Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

From An Angry Reader:

Mr. Hanson,

I read your opinion piece in Newsweek and wanted to respond.

I wish you’d included numbers, information on programs and systems, budget levels, and other trends, rather than just a few quotes. Funding within the DoD always fluctuates, given whatever is the shiny new toy of the moment (it was drones for a few years, for instance), but missile defense has always gotten plenty of money.

While there were plenty of detractors, missile defense was still given more priority than a lot of other programs before the never-ending war on terror began in the early 2000s. That’s when the DoD’s focus and funding shifted to aviation (drones, helicopters, etc.), ground vehicles, networks, and other systems that needed improvements, innovation, maintenance, etc.—because those are the capabilities needed for the current conflicts. One could say that’s shortsighted, but the U.S. got here by getting into a war with no predefined strategy or exit criteria (very shortsighted), so we all have to play the hand we’re dealt.

There is simply not enough money to go around. It’s not because of Congressional budget levels (and I’m not sure I understand the finger-pointing at “liberals,” given that Republicans have controlled fiscal spending for at least half of the past 30+ years). It’s because there is literally not enough money in America’s coffers to pay for the kind of military expenditure the country seems to expect. Wars are expensive, and long wars are basically black holes sucking in all resources that get anywhere close.

Building and testing missile defense systems is, likewise, extremely expensive. Defense contractors charge the Government ungodly amounts of money for systems that repeatedly fail to work as promised. And yes, that’s a systemic problem that needs to be addressed, but reining in free-market capitalism in the military-industrial complex takes a lot of time and requires political backing to put regulations in place. Contractors don’t like to have their hands tied, and they have well-paid lobbyists, so…we know how this story ends.

Also, to be fair, it is unbelievably freaking hard to develop a missile interceptor, especially one that’s effective in the midcourse phase. There’s a reason why we have the lower tier (PATRIOT) and upper tier (THAAD) fairly well covered with proven missile defense, but not midcourse yet. And those systems that work take years, if not decades, of development and testing to reach full operational capability. PATRIOT, which of course made its battleground debut in Desert Storm, was being developed under the program name SAM-D in the late 1960s.

Plus, I feel like people operate under the delusion that, even if we did have a fully operational midcourse missile defense system, it would be 100% effective. An intercept rate of about 70% or more is considered really successful. This is, in fact, rocket science. Actually, it’s more difficult than your everyday rocket science.

There are a lot of factors at play when it comes to this issue. I think it’s unfair, incorrect, and misleading to say or imply that past administrations, Congresses, and the DoD have somehow ignored missile defense, and that the reason we don’t currently have a reliable “missile shield” is because no one cared enough to fund it.

Respectfully,

Whitney Hedges

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Victor Davis Hanson’s Reply:

Dear Angry Reader Whitney Hedges,

All of what you say—missile defense is expensive, often without surety of hitting the target, and embedded in opportunistic politics—has elements of truth. But in comparison to what?

For a variety of avoidable decisions, we are now on the eve of a North Korean nuclear-tipped missile capability of reaching the West Coast. I simply quoted in my essay past statements, whether Walter Mondale’s dismissal of missile defense as a “hoax,” or Clinton Defense Secretary Perry’s belief that it was not necessary to provide missile defense against a someday nuclear North Korea, or Barack Obama’s hot mic promise to Russian President Medvedev to be “flexible” on Eastern European missile defense agendas (cancelled by Obama)—if Putin would give him “space” during his reelection efforts in 2012.

Is your argument that those quotations are wrong? Or that Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush likewise had no interest in pursuing missile defense?

Note that in my piece I did not suggest missile defense was ever a sure thing. But when faced with North Korea, and the specter of losing a U.S. city, all sorts of things that in the past were considered “problematic” become preferable to the alternatives.

A costly system that offers only a 60% likelihood of knocking down an incoming nuclear missile is preferable to nothing, and I confess also preferable to spending commensurate funds on further entitlements, which will be unnecessary if we are hit by enemy nuclear missiles.

Respectfully,

Victor Hanson

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture.

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