We and our colleagues from around the world – including experts from Australia, Canada, the United States, Russia and China – are undertaking a multi-year project to provide a definitive guide on how law applies to military uses of outer space.
The aim is to develop a Manual on International Law Applicable to Military uses of Outer Space (MILAMOS) that covers times of tension and outright hostility.
The ultimate goal is to help build transparency and confidence between space-faring states.
This should reduce the possibility of a war in space, or if it does happen, reduce the impact on the space infrastructure that we have all come to rely on so heavily.
The satellites we rely on
We rely on GPS signals for many things, including navigation, communication, banking, agriculture, travel and the internet itself. It’s estimated that 6-7% of GDP in Western countries depends on satellite navigation.
Communications satellites are applied not just for direct broadcast television, but also to enable many terrestrial networks. In remote areas of the world, they may be the only means of communication.
Satellites help us get weather forecasts and improve agricultural production. They also help us to plan disaster relief, find and mine natural resources, monitor the health of the environment and many other applications.
‘Expect’ war in space
In the military context too, satellites have become essential. In June this year, US Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said a future war in space is likely and the US is investing heavily in maintaining its military dominance in space. She commented:
We must expect that war, of any kind, will extend into space in any future conflict, and we have to change the way we think and prepare for that eventuality.
The first Gulf War in 1991 has often been called the first space war, though it wasn’t actually fought in outer space. Rather, the US and coalition forces relied heavily on GPS and other satellite technology to conduct that conflict.
Since then, space-based assets have enabled even greater capability for land, sea and air forces.
There are only five global treaties specific to space. Chief among them is the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, but only one of its provisions (Article IV) directly deals with military activity – it prohibits the placement of weapons of mass destruction in space.
This includes things such as anti-satellite missiles, directed energy weapons (including lasers), electronic warfare, cyber warfare and dual-use technology, such as on-orbit servicing (“mechanic”) satellites.
A combined effort
The MILAMOS project is led by three universities: Adelaide here in Australia, McGill in Canada, and Exeter in the UK. It received some funding from the Australian and Canadian governments, as well as from private donors.
It relies on expertise from the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Union of Concerned Scientists and from the major space-faring states, principally the US and Russia, but also China and other countries.
They participate in a strictly personal (rather than representative) capacity to provide an authentic account of what the law is, not to negotiate what states would like the law to be.
Even so, reflecting a true consensus position on the law, in spite of the strongly held personal positions of individual experts, can be challenging. But that is what the project aims to achieve in nine workshops over three years.
Even though these manuals are not formally endorsed by states, they are an essential reference for those who work in the field. This includes military practitioners, government lawyers and policy advisors, the media, public advocacy groups and other non-government organisations.
Final publication of the manual is expected in 2020. Paradoxically, the MILAMOS contributors earnestly hope that the manual will only ever remain on the shelf and never be used.
In March 2003, the Howard government involved Australia in an illegal military invasion of Iraq. The consequences of that war continue to be devastating for the people of Iraq and the wider Middle East. The prime minister was able to opt for invasion because in Australia the sovereign power to take the gravest decision, the commitment of the Australian Defence Force to international armed conflict, rests with the executive – in practice, often the PM alone – rather than with parliament.
Since 2014, further military deployments have taken place in Iraq. The bombing of Syria continues. Several months ago, the prime minister announced unqualified support in principle for the United States in possible military action against North Korea.
All these developments reinforce the dangers typically associated with secretive small-group decision-making. Closed decision-making breeds hubris; and hubris, the friend of folly and recklessness, often results in disasters. All are a curse for democracy. That is why the Sydney Democracy Network, in partnership with Australians for War Powers Reform, convened a public forum on the subject of the urgent need for war powers reform.
When governments kill in large numbers they always do so for a good reason. We must be on guard against that. – Howard Zinn
Australian politicians talk about ending terrorism but they make decisions that carelessly or inadvertently stir the pot and radicalise people. This then reinforces the dominant public narrative and makes military incursions superficially acceptable. Unfortunately, vigorous debate in Australia is encouraged only within the limits imposed by “unstated doctrinal orthodoxy”, particularly in relation to foreign policy.
Not only are the people who control what we know determining our future, the government secrecy surrounding Australia’s historical record deliberately obfuscates our understanding of what is going on right now. Symptomatic is the way the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has recently been found to be one of the least transparent military coalition members in Syria. The ADF won’t reveal “where they bomb, when they bomb or what they bomb”.
Syria’s recent history reads like a contemporary illustration of Chris Clark’s conclusion in Sleepwalkers: how Europe went to war in 1914. The period analysed in that book shows that great powers had more than one enemy, and that executive decision-making was chaotic.
War was a consequence of decisions made in many places, with their effect being cumulative and interactive. These decisions were made by a gallery of actors who otherwise shared a fundamentally similar political culture.
On September 9 2015, Australia’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Gillian Bird, wrote to the UN Security Council president claiming that Article 51 of the UN Charter recognises the inherent right of states to act in individual or collective self-defence when an armed attack occurs against a UN member state. States must be able to act in self-defence when the government of the state where the threat is located is unwilling or unable to prevent attacks originating from its territory. Bird alleged that the Syrian government had, by its failure to constrain attacks upon Iraqi territory originating from ISIS bases within Syria, demonstrated that it was unwilling or unable to prevent those attacks.
Unauthorised and uninvited
The Australian government was not questioned about how Syria was unwilling or unable to prevent those attacks. It was not asked how airstrikes would affect the Syrian population and infrastructure.
There was no link between ISIS, a non-state actor, and Syria. ISIS was not acting under instructions from, or the direction or control of, the Syrian government. Western governments made no attempt to work with the morally disgraceful Assad regime to actually enable it to prevent attacks emanating from its territory (and indeed Australia didn’t recognise the legitimacy of the regime).
Moreover, the Syrian government didn’t invite us to carry out airstrikes in Syria, and there was no UN Security Council resolution authorising the use of force. Neither the Australian government nor the opposition provided a clear explanation about why in August 2015 there was no clear legal basis for Australian involvement in Syria, but by September 2015 there was.
There was no rational discussion about our strategic ends. There was certainly no mention of the fact that in 2014 we already had embedded ADF personnel in Florida contributing to operations against ISIS in Syria.
There was, however, a letter, dated September 17 2015, from the Syrian government to the Security Council. The mainstream media did not report it, but the letter was referred to in documents I received following FOI requests. The letter disputed Australia’s unwilling and unable claims and pointed out that the Syrian Arab Army had, over four years, been fighting ISIS, the al-Nusrah Front and other groups being supported by Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Western states.
The letter called on others to co-ordinate with Syria. It said the international coalition led by the US had yet to achieve anything tangible in its war on terrorist organisations.
The Syrian government had a point, particularly since US President Barack Obama had already told VICE News (on camera) that:
ISIS is a direct outgrowth of al-Qaeda in Iraq that grew out of our invasion in 2003, which is an example of unintended consequences.
What was omitted from the political and public discourse in the lead-up to Australia’s decision to become involved in Syria was the fact that Syria had experienced a severe drought between 2007 and 2010. The drought spurred as many as 1.5 million people to migrate from the countryside into the cities, creating significant social and economic tensions.
In 2012 the UK’s MI6 co-operated with the CIA on a “rat line” of arms transfers from Libyan stockpiles to Syrian rebels after the fall of the Gaddafi regime. That same year, Russia proposed that Assad could step down as part of a peace deal. The US, Britain and France were so convinced that the Syrian dictator would fall that they ignored the proposal.
By this stage, the UN human rights commissioner had already confirmed 60,000 Syrian fatalities between March 2011 and November 2012. The current estimate is almost half a million deaths.
In September 2014 the US Congress determined that the US$500 million CIA program to arm Syrian rebels had failed. Arms had been ending up in the hands of the al-Nusra Front, and Jordanian intelligence officers were selling arms on the black market.
The following month, The New York Times reported that a CIA report had concluded that “many past attempts by the agency to arm foreign forces covertly had a minimal impact on the long-term outcome of a conflict”. The report came a month after Australia had delivered weapons to Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and a month before our successful delivery of 18,000kg of crated weapons from Albania to Erbil in Iraq.
On March 21 2015, international aid agencies and human rights groups released the Failing Syria report. This found that UN Security Council powers had failed to alleviate the suffering of civilians as the conflict intensified.
Two months later, the International Crisis Group released its own report warning that military aid had been given without an underlying strategy, which would prolong the battle with ISIS and inflame other local conflicts between intra-Kurdish rivals. The report noted that the US-led coalition had remained silent about Kurdish land grabs in disputed territories.
In May this year, Amnesty International urged the US and other countries to stop arms transfers that could fuel atrocities. This followed confirmation by a US Defence Department audit that the army had failed to monitor over US$1 billion worth of arms and other military equipment transfers to Kuwait and Iraq, which have ended up in the hands of ISIS.
A show for the domestic audience
In August 2015 rumours began to circulate that the then prime minister, Tony Abbott, had pushed for the US request to join airstrikes in Syria. Only five days before the bipartisan decision was made, Amnesty International reported that 220,000 people had been killed in Syria. Another 12.8 million needed humanitarian assistance and 50% of the population was displaced.
Still, at a reported cost of A$500 million a year for our air war against ISIS, and regardless of international law, we were first in with the US, beating our British counterparts who delayed plans for a parliamentary vote. A number of military strategists were of the view that Australia’s involvement was a show for the domestic audience.
The irony, of course, is that six days after the decision to conduct airstrikes in Syria, we had a new prime minister. Shortly after that a document titled “ADF Operations in the Middle East” was produced in response to my FOI request. It confirmed that “the prospects for a political or military solution are poor”.
The word “poor” seems highly inadequate. In order to supply arms to Syrian rebels, the Pentagon relies on an army of contractors from military giants to firms linked to organised crime. Saudi Arabia (a Western ally) and Qatar are providing clandestine financial and logistical support to ISIS, while Iran and Russia support Assad. Turkey is fighting the Kurds and the US-supported opposition groups, but is fighting with Russia against ISIS.
There are drone strikes and bombs being dropped by the US, Belgium, Jordan, Netherlands, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, United Kingdom, France, United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Israel, Denmark and Australia. There is disturbing evidence of the al-Nusra Front’s access to sarin gas. And to top it off, a Bulgarian journalist recently uncovered Azerbaijan Silk Way Airlines offering diplomatic flights to private companies and arms manufacturers from the US, Balkans and Israel and the militaries of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and US Special Operations Command to ship weapons around the world, including to Syria, without regulation.
Hidden agendas lead to humanitarian disaster
Our politicians continue to support the US, an ally that has historically forsaken the exploration of peaceful means and diplomatic solutions in favour of force and aggression. Under the pretext of responding “with decency and with force” to humanitarian concerns and the responsibility to protect civilians, Australia extended airstrikes into Syria.
Decency? Every war is a war on children when armed conflicts kill and maim more children than soldiers. Perversely, more soldiers die from suicide and peacetime incidents than war.
And then there’s the matter of secrecy. On January 6 2017, I issued an FOI request to the Defence Department for copies of documents confirming or specifying the dates, locations and outcomes (numbers of military and civilian casualties) of airstrikes by Australian forces in Syria. On January 20 2017, I received an email simply confirming that “the Department does not specifically collect authoritative (and therefore accurate) data on enemy and/or civilian casualties in either Iraq or Syria and certainly does not track such statistics”.
For all the political protestations about concern for civilian lives, we are not even trying to count our victims. To date, we have only claimed responsibility for the deaths of Syrian soldiers in airstrikes in September 2016.
This year, as if Australia wasn’t already an aircraft carrier for the US, the government decided to sell military equipment to Saudi Arabia. Overnight, Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne became a dedicated arms salesman, announcing that he wanted Australia to become a major arms exporter on a par with Britain, France and Germany, and to use exports to cement relationships with countries in volatile regions such as the Middle East.
Perpetual war has devastated the Middle East. Others rightly argue that a government that devotes the bulk of its budget to arms manufacturing implicitly makes a moral decision that militarism is more important than the creation of well-being for the population.
The difficulty is that Australians still aren’t told the truth about why we became involved in Syria. Those decisions seem to have been made in furtherance of unstated international coalition agendas rather than on open and objective assessments of their merit. This state of affairs is made profoundly worse by the fact that the decision to go to war was an executive decision, not a decision made democratically after full and open parliamentary debate based on the best objective information available.
We are fighting a difficult battle for transparency in these disturbingly Orwellian times, but the battle can and should be waged for as long as we have the will and the means to do so. Our best weapons are an accurate historical and geopolitical perspective and truth.
When it comes to war, our government needs to be more transparent and to open up decision-making on whether to become involved. Politicians and military personnel must be accountable for the human consequences of what they perpetrate in our name. It is our collective responsibility to do what we can to hold them to account.
The treaty will enter into force 90 days after 50 countries have ratified it. More than 40 are expected to sign today, and more will sign over the coming weeks and months. As it was adopted by a vote of 122 to one, it can be expected that close to 100 countries will sign before year’s end and it will enter into force in 2018.
The agreements is long overdue. It is 72 years since the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and 71 years since the first resolution of the newly formed UN General Assembly called for “the elimination from national armaments of the atomic weapons”.
It comes at a time of deeply disturbing resurgent nuclear threats and risks of nuclear war, which are considered by most experts – such as the 15 Nobel laureates among the custodians of the Doomsday Clock – to be as high as they have ever been.
It will provide the first comprehensive and categorical prohibition of the world’s most destructive weapons. The treaty makes clear that the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of these weapons means they can never be used again, and consequently should be eliminated. It affirms that as the risks concern the security of all humanity, all countries share this responsibility.
Countries that join the treaty must not develop, test, produce, possess, transfer, receive, station, deploy, use or threaten to use nuclear weapons. There are provisions outlining a pathway for those that have nuclear weapons now, had them in the past, or host nuclear weapons, if they can verify they are rid of their nuclear weapons, related programs and facilities.
Not only is the content of the nuclear weapons treaty historic, but the process of its genesis has also transformed the moribund nuclear disarmament landscape. For the first time, a nuclear disarmament treaty has been led by the countries without the weapons, and has an unequivocal humanitarian basis.
The level of involvement of civil society was unprecedented, particularly Japanese hibakusha (those who survived the atomic bombs) and nuclear test survivors, including from Australia.
The UN was used for the first time in 21 years to negotiate a nuclear disarmament treaty, because it’s most inclusive and democratic forum, the General Assembly, is able to adopt substantive measures by vote.
This is in stark contrast to the NPT conferences and the Conference on Disarmament, which are paralysed by a requirement for consensus.
The treaty was able to be completed from negotiating mandate to adoption in eight months, with only four weeks of actual negotiations. This was because of a widespread determination to seize this landmark opportunity on the part of many states, who were more willing to put aside parochial agendas than I have ever witnessed in a nuclear forum over the past 35 years.
Fierce opposition came from nuclear-armed and nuclear-dependent countries (including Australia), as a US document to its NATO allies demonstrates. Strong political and economic pressure exerted on many countries by the US, UK, France and Russia, despite peeling off some smaller and weaker countries, proved ineffective.
Pressure on countries not to sign, most publicly US Secretary of Defence James Mattis’ admonition to Sweden, will likely ramp up. However, the treaty is a triumph of the interests of common humanity, and is not going away.
Relations between the US and Russia are at their worst in 30 years, with a resurgent Cold War escalating. Relations between the US and China are at their lowest point in decades. Pakistan and India are expanding their nuclear arsenals faster than anywhere else. Both sides are implementing deployments and policies for early use of nuclear weapons if war erupts.
North Korea’s escalating development and testing of both nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles demonstrate that any determined nation can develop both.
The fundamental problem is what South African ambassador Abdul Minty described as “nuclear apartheid”, with the countries possessing nuclear weapons busy modernising and determined to retain them, rather than fulfil their obligation to disarm. This is an inevitable driver of nuclear proliferation.
No human should have the power to end the world in an afternoon. If nuclear weapons are retained they will eventually be used. The crisis relating to North Korea, for which there is no military solution, highlights again that our luck could run out any day.
The countries that have foresworn biological and chemical weapons now need to do the same for nuclear weapons. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons provides a credible pathway to the verified, time-bound elimination of weapons posing the most acute existential threat to people everywhere.
All countries – including North Korea, the US and Australia – should join the treaty.
Tilman Ruff, Associate Professor, International Education and Learning Unit, Nossal Institute for Global Health, School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne
While much of the world’s attention was focused last week on the G20 meeting in Hamburg, and Donald Trump’s first face-to-face meeting with Vladimir Putin, a historic decision took place at the United Nations (UN) in New York.
This new treaty sets the international norm that nuclear weapons are no longer morally acceptable. This is the first step along the road to their eventual elimination from our planet, although the issue of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions remains unresolved.
Earlier this year, thousands of scientists including 30 Nobel Prize winners signed an open letter calling for nuclear weapons to be banned. I was one of the signees, and am pleased to see an outcome linked to this call so swiftly and resolutely answered.
More broadly, the nuclear weapon treaty offers hope for formal negotiations about lethal autonomous weapons (otherwise known as killer robots) due to start in the UN in November. Nineteen countries have already called for a pre-emptive ban on such weapons, fearing they will be the next weapon of mass destruction that man will invent.
An arms race is underway to develop autonomous weapons, in every theatre of war. In the air, for instance, BAE Systems is prototyping their Taranis drone. On the sea, the US Navy has launched their first autonomnous ship, the Sea Hunter. And under the sea, Boeing has a working version of a 15 metre long Echo Voyager autonomous submarine.
New treaty, new hope
The nuclear weapons treaty is an important step towards delegitimising nuclear weapons, and puts strong moral pressure on the nuclear states like the US, the UK and Russia to reduce and eventually to eliminate such weapons from their arsenals. The treaty also obliges states to support victims of the use and testing of nuclear weapons, and to address environmental damage caused by nuclear weapons.
It has to be noted that the talks at the UN and subsequent vote on the treaty were boycotted by all the nuclear states, as well as by a number of other countries. Australia has played a leading role in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and other disarmament talks. Disappointingly Australia was one of these countries boycotting last week’s talks. In contrast, New Zealand played a leading role with their ambassador being one of the Vice-Presidents of the talks.
Whilst 122 countries voted for the treaty, one country (the Netherlands) voted against, and one (Singapore) abstained from the vote.
The treaty will open for signature by states at the United Nations in New York on September 20, 2017. It will then come into force once 50 states have signed.
Even though major states have boycotted previous disarmament treaties, this has not prevented the treaties having effect. The US, for instance, has never signed the 1999 accord on anti-personnel landmines, wishing to support South Korea’s use of such mines in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) with North Korea. Nevertheless, the US follows the accord outside of the DMZ.
Given that 122 countries voted for the nuclear prohibition treaty, it is likely that 50 states will sign the treaty in short order, and that it will then come into force. And, as seen with the landmine accord, this will increase pressure on nuclear states like the US and Russia to reduce and perhaps even eliminate their nuclear stockpiles.
The vote also raises hope on the issue of killer robots. Two years ago, I and thousands of my colleagues signed an open letter calling for a ban on killer robots. This pushed the issue up the agenda at the UN and helped get 123 nations to vote last December at the UN in Geneva for the commencement of formal talks.
The idea the world is sleepwalking to war, much like Europe did in the early years of the 20th century, deserves to be taken seriously. One of us (Chris Barrie) set the hares running recently when he said that, as in 1914, political leaders today are doing just that.
But the problem with history is that it is always easy to gainsay such parallels. History doesn’t repeat itself – at least not in an exact way. The parallels that exist are usually at such a high level of abstraction that small shifts in local circumstances can render them useless.
History’s problem is the problem of the dynamics of all complex systems. Their futures are not determined, yet nor are they random. At any given point in time, the next step for any complex system exists as many possibilities – some of which are much more likely to occur than others.
How complex systems thinking can help
Complex systems thinking offers another approach to examine the parallels between today and the early 20th century. We can look forward with a complex systems perspective to seek the many possible futures, and then ask the question: which is the most likely?
We can do this through simulation. In this case, we need a model of the strategic interactions between countries that is sufficiently general that both the model and the real world are similar complex systems. And we need a model that is sufficiently realistic that its behaviours are easily recognisable in the real world of strategic interaction.
Until about 20 or 30 years ago, simulations of complex systems were pretty clunky and unrealistic. With advances in complex systems science, we can now build models that meet both criteria – generality and realism.
In this vein, we (Roger and Dmitry) have been building a general simulation framework that models the strategic interactions between countries. In discussion with Chris, we created a model within that framework that explores the essence of the sleepwalking hypothesis.
What we found broadly confirmed the hypothesis – but added some surprising wrinkles of its own.
What we found
The model stripped the problem to its essentials – a set of countries that interact with each other through competition (at its extreme, war) and co-operation (at its extreme, peace).
Countries can grow in wealth and power through these interactions. But there are costs imposed (especially by war) even on winners, so countries can also decline in wealth and power. Countries choose how to interact with a strategy they develop from their past experience and from observing what works for their neighbours.
For the sleepwalking hypothesis, we focused on two parameters that are part of a country’s strategy – hawkishness and risk aversion.
There is evidence of hawkishness in the rise in nationalism within countries as they adopt more aggressive postures in their international relations. In recent years, hawkishness has been growing in China, Russia, North Korea and the US.
An aggressive posture is one thing – but doing something about it is another, as countries factor in the costs and risks of aggression. So, we see risk aversion as a parameter distinct from hawkishness.
Saudi Arabia has demonstrated less risk aversion combined with high hawkishness in its Yemen excursions – as have Turkey and Iran in their Syrian adventure. But they also can be decoupled – North and South Korea are both pretty hawkish, but South Korea’s subtly calibrated risk aversion in the face of outrageous North Korean aggression has kept the two countries from war.
For instance, in 2010, a North Korean submarine, in an unprovoked attack, sank the South Korean corvette Cheonan. South Korea kept its response to the diplomatic domain.
We hypothesised that the world sleepwalks to war when hawkishness rises to high levels and risk aversion falls to low levels across the ensemble of states.
The interactive below shows the evolution of countries’ strategies when they believe war is not costly (whether it is or not), and when they have a tendency to copy other countries’ successful strategies.
We see that hawkishness grows very quickly and risk aversion declines very quickly across the whole ensemble. We also see that these strategies are very stable once achieved. When successful, the willingness of countries to resort to war to resolve their strategic dilemmas increases, the threshold for such a resort decreases, and this willingness is resistant to change once it is in place.
The model clearly confirms the hypothesis.
Is there a way out?
But is a de-escalation path available once the ensemble of countries is locked into high hawkishness and low risk aversion, and just waiting for a trigger for a major conflict?
Because of the in-step nature of “sleepwalking to war”, we wondered if explicit policy action by individual countries could carve out a de-escalation path. So, we drilled down into the behaviour of pairs of countries to see if we could visualise paths from war to peace.
Here we modelled, for a pair of countries, the most likely regions of war, peace and stand-off in their interactions for different degrees of hawkishness for each. We added the idea of a stand-off to our model to account for the “not-peace, not-war” phenomenon observed, for example, during the Cold War.
We then tracked the evolution of that landscape as risk aversion increased, as shown below.
We can see clearly that increased hawkishness alone will not lead to war unless risk aversion is also low. When risk aversion is high, there is plenty of peaceful space available even in the highly hawkish parts of the landscape.
In the Cold War, even though both sides mirrored each other in highly hawkish ways, their mutual risk aversion actually created a long, if tense, peace – a stand-off. And statesmanship on both sides continually steered the strategies towards the more peaceful parts of the landscape.
But we can also see that the peaceful domain in the landscape shrinks rapidly as risk aversion decreases, such that, at low risk aversion, even low levels of hawkishness can drive countries to war.
What does all this mean?
Taking both sets of results together, we think that, in walking countries away from war, statesmanship might find much more purchase on risk aversion than on hawkishness.
It seems hawkishness is more about values (as seen, for example, in emotional calls to nationalism and populism). Risk aversion, by contrast, seems more about the rational balance of war’s costs and benefits.
With hawkishness strongly influenced by the behaviours of other countries, it is easier to talk it up than down. And, with high emotional content, it’s likely to be resistant to statesmanship – that is, policy actions that go against the grain of the moment.
But risk aversion, as a rational action, depends to a significant degree on a country’s internal policy environment – how its citizens feel about the costs of war – and so may be more amenable to change.
In an increasingly hawkish world, this may be our best bet for maintaining peace.
North Korea’s test this week of an intercontinental ballistic missile has reignited interest and debate on the feasibility of ballistic missile defence systems, and whether countries such as Australia should seek to acquire them.
But what are these systems, and how do they work? How effective would they be in providing a defence against a potential missile attack?
How do they work?
All ballistic missile defence systems consist of a network of tracking and guidance radars, and the interceptor launchers.
On detecting a ballistic missile launch, the radars track the missile’s trajectory, fire an interceptor to shoot it down, and prepare further interceptors to be launched if the first one misses.
This is referred to as a “shoot-look-shoot” strategy, as opposed to a strategy of saturation – where the defender simply shoots as many interceptors as possible in the hope of achieving a kill.
Modern defence systems use interceptor missiles carrying kinetic kill vehicles. These are warheads that are non-explosive and designed to destroy incoming ballistic missiles by simply crashing into them.
All of the systems mentioned below are intended to work in conjunction with one another. They are integrated to provide the ability to shoot down ballistic missiles throughout their flight path. However, they are also capable of operating independently, although with less effectiveness than if operated in conjunction with other systems.
Missile defence systems in the region
The US and its allies in the Asia-Pacific currently deploy several ballistic missile defence systems. These would be used in the unlikely event that North Korea decided to actually launch a ballistic missile attack.
The first and most prominent is Terminal High Altitude Area Defence, or THAAD, which the US has deployed in South Korea. THAAD is designed to shoot down ballistic missiles in the terminal phase of flight – that is, as the ballistic missile is re-entering the atmosphere to strike its target.
The second relevant system is Patriot PAC-3, which is designed to provide late terminal phase interception – that is, after the missile has re-entered the atmosphere. It is deployed by US forces operating in the region, as well as Japan.
Perhaps the most capable system currently in operation in the region is the Aegis naval system, which is deployed on US and Japanese destroyers. It is designed to intercept ballistic missiles in the mid-course phase of flight – that is, when the missile is outside of earth’s atmosphere and transiting to its target.
What all of these systems have in common is they are theatre ballistic missile defence systems, designed to provide protection against short-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. Intercontinental ballistic missiles, such as the one tested by North Korea this week, fly too high and fast for these systems to engage with.
Aegis has demonstrated some limited capability to engage targets similar to intercontinental ballistic missiles. It was used to shoot down a malfunctioning spy satellite in 2008, but has never been tested against an actual intercontinental ballistic missile target.
The only system expressly designed to shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles is the US Ground-based Midcourse Defence. However, this has a very patchy record in testing. By the end of 2017 it will only have 44 interceptors deployed.
How effective are they?
None of these systems is 100% effective, and most have an iffy record in testing. Aegis has succeeded in 35 out of 42 tests, while Ground-based Midcourse Defence has had only ten successes in 18 tests. However, THAAD has been successful in 18 out of 18 tests.
Tests are conducted in favourable conditions – and it is reasonable to expect the success rates to be lower in actual combat use.
The true difficulty lies with intercontinental ballistic missiles. An intercontinental ballistic missile can attain altitudes well in excess of low earth orbit. Those fired on a typical long-range trajectory can exceed 1,200km in altitude. The high-trajectory, short-range test shot North Korea conducted this week attained an altitude of 2,700km.
However, the altitude intercontinental ballistic missiles attain is only part of the problem. The other major challenge facing ballistic missile defence is the truly enormous speeds that missiles attain during the terminal phase. They often hit or exceed 20 times the speed of sound.
A common comparison used is that ballistic missile defence is akin to shooting a bullet in flight with another bullet. The reality is even more extreme.
For example, a .300 Winchester Magnum (a high-velocity hunting and sniper round) can achieve a velocity of 2,950 feet per second as it leaves the barrel. This equates to 3,237km/h, or 2.62 times the speed of sound. An intercontinental ballistic missile can achieve speeds almost eight times faster than this. As a result, it is almost impossible to reliably defend against such missiles.
This is not necessarily a problem for countries such as Japan and South Korea. Any ballistic missile used by North Korea against them would be a shorter-range ballistic missile that these systems could engage.
However, countries should be mindful that these systems provide limited-to-no capability to defend against intercontinental ballistic missiles. In Australia’s case, the only missiles capable of reaching this far from North Korea are intercontinental ballistic missiles. Thus, even if Australia decided to invest in ballistic missile defence, it would provide little-to-no protection from a potential North Korean nuclear attack.
By 431 BCE, under the leadership of Pericles, Athens had become a formidable maritime power whose empire extended across the eastern Mediterranean region. Its challenge to the supremacy of Sparta, the warrior nation of the Peloponnesian peninsula, was obvious. According to historian and general Thucydides:
Growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta, made [the Peloponnesian] war inevitable.
Graham Allison’s new book, Destined for War, suggests a modern parallel in a rising power (Athens/China) causing fear in an established power (Sparta/the US) in which the necessary trust in one another is lost, and war becomes inevitable.
But the analogy has its limits. All too often the who, when and how of the next war have been confidently predicted. Very rarely has anyone got it right.
Athens and Sparta exercised power very differently from their analogous contemporaries. Over the four decades before the war, Athens had become the regional muscle, rather more like the US than China, extracting payment for providing security. The Athenians were primarily traders, providing a maritime security envelope while also securing resources for themselves.
Like the Chinese, the Spartans were focused more on maintaining territorial security. Most of the Peloponnesian peninsula was under Spartan control. Their strength came with the land and their exercise of a military regime depended on an often rebellious population of slaves known as Helots.
Athens had transformed its prosperity into a tightly controlled corporate empire. Similarly, today, the US has exerted considerable influence over strategic hotspots. Countries like Australia have effectively outsourced their security risks.
Sparta maintained a looser confederacy of alliances of which less was demanded, and less given. China too has used soft power, offering aid and investment across the Pacific and Africa, buying influence rather than extracting power.
We might see a certain aggressiveness about the US that reminds us of the image of Sparta as a warring nation. But, in fact, Sparta was somewhat insular and inward-looking. China’s expansion might remind us of the growth of the Athenian empire, but Athens had little land and few prospects – it depended on an empire to secure resources, very different from the Chinese situation.
Allison is acutely aware that his analogy to the fifth-century war is a provocation. With his colleagues at the Belfer Center at Harvard, Allison’s Thucydides’s Trap Project has studied 16 significant conflicts from the last five centuries. Twelve of those led to war. The others only avoided war through significant adjustments in the attitudes and postures of both sides.
There is no doubt that China is rising. The GDP of China surpassed the GDP of the US (on purchasing power parity terms) in 2014. By 2019, it will be 20% larger. While the US can only manage a growth rate of 2.1%, China continues to grow by at least 6.5%.
As former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd once observed, China is experiencing “the English Industrial Revolution and the global information revolution combusting simultaneously and compressed into not 300 years, but 30”.
The fearful West is apt to ignore the considerable internal tensions that China faces. The Chinese Communist Party has a social contract with its citizens: the price of authoritarian rule is to provide economic opportunities for all.
While the vast majority has prospered under its regime, inequality has risen exponentially between China’s urbanised east coast and the rural hinterland. Balancing the forces for social liberalisation on the coast and economic prosperity inland requires withering complexities.
Ironically, as part of the “One Belt One Road” initiative, the Chinese bought the port of Piraeus, the Athenian port that was the axis around which the Athenian empire once turned.
But this highlights China’s distinctly bifurcated view, between a maritime expansion of influence and a new Silk Road, designed to compete with Russia for economic and political dominance in Central Asia. China is a speeding juggernaut, precariously balanced between its international and domestic aspirations.
President Xi Jinping wants to make China great again. Allison’s prescient analysis shows that, despite Xi’s nuanced understanding of China-US relations compared with US President Donald Trump’s infantile floundering on the world stage, the aspirations each has for his country are remarkably similar.
But, unlike the bipolar world of the Ancient Greeks, the international system since the Cold War has been characterised by multipolarity: China, the US, the European Union, Japan, Russia and India each has an opportunity to exercise power more independently, or perhaps interdependently.
Allison’s book makes a fascinating and worthwhile contribution to our understanding of the nature of power as a function of the nation-state.
Through his analysis of the four case studies in which war was avoided, Allison gives us “twelve clues for peace”, including practical examples of how Thucydides’s Trap was avoided. These include insights into the nature of leadership, how power is enacted, the opportunities and entrapments of alliances, and much more.
Thucydides spoke of the motivations of war being fear, honour and interest, and it’s the same today. These motivations come largely from within – they are not imposed by other countries from outside.
Ultimately, countries go to war when their respective grand strategies – the exercise of power in the world for national interest – become misaligned with the expectations of their respective domestic audiences. That is, the trap for both the US and China is to manage domestic expectations, and to harmonise those expectations with the exercise of international influence.