When it comes to the macabre-bizarre, few movies beat Dr. Strangelove. In it, Soviet Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky, played by Peter Bull, announces that Moscow has a doomsday array of cobalt bombs automatically set to poison all of humanity if Russia is ever nuked (spoiler alert: U.S. Major T.J. “King” Kong, played by Slim Pickens, sparks the end of days, riding an American nuclear weapon rodeo-style to target). The year Dr. Strangelove was released—1964—the world’s smart money was on making deterrence as massively murderous as possible.
Fast forward fifty-seven years. Dr. Strangelove’s passion has changed. Today, precision munitions—“Ninja weapons” and lethal, loitering drones capable of taking out a terrorist in the back seat of an economy car without harming the front-seat driver—are the favored killer app. Now, we can hit who we want without harming who we don’t.
That’s the apologia for precision-guided munitions. Heralded by the U.S. Air Force’s laser-guided bomb destruction of the North Vietnamese Thanh Hóa bridge in 1972, using only eight weapons (after more than 871 previous imprecise, unsuccessful strikes), precision-guided weapons were supposed to dramatically reduce “collateral damage” (read: the unintended, massive slaying of innocents).
With America’s shock and awe wars in Iraq and the Balkans, they mostly did. Since then, the whole world has tracked this precision-guided path. Not just the major powers but Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel, Turkey, Pakistan, India, South and North Korea, and Taiwan now all make precision missiles and drones that can hit whatever targets they’re aimed at. And they are spreading, both to states and to non-state proxies.
Putting aside the dystopian prospect of slaughterbots (think swarms of hand-launched drones with facial recognition chips and three-gram shaped charges to smash the skulls of anyone that anyone else wants dead), the original hope was that precision weapons would civilize war. Not only could militaries avoid civilian casualties, but the likely early use of accurate munitions, it was argued, could give pause for peace: Combatants hell-bent on winning would quickly exhaust their smart arsenals and run out of military targets. The resulting break in hostilities could allow for jaw, jaw over war, war, and, with any luck, a truce.
The dark side of this pacific prospect, though—laid out by the most respected prognosticators—was that the peace might not hold. If so, and the war included nuclear-armed combatants, one side might escalate, fire its nukes, and force a victory through mass murder. So far, this hasn’t happened. Precision military engagements have remained either relative pinpricks or entirely one-sided.
But if indiscriminate mutual annihilation via precision munitions seems remote, think again. Weak states armed with accurate missiles and drones are now threatening to use them not to reduce indiscriminate harm, but to increase it.
Damage in the Extreme
Consider last summer’s scrap between Armenia and Azerbaijan, two states stocked with accurate rockets. Armenia is armed with Russian Iskander ballistic missiles, Azerbaijan with Israeli LORA analogues (both systems can fly 400 to 500 kilometers and are accurate within 10 meters). On July 16, Azerbaijani defense ministry spokesman Vagif Dargahli warned that Azerbaijan’s “state-of-the-art missile systems allow us to strike [Armenia’s] Metsamor nuclear plant with precision, which could lead to a great catastrophe for Armenia,” conjuring up memories of Chernobyl. Russian commentators took notice. Shortly thereafter, President Putin called Turkish President Erdogan, then backing Azerbaijan militarily, to work with Russia to “stabilize” the crisis.
Was this the first time that Azerbaijan or Armenia postured to destroy civilian targets with missiles? No. Previously, both sides had each other’s petrochemical plants, dams, and cities. In early November, though, Yerevan made more than threats.
Hours before the war’s end, and at Russia’s urging, Armenia took a precision potshot at Baku. Eager to spook Azerbaijan’s power elite to drop its all-too-successful assault against Armenian forces, Armenia fired two of its precision Iskander missiles toward Azerbaijan’s capital. It worked. Although the Azeris claimed they neutralized the Iskanders in midair with an Israeli air defense system, the strike rattled Baku’s resident—targeted?—leadership, which immediately sued for peace.
Was this a one-off kerfuffle? Some academics insist it was, but less polished observers (read: Israel’s top military brass) worry we’re in for more of what Baku and Yerevan endured. Certainly, the Azeris aren’t the only ones to have threatened to strike their adversaries’ nuclear plants with missiles. Hezbollah has menaced Israel’s Dimona reactor, the Houthis the Emirates’ Barakah nuclear plant, and China Taiwan’s three nuclear reactors.
Their aim is to deter or bewilder by holding at risk what the Soviets have called “sympathetic targets”—objects that generate far more energy or harm once they’re hit than what’s needed to strike them. An ammo dump, a dam, a natural gas depot, a petrochemical plant would be examples—or, as we saw last summer with the 1.5 to 2.5-kiloton blast in Beirut, a store of ammonium nitrate.
Reactors, of course, are a special case. Once hit, their knock-on effects aren’t so much explosive as they are economic and, potentially, radiological. Fly an accurate armed missile or drone into a plant’s parking lot, set off an explosive, and, with zero causalities, you can shut down the plant and every other reactor within range, prompting brownouts and blackouts and likely scaring thousands to millions into hitting the road in search of safer ground. Smash the thin roof of the plant’s spent fuel pond and you can induce a regime-crushing Fukushima or Chernobyl.
Against this, there are defenses. For a price, buildings can be hardened with ultra-high- performance concrete. Birdcage structures can be erected around key targets to keep missiles and their munitions from coupling with their prey. High-powered microwave air defense systems, now undergoing development, can fry the high-tech drones’ electronics.
But none of these fixes should be seen as silver bullets. As was the case right after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, whoever shoots first in this brave, new missiled world is almost certain to shoot last … and win.
Seem theoretical? Perhaps, but frontline states are not waiting to find out. Consider the opinion of Israel’s chief of the General Staff, Lieutenant General Aviv Kochavi, on how best to deal with Hezbollah’s growing fleet of increasingly accurate missiles, which are being stored and built, he claims, “in every fifth house in Lebanon.” What’s needed, he argues, is an all-out preventive war against Lebanon, garnished with a dash of humanity—a warning to civilians to leave their homes before the massive attack. Never mind that this might catalyze Iran to join the fray or that, with enough innocents killed, Washington—Israel’s key protector—might freak out.
Why take these risks? Because, as one senior Israeli missile analyst recently wrote to me, Israel—and soon the rest of the world—may have no choice. With precision, he argued, non-nuclear missiles can cause nuclear effects; and “the distinction between nuclear and non- nuclear confrontation is being blurred.”
And so, as precision-missile weaponry spreads, Dr. Strangelove and our love of the macabre become new … again.
Henry Sokolski, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and author of Underestimated: Our Not So Peaceful Nuclear Future (2d ed., 2019). He served as deputy for nonproliferation policy in the office of the U.S. secretary of defense from 1989 to 1993.
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