Thursday, March 27, 2008

The missile blunder

A lot has already been written about the erroneous shipment, a little more than a year-and-a-half ago, of ICBM nose cone fuses to Taiwan and the diplomatic storm that this has created. While I do not intend to belabor the details of the military faux pas, suffice it to say, for those readers overseas who have yet to hear of the news, that the items intended for shipment to Taiwan were four replacement battery packs for UH-1H helicopters. What the Taiwanese military received instead was a batch of precise instrumentation used to trigger nuclear warheads as intercontinental missiles approach their target.

As a former government employee and long observer of government institutions involved in military and intelligence matters, what I intend to discuss in this entry is twofold:

(a) a mistake such as this one is not altogether impossible. While one would like to think that ordering from the Pentagon involves a little more oversight than, say, ordering books from, we should never underestimate the incompetence of government. In many cases, reality defies fiction, and the case at hand is at least as good as anything one would encounter in Graham Greene, Joseph Heller, Evelyn Waugh or John Le Carre. Believe me: Despite all the nonproliferation mechanisms and mine field of checks and screening, errors remain possible. They're quite common, in fact.

(b) in spite of the above, one should equally never underestimate the capacity of government to cover its errors, and this is where things get really interesting. Given the magnitude of the mistake and the impact it can have on nonproliferation, the military buildup in China and regional stability (not to mention that it makes the Pentagon look utterly incompetent), we could assume that all the governments involved in the matter would have seen it in their best interest that the blunder never see the light of day. In fact, things like this would get the highest classification, something like TOP SECRET, US (AND MAYBE SIX TAIWANESE AND CERTAINLY NO CHINESE) EYES ONLY. People would be surprised how often the classification of documents is relied upon to ensure that errors such as this one are not exposed. And yet, in this case, press conferences were held, the Pentagon has been surprisingly open about it, the news has spread all over the world, and China, as expected, has reacted in anger.

It would be tempting to think of a conspiracy theory here, but I’ll do my best to avoid that. Still, given the stakes, for something like this to become public knowledge can only mean one thing: Someone, somewhere, wanted this to be known, and the intended audience was Beijing. Never mind that the timing of the “discovery” — the night before the presidential election in Taiwan — or its revelation days later is also, er, suspiciously suspicious, given that said equipment had been in storage in Taiwan for more than 18 months. Why now? Why at a time when, given the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) win, chances of diminished tensions in the Taiwan Strait have at least been imagined by both sides of the Strait?

Someone in Taiwan or in the US (or possibly on both sides) wanted this public, and I suspect the intended result was to ensure that tensions continued in the Taiwan Strait so that the flow of weapons to the region could continue. Too many people, both in Taiwan and the US, stand to gain from a continued military standoff. As I argued in the previous entry (“Washington conservatives strike again”) and in my article “Washington celebrates, but others are fretful,” peace in the Taiwan Strait just isn’t lucrative enough for certain parties.

Stay tuned, this one isn’t over yet.

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