Jeffrey LewisConventional Trident & Al Qaeda

As you may know, I have long argued that Conventional Trident is mildly pointless —I gave a talk to the National Academies of Science panel on global strike to that effect, based in part on a detailed case study of the strike on Dora Farm that opened Operation Iraqi Freedom.

(One beer buys an abbreviated version of the talk, laced with profanity.)

Anyway, the general point is that policymakers don’t consume intelligence in a way that would make Conventional Trident a difference-maker.

Case in point: This story by Mark Mazzetti in the New York Times about how Rummy blocked a mission to grab Zawahri because of the political and military risks:

A secret military operation in early 2005 to capture senior members of Al Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal areas was aborted at the last minute after top Bush administration officials decided it was too risky and could jeopardize relations with Pakistan, according to intelligence and military officials.


“The Special Operations guys are tearing their hair out at the highest levels,” said a former Bush administration official with close ties to those troops. While they have not received good intelligence on the whereabouts of top Qaeda members recently, he said, they say they believe they have sometimes had useful information on lower-level figures.

“There is a degree of frustration that is off the charts, because they are looking at targets on a daily basis and can’t move against them,” he said.

I expect that advocates of the Conventional Trident will start talking about how if we’d only had conventionally armed ballistic missiles, we’d have killed Al-Qaeda’s senior leadership.

I suspect, that when we actually look at the strike options available, Conventional Trident won’t have made a difference. The intelligence would have still been ambiguous, the political risks of carrying our an airstrike in Pakistan would still loom large and the human risk would be replaced with technical limitations on the Conventional Trident warhead.

Yet that isn’t the more important aspect of this debate. Mazzetti includes a couple of paragraphs contrasting the unwillingness to use Special Operations forces with the frequent use of cruise missiles or UAVs.

The article, coming however close, still elides the central question that dogs Conventional Trident and other global strike programs when it comes to hunting terrorists. What we have is a political failure to take risks and ask for sacrifice, not a technical problem that needs to, or can be, remedied by a new missile or death ray.

There is a tendency across the defense community to see technology as a kind of bloodless route to empire—we can use missile defenses and nuclear detectors to secure our borders, long-range strike systems to kill terrorists and good old fashioned denial to avoid planing for post-conflict nation-building or peacekeeping.

I think the sentiment was nicely expressed in the title of an awfully silly 1997 article by John Hillen entitled, “Superpowers Don’t Do Windows.”

Hillen used “windows” to mean insignificant tasks, but I’ve always thought the subtext was a reluctance to get our hands dirty in the messy businesses of diplomacy and nation-building.

Although maintaining a suite of long-range strike capabilities is important, advocates of some of these programs seem to describe new military technologies—whether missile defenses or precision strike capabilities—as “silver bullets” that will allow us to protect our interests all without sullying ourselves.

That’s a fantasy of course. Grabbing Bin Laden and Zawahri is important, but doing so won’t eliminate terrorism or transform Afghanistan—just as capturing Saddam and killing Zarqawi didn’t turn Iraq into a democracy. Rebuilding failed states is messy work. It takes commitment and sacrifice.

The Administration’s failure to take the political risk of letting competent, patriotic professionals risk so much more speaks to a larger moral failing on the part of our leadership to make the difficult choices that are necessary to build a more stable, secure world.

That’s not something that a new defense system can fix.