. This time all four missiles landed with near pinpoint accuracy.
This was an extraordinary achievement. In 1958 the Atlas, the first American long-range missile, was accurate only within one mile. Since accuracy is vital in the nuclear era, much research has been devoted to improving it. Still, not until the early 1980s did the U.S. Minuteman III and Pershing II missiles achieve accuracies measured in hundreds of feet or less. Likewise, in the late 1950s the Soviet SS 8 missile had an accuracy of one mile, and only with the SS 18s and 19s, in the early 1980s, did the Soviets achieve accuracies of a few hundred feet. What took the United States and the Soviet Union twenty-five years to learn took China eight months.
The implications are ominous for Taiwan, which depends on its modern infrastructure to maintain its place in the world. With forty-five missiles China could virtually close Taiwan's ports, airfields, waterworks, and power plants, and destroy the oil-storage facilities of a nation that needs continual replenishment from the outside world. Accurate missiles would permit this with minimal civilian casualties, using conventional warheads in attacks no larger than those the United States has launched against Iraq on two occasions since the Gulf War. Taiwan is clearly a potential flashpoint between the United States and China. Zbigniew Brzezinski has even argued that the United States should intervene to stop a Chinese takeover of Taiwan, because it would so damage American geopolitical interests in the whole Asia-Pacific region. But before making Taiwan the centerpiece of U.S. strategy in Asia, and before going to war with China, Washington needs to think through what it is doing. For five decades the United States militarily dominated Asia by operating from forward bases that were secure and by sailing warships that were immune from attack. With the increased reach of Chinese missiles, this era is rapidly coming to a close.
The National Defense Panel, a Pentagon advisory body, has highlighted this issue. Its December, 1997, report Transforming Defense: National Security in the 21st Century states,
Even if we retain the necessary bases and port infrastructure to support forward deployed forces, they will be vulnerable to strikes that could reduce or neutralize their utility. Precision strikes, weapons of mass destruction, and cruise and ballistic missiles all present threats to our forward presence, particularly as stand-off ranges increase. So, too, do they threaten access to strategic geographic areas. Widely available national and commercial space-based systems providing imagery, communication, and position location will greatly multiply the vulnerability of fixed and, perhaps, mobile forces as well.Most Pentagon studies focus on war, however, and fail to make the distinction between actually using missiles and threatening to use them. Their non-use could be more significant than their use. It does not follow that if China were to obtain a wide-ranging and accurate missile capacity, it would be inclined to launch its missiles against U.S. bases. But if forward engagement is to mean anything, it needs credible military power on the Asian periphery, and the very possibility that China could hit U.S. forward bases with ballistic missiles erodes our credibility, especially when those missiles could carry chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. Astute Pentagon players are concerned that this credibility gap creates forward hostages rather than forward bases -- hostages that could be manipulated to expose the precarious position of the world's only superpower.
The capacity to strike, as distinct from actually striking, could force the United States and its host nations to think twice about reinforcing forward bases in the first place, if doing so might trigger an attack and major escalation. Forward movements might thus increasingly be seen as likelier to escalate a crisis than to dampen it. Reluctance to run the risk of drawing fire could be considerable, and would certainly strain the most breakable part of forward engagement -- host-nation political approval. Few countries would actually want to attack U.S. bases. But many would like to attack America's status as the world's lone superpower.
HE United States is reacting to these developments with a major initiative in defensive missiles -- that is, missiles that can shoot down ballistic missiles. Missile defense has been around for a long time. But in the past its purpose was chiefly the protection of the U.S. homeland from Soviet attack. Now missile defense is considered crucial to protect forward bases. The 1995 Pentagon study United States Security Strategy for the East Asia-Pacific Region asserts that missile defense plays "a key role" and is "essential to counter long range ballistic missile delivery systems in the inventory of many East Asian nations."
Shooting down a missile is a lot like hitting a bullet with another bullet. But missiles travel faster than bullets, and they explode. In the compressed time available defensive missiles must be fired very close to an attacking missile's launch time; otherwise they are likely to miss their target.
In 1993 an important test of defensive missiles showed how anxious the Pentagon was about ballistic-missile attacks on bases. Chemical weapons are best delivered not as a single bomb package but as a bundle of bomblets. Syria's Scud C missile, for instance, uses mini-canisters filled with nerve agents packed into a warhead that is built to cast the canisters over a wide area, contaminating a base, a port, or an airfield. In the 1993 test a missile carrying thirty-eight canisters of water to simulate a ballistic missile armed with such a chemical warhead was annihilated by the defender missile. But some critics charge that tests like this one are in effect rigged for success. Still, the 1993 experiment does demonstrate that defensive missiles could shoot down some incoming missiles, although everyone agrees that the smallest glitch would mean failure.
Whether ballistic-missile defenses will work depends on technical specifics and geometry. American technological know-how could serve us well here. But missile defense is also a political and economic problem, one whose geographic shape is dictated by the American bases concentrated in northeastern and southwestern Asia. But if our bases are welcome throughout Asia, why are so many countries building missiles that will make them obsolete? Missile defense has not come to grips with this fundamental problem.
For thirty years every Administration that has faced the question of national missile defense has done so with the recognition that it will work only if the threat is somehow limited. In the late 1960s Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara originally opposed missile defense for the United States, because the Soviets could easily counter it by building more missiles, essentially exhausting the defense with cheaper offensive missiles. The Nixon Administration initially favored missile defense, but simultaneously called for arms-control negotiations, to limit the offensive. This produced the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. Likewise, the Reagan Administration advanced its Strategic Defense Initiative along with SALT, again seeking to limit the offense. Over a thirty-year period Moscow and Washington cooperatively engaged.
But there is no cooperative engagement between the United States and Asia on missiles. Neither China nor India is involved in the latest round of START. Nor is there any plan to limit ballistic missiles made indigenously. Limits on cross-border trade in missile parts are ineffective, as experience with Iran and North Korea shows. China would never sign an arms-control agreement that guaranteed the invulnerability of U.S. bases in Asia. Nor would many other countries. The one-sided character of such an agreement -- which would permanently lock China and others into technological inferiority to America -- is clear to all.
Yet without some limit on the number of missiles that China might deploy, defense becomes prohibitively expensive, because China can counter American missile defenses with cheap offsetting actions. Missiles can be made to fly faster, for example, forcing a defender to retrofit his own force in response. They can be made to spiral in a path difficult for the defender to hit, or some of them can carry decoys to distract the defender's missiles -- the number of options is enormous. Counters to these countermeasures exist, but each move drives up the defender's costs much further than it does the attacker's. A faster warhead with a smaller chance of detection by radar, for example, necessitates new radars and space-tracking systems to see it.
During the Cold War, Washington and Moscow considered missile defenses in situations very different from those now facing the United States in Asia. Defenses had to protect ICBMs that were housed in superhardened concrete silos. Our forward bases in Asia, however, are called soft targets for a reason. Exposed troops, airplanes, equipment, repair stations, and ammunition and bomb stocks need a defensive shield more impermeable than anything offered by Reagan's SDI program. Rather than defending our ICBMs for a few hours, the protective bubble might be needed against repeated or even continuous salvos. Several hundred missiles -- perhaps several thousand -- would have to be dealt with.
Forward bases could become like the Crusaders' forts of the Middle East -- heavily defended but isolated outposts with little effect beyond their immediate perimeter. The United States may see the problem in narrow terms of whether defenses will or won't work. But whether or not some missiles can be shot down, the fact that they put the United States on the technological defensive is the larger point. The superior U.S. military position has always rested on technological advantage. Now that advantage is shifting to the East.
THER technologies are coming down the road whose strategic impacts are only barely appreciated in the United States. Strategy lags behind technology in both the United States and Asia. But the strategy will come, as it always does when technological opportunities are put together and better understood. In addition to ballistic missiles, advances in cruise missiles, sea mines, and satellite reconnaissance all work against outside powers' gaining -- or maintaining -- a foothold in Asia.
The combined effect of these technologies will be to change Asia's military geography as fundamentally as it changed when the airplane made the overseas colonial empire obsolete. Whether it takes five years or fifteen is irrelevant. Military access to Asia will be far more difficult in the future than it has been in the past. This anti-access trend affects the United States more than any other country, because of America's self-image as the world's sole superpower.
HE United States is far ahead of China and other countries in tanks, jet planes, and guided missiles. Our weapons are still more impressive in any side-by-side comparison. But these are the wrong comparisons to make. Staying in Asia is not a game about who has better weapons; it is a contest of missiles against bases.
Missile development today falls below the threshold of grand strategy to that of technical and bureaucratic opportunism by the weapon-making parts of industry and the armed forces. The narrow focus is on fielding a new missile, or building a better sea mine. So far there is no strategy to pull these activities together in such a way as to drive the United States out of the Far East. But a major U.S. deployment of missile defenses could be the catalyst for just such a strategy. Such defenses could be a focal point for missile development throughout Asia. Then the costs and the hazards of remaining a power in Asia would sharply increase.
If existing attitudes prevail, the United States may perceive as a threat what is nothing more than the business-as-usual evolution of Asian militaries. Washington is being drawn into a game it does not understand, in which East Asian nations are using technology and diplomacy to shape our presence in this region.
The real challenge is to America's self-conception as the global architect that shapes international security. The long era in which Asia was penetrated by outside powers from its rim is coming to a close, and the problem is not how to shape what is happening there but how to adapt to it.
Paul Bracken is a professor of management and political science at Yale University. He is the author of Fire in the East: The Rise of Middle Eastern and Asian Military Power and the Decline of Western Dominance, to be published early next year.
Illustrations by Alison Seiffer
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1998; America's Maginot Line; Volume 282, No. 6; pages 85 - 93.