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National Missile Defence: The Maginot Line of the 21st century

By Keir Semmens - posted Thursday, 18 December 2003

In 1930 André Maginot, the Minister of War, persuaded the French parliament to build a mighty barrier to resist attack by Germany. The project utilised the newest defense technology and was hugely expensive. And indeed it was so formidable that it was never breached.

Instead, in 1940 Hitler’s warriors simply outflanked it. The Maginot Line proved a white elephant that promoted a false sense of security but did little to protect the French people.

As Clausewitz warned: "If you entrench yourself behind strong fortifications, you compel the enemy to seek a solution elsewhere."


Now the Howard government has committed Australia to participate in the development of the United States’ ballistic missile "shield". Assessment of this decision should be made against several critical criteria:

  1. Is the strategy feasible?
  2. Does the strategy counter the threat?
  3. Do the intended benefits justify the necessary expenditure?
  4. What consequences may result?
  5. How will it affect our strategic interests?
  6. Will it make Australia more secure?

1. Is the strategy feasible?

America’s National Missile Defence (NMD) Program proposes to detect and destroy a limited number of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) following launch by a hostile power. The principal stated purpose is to protect against a nuclear attack by a "rogue" nation. The project is divided into three segments: boost, mid-course and terminal defense.

Australia intends to collaborate in the mid-course and terminal defence segments. Mid-course defence requires a land or sea-based interceptor missile to destroy the ICBM during early ascent through mid-flight, when it is travelling at its highest velocity approaching 6.5km per second. This is akin to hitting a bullet with another bullet. The interceptor missile would require high velocity and proximity to the ICBM flight path, coupled with a highly advanced tracking and directional guidance infrastructure to find its target.

Terminal defence aims to destroy the weapon during its descent. The Patriot missile batteries that gained attention during both Gulf Wars are an example of the kind of system designed to counter an inbound missile. Their limited success against slower and less advanced missiles, despite intensive expenditure on research and development, highlights the difficulties in designing a system capable of intercepting a missile.

Many knowledgeable critics of NMD argue that a foolproof system to intercept ICBMs is impossible. Deployment of multiple missiles, decoy warheads or firing from close range, such as from a merchant ship, are just some of the counter-measures available to an assailant to overwhelm any defences.


The original Reagan missile defence program was quietly shelved when its architects realised that it could never protect against a comprehensive Soviet nuclear assault. Although it contributed to the demise of the Soviet regime, this was never its primary rationale.

We should not assume that simply investing enough will, technology and money will enable NMD to succeed.

2. Does the strategy counter the threat?

Notwithstanding the numerous technical challenges to overcome to achieve a secure NMD shield, the key question is whether it would prevent a nuclear attack. At best, it would fulfill its purpose of countering an ICBM.

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About the Author

Keir Semmens is an investment banker and longstanding member of the Australian Labor Party.

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