The first night of the Republican National Convention was certainly one for the books. Following a near-revolt on the convention floor during the day, the evening’s speakers included a reality TV star, a former underwear model and soap opera actor who is convinced the current president is Muslim, Joanie’s husband and Buddy Lembek’s best friend, as well as an aspiring First Lady cribbing from a speech by the current First Lady. In a night where the theme was “Make America Safe Again,” there was a heavy emphasis on feeding perceptions of danger and few coherent policy recommendations.
While nominating conventions are always theater, and nobody should expect coherence from the current Republican nominee—especially on foreign policy—one might expect the party that for decades has sold itself as “serious” on national defense to produce a platform with at least a few worthwhile ideas.
One would be wrong.
The 2016 Republican Platform is really a rehash of ideas the Grand Old Party has pushed for decades. Most prominently, it continues the party’s fixation on missile defense that only accelerated with President Ronald Reagan’s announcement of the Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983. The platform reminds its readers that the Obama administration cancelled the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system its predecessor planned to deploy in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Leaving aside the fact that the administration is deploying missile defense systems to Eastern Europe—the “Aegis Ashore” system with its SM-3 interceptor—the GMD system already deployed on the West Coast has repeatedly demonstrated its shortcomings in test after test. Moreover, as a series of reports by David Willman in the Los Angeles Times has shown, the prospects for fixing these flaws is almost entirely hopeless due to problems with tracking incoming missiles and the manufacturing process for new interceptors—among other issues.
The GOP focus on missile defense complements two other obsessions the party has pursued for decades. The first is really a severe misconception about how nuclear deterrence works. In making its case for a “multi-layered missile defense system” and the modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the platform calls for the end of the “policy of Mutually Assured Destruction.” There is a slight problem with this position: Mutually Assured Destruction, or “MAD,” to quote political scientist Robert Jervis, “is a fact, not a policy.”
MAD is a condition where two sides of a nuclear dyad—for example, a U.S.-Russian dyad—have sufficient numbers of nuclear weapons that, should either side launch a first strike, the side that is attacked will have enough weapons and delivery systems remaining that its retaliatory strike will cause unacceptable destruction to the attacker. Missile defense could be a solution to this problem, perhaps allowing a first strike and then defense against the retaliatory strike. However, given the cost of missile interceptors, and their poor operational performance, it is much cheaper for a potential attacker to expand its arsenal to overcome the defensive system than it is to continually expand the number of interceptors needed to escape MAD.
While the push for expanding missile defense to escape MAD might be based on a misconception, the other reason is downright bizarre. For many years, a number of conservative national security analysts have been sounding the alarm about a potential electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack, with former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich highlighting the possibility during his 2012 presidential campaign. The Republican platform continues that trend. It states:
A single nuclear weapons detonated at high altitude over this country would collapse our electrical grid and other critical infrastructures and endanger the lives of millions. With North Korea in possession of nuclear missiles and Iran close to have them, an EMP is no longer a theoretical concern—it is a real threat. Moreover, China and Russia include sabotage as part of their warfare planning.
Practically speaking, an EMP attack is possible—though neither North Korea, nor Iran, possess missiles capable of detonating a nuclear warhead over the continental United States at this time (and the latter does not yet have nuclear weapons at all). To paraphrase Popular Science military technology reporter and EMP scaremonger critic Kelsey Atherton: why would Russia or China or North Korea launch a single nuclear weapon and detonate it at high altitude for sabotage purposes? It makes more sense, given that they are ensuring a retaliatory strike from the United States that would more or less destroy them as function societies, to simply launch a nuclear attack. What would they gain from the more limited EMP attack that would justify suicide?
Republicans continue to claim they are the serious party on national security issues. Their misconceptions about the the workings of nuclear deterrence and bizarre obsession with EMP attacks, however, continue to suggest otherwise.