My Preferred Weapon of Mass Destruction

I am a believer in national defense. That is why I favor the kind of non-aggressive foreign policy that George Washington recommended in his Farewell Address. The best way to avoid needing to defend this nation by war is to make it worth other nations’ while to leave us alone. Free trade is a good positive way to achieve this goal.

The second best way is negative: give nations effective military reasons for leaving us alone. I want to talk about one of these reasons — actually, the same reason about a thousand times over.

Almost twenty years ago, my friend Lannon Stafford, who had been a pilot with the Strategic Air Command, told me his technological solution for the successful defense of the United States. The thing was so simple and so cheap that I knew it would never get a hearing.

His solution is a cruise missile armed with a nuclear warhead — actually, about 1,000 of these missiles.

A cruise missile is slow. It putts along at about 500 to 600 miles per hour. It is useless as an offensive first-strike weapon. It would take too long for one to reach its target. If the targets of cruise missiles were other missiles, they would hit empty silos. The enemy would have launched its missiles hours before.

As a defensive weapon, they are sensible, in a Sears Catalogue sort of way. First, they would be cheap to mass produce. The technology is old: off-the-shelf. This is why we do not see a cost-overrun-prone defense industry lusting after it. This speaks well for it.

Second, the military could put them on train cars and keep moving them around. They could be put on our ships. They would be impossible to hit in a first strike.

Third, there would be too many of them to defend against. They fly low to the ground, below radar. They would come in from all directions.

They would be aimed at military installations. They would not be aimed at civilian populations that were not part of a military installation.

A generation ago, A.J.P. Taylor argued that World War I began because of the strategic military pressures of train schedules. (War by Timetable, 1969). It is as good an explanation as any and better than most. Surely, the 20-minute timetable of an ICBM first strike puts the President on a tight schedule. It would be nice to let him take his finger off the trigger.

Upon word of an offensive missile launch by an enemy, which can be easily traced back to the source, the President could order the cruise missiles launched upon the first hit on an American target.

The wonderful thing about a cruise missile defense is that it need not be part of a launch-on-warning defense. The President could more safely bide his time when informed of a supposed launch by an enemy.

What if the President did order a launch, and then he found that the cause for alarm was some sort of radar glitch? He could tell the military to recall the missiles. I call this the “oops” response. Cruise missiles go so slowly that any distant enemy would not immediately have to launch its ICBM’s on warning. The warning would be nice and long. There would be time for telephone calls between leaders. The hair-trigger effect of an ICBM-based defense would be removed. When it comes to nuclear war, I recommend slow, gooey triggers.

We need an anti-ballistic missile defense system that uses nuclear warheads to blow up incoming missiles at a distance, but we haven’t got it and probably will never get it. A civil defense system would be nice, too, since the government’s goal should be to defend its citizens. The ideal of mutual assured destruction — putting one’s own citizens at risk of annihilation — has been popular among American military strategists for too long. A just war does not deliberately target enemy civilians or deliberately expose one’s own.

If enemy nations would adopt the same technologies — cruise missiles, civil defense, and anti-ballistic missiles — everyone would be better off. They would make a nuclear first strike too costly. The old rule is this: when the price of something rises, less of it is demanded.

The first job of the Defense Department should be national defense, yet its weapons of choice are offensive. The Old Testament had it right: kings were not to multiply horses (Deuteronomy 17:16). Horses were offensive weapons. A mule was just fine for defense — not very fast, but steady. A mule was for repelling invaders, not for going abroad in search of conquests.

A cruise missile is a mule. An ICBM is a horse. It is time for a swap.

April 26, 2001

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of an eleven-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible. The latest volume is Cooperation and Dominion: An Economic Commentary on Romans. The series can be downloaded free of charge at