GUILT-FREE KAMIKAZES, OR: HOW WE LEARNED TO LOVE CRUISE MISSILES

American presidents and military high-ups love cruise missiles. They are so popular that "Tomahawk" is among a handful of pieces of military equipment that the man on the street knows by name in this country.

Like so many things, the cruise missile was born in World War II. Both Germany and Japan – in extraordinarily different ways – fielded them as a weapon of last resort. WWII enthusiasts could rack up points on your average pub quiz by noting that the Nazi V-1 "buzz bomb" was the world's first cruise missile, although it was primitive to the point that it had to be aimed at something city-sized (London did just fine) in order to be reasonably assured of hitting a target. It was essentially a terror weapon, not a practical one. Its effects were psychological; it flew in low and fast, made an ominous sound, and unlike a German airplane, was for all practical purposes unstoppable.

The Japanese came up with a far more accurate and effective cruise missile, although with less advanced technology. They solved the problem of accuracy by putting human pilots in theirs. They taught pilots to fly just feet off the surface of the ocean and, to the mortal peril of American sailors, crash them into big Navy ships while laden with explosives. It was far cruder than Germany's cruise missile, but it worked far better.

That's all a cruise missile is today – a small, fast jet aircraft without a pilot. It comes in too low and fast to be shot down by air defenses, and often too low even to be effectively spotted on radar. By the time you realize it's coming, it's already too late to do much about it.

The things military planners love about the cruise missile are their speed, high level of accuracy (although the military always finds a way to downplay the risks of "collateral damage"), and stand-off capability. The people who launch a cruise missile are very far away from where it will blow up. Launching cruise missiles comes as close to eliminating the potential for American casualties as is possible. It's like sending waves of kamikazes at the Bad Guys without the inconvenience of having to put pilots in them.

The problem is not that cruise missiles kill people, as all military forces have tons of ways to do that. Cruise missiles kill people will essentially zero risk – political or military – to the launching nation. Presidents starting with Reagan were quick to learn that there are no real political consequences to lobbing these things around like candy at a parade. If no Americans are killed, some Bad Hombres are killed, and there is a nice fireworks show to boot, the American public barely noticed when they're fired off by the dozen. Committing ground forces or using manned air strikes have enormous costs in terms of political capital, American casualties, and of course economic cost.

So, the cruise missile has in recent decades fully uncoupled the moral and political risks of warfare from the anticipated benefits. The easier it is to use them, the more likely they will be used. And so they've become a kind of American military reflex, our knee jerk response to problems that a president wants to "do something" about but is unwilling to bear the political costs of putting American lives at risk. They get to look Tough, they don't have to deal with the blowback of flag-covered coffins returning home, and the media and public show no real interest in what is on the receiving end as long as it is Bad and gets blown up. As long as the targets are restricted to countries that aren't anywhere close to able to retaliate militarily, this is a slam dunk from the White House and Pentagon perspective.

The prospect that the current President is going to figure this out is cause for real concern. It's low commitment, low investment (since there is always an unlimited amount of money at hand for the Pentagon's desires), and panders to the kind of voter who is likely to respond very favorably to the idea of Shit Gettin' Blowed Up. The technology has taken so much risk out of the equation that the question of whether cruise missile strikes are a good idea rarely gets asked. As long as we can, what's the point of asking if we should?

Be Sociable, Share!

46 Responses to “GUILT-FREE KAMIKAZES, OR: HOW WE LEARNED TO LOVE CRUISE MISSILES”

  1. other bill Says:

    WASF

  2. jcdenton Says:

    I guess you could say that drones are Cruise Missiles 2.0.

    The reality is that since the beginning of the Cold War, the US has often reached for the cheap, easy, deniable source of power. Remember when sending in the CIA to overthrow some democratically-elected government in South America was cheap, easy and deniable (TP-AJAX, PB-SUCCESS, Bay of Pigs, etc)?

    US strategic thinking wavers between these two concepts. For a while, the cheap and easy solution dominates, fails to bring all the required results (CIA-backed death squads can only raze so many villages before the locals rise up) and the US lurches back towards the "good ole' days" of boots on the ground and scores of dead 19-year-old boys. Then you end up with less-nuanced approaches like Vietnam and Iraq War Two: WMD Boogaloo. Of course, even in those contexts, the assumption is always that the conflict will be cheap and quick. The results don't usually play out that way.

    I have a distinct feeling that regardless of the direction that the US chooses to go on Syria and N. Korea, we're all going to relearn those lessons the shit way.

  3. Leon Says:

    So my question is, why are left-wingers in the media acting like this was a good and presidential act by our tweeter in chief? Nick Kristoff especially. Perhaps they're operating under a broken-clock theory, but from what I've heard, we're out a bit under a hundred million to poorly bomb an airstrip, the target government of which received prior notice. And the airstrip was usable within 24 hours. Lots of money was lost, nothing was gained, Russia and Iran are baring their teeth (though I feel Russia is play acting, and I'm not currently a-scared of Iran, than you very much). So why the sycophantic love fest for someone who reversed his years-long position on Syria, and who continues to refuse to accept refugees from the government we just bombed… sort of? Even if the bombs destroyed all of Assad's chemical weapons, he would continue to kill his people with other conventional munitions, and we'd still have a completely incoherent foreign policy that could change with the right or wrong thing being on the tv in the background during a 3 am bowel movement. This was not our president growing a heart or a brain or courage; to me, this was a whim that seems to be paying dividends (financially and public opinion-wise), but to no clear end. But it will embolden further military action, and at some point cruise missiles will be just enough to drag ground troops in and create a real hot war instead of this ineffective, but popular, posturing.

    And parts of our critical media are eating this shit up!

  4. Leon Says:

    "Critical"

  5. Mo Says:

    Steve at No More Mister Nice Blog skinned and gutted the press on this one.

  6. wetcasements Says:

    This will only embolden Cheeto Von Pee-On-Me.

    As an American dude living in South Korea, this is terrifying.

    The moment a US missile hits a North Korean test site Seoul will be leveled by conventional artillery and possibly even a nuke.

    In the former situation, millions die.

    In the latter, World War III begins when China enters and we all die.

    Good times.

  7. HoosierPoli Says:

    As an added bonus, the President is a shareholder of Raytheon, who makes them, so every cruise missile he launches is literally taxpayer money in his pocket. Good work everyone.

  8. Greg Says:

    it flew in low and fast, made an ominous sound, and unlike a German airplane, was for all practical purposes unstoppable.

    Actually, this describes the V-2. The Brits did figure out how to stop the V-1 for the most part.

  9. Talisker Says:

    This is another episode of IOKIYAR. Clinton lobbed cruise missiles around to no great effect, and that made him Weak. Trump does the same, and that makes him Strong. (At least for now.)

    For more intelligent members of the press, extravagant praise of Trump may be an attempt to cover up their mortal terror. Shit has just got real. Trump really, really does have the authority to order military strikes, and he will use it. We knew that anyway, but it's one thing to be aware of it in theory, and another when the missiles start flying. If it doesn't scare you, you really haven't been paying attention.

    (Of course, some elements of the media are just sycophants who aren't bright enough to be afraid.)

    @jcdenton: Cruise missile and drone strikes aren't intended to be "deniable". Like the V1 before them, they are principally used for their effect on morale. Annoy Uncle Sam, and he might drop high explosives on your airfield, compound, or vehicle.

    @Greg: You and Ed are both half right. The Brits did work out how to shoot down the V1. But the V1 was the weapon with the ominous sound; the V2 was supersonic, so you didn't hear them coming, and they were only stopped when the Allies captured the launch sites.

  10. Major Kong Says:

    The V1 was not unstoppable. A fast aircraft like a Hawker Tempest could catch them. Shooting one was a bit risky because of the risk of getting caught in the explosion.

    RAF pilots learned to put a wingtip under its wing and flip it over – causing it to crash (presumably over the English Channel).

    The V2, being a ballistic missile, was unstoppable.

  11. Talisker Says:

    @Major Kong: By late 1944 the V-rockets were being launched from the Netherlands over the North Sea, as the Allies had already taken Normandy. The RAF probably would have settled for crashing a V1 over East Anglia, most of which is pretty empty. You might kill some luckless farmer, but that's a lot better than bringing one down in a densely populated area like London.

    Worth noting that we *still* can't stop ballistic missiles with any reliability, despite ridiculous amounts of money being spent on trying.

  12. anotherbozo Says:

    Before the attack I was banking on the fact that Trump was getting bored playing president, was getting annoyed at all the negative press (it was attention, but not quite adulation), tired of being out of his element and being defeated on the congressional front. And when Republicans realized he was more liability than a President Pence would be and impeachment became plausible, I imagined him walking away from the job. After all, he's maybe doubled his financial worth with China giving him branding rights, and he's received other international favors. The Trump empire will be bigger than ever.
    But now he's had a taste of blood, so to speak, a taste of the dramatic power he hadn't felt before, and Congress even liked it! Americans liked it! Decisiveness! Drama! Maybe he'll want to stick around now. Ka-BOOM!

    As another bill says: WASF.

  13. geoff Says:

    @Leon, the media are eating this up because, hey, war is great tv!! I'm sure you've all seen Brian Williams' gushing over the beauty of the cruise missiles' launch (MSNBC needs to put up a giant "HEY OUR OWNER IS A GIANT DEFENSE CONTRACTOR" banner at all times) and Fareed Zakaria saying Trump "became the President of the United States" with the attack. Trump + shit blowin' up real good = ratings, and as Les Moonves reminded us last year, that's all that fucking matters.

  14. Major Kong Says:

    If you actually heard the V-1 you were likely safe.

    It was when its engine shut off that it went into its terminal dive to the target.

    The distinctive sound was from its primitive pulse-jet engine. It was essentially propelled by a series of controlled explosions. Hence the nickname "buzz bomb".

  15. democommie Says:

    When you say, Ed, that cruise missiles are "risk free", I take it that you mean for U.S. politicians IN the U.S. Using cruise missiles, especially without letting any of our allies (but curiously letting the russians know, in advance) has some pretty serious political repercussions, outside the U.S. unless I'm missing something.

    For Trumpligula, a cruise missile is perfect. It gives him a chance to wave his tiny penis and prove to Vlad that he's a PLAYA! What a fucking moron.

  16. jcdenton Says:

    @Talisker

    I'm conflating actual plausible deniability with absence of political repercussions a bit, but the effect is still the same. Both attempt to have something for (almost) nothing. Obama spent a lot of time being as vague as possible about drone strikes in part because it was difficult to confirm where and when they were actually occurring.

  17. Anubis Bard Says:

    I'm curious who's cheering this from the left. I guess I've sauntered away from the mainstream media, since I hear no one on-line saying anything enthusiastic about it. The talking heads on TV have an approval rating lower than il Douche, so if they are gushing, I'm not sure anyone is taking cues from that. I'm not hearing any "fuck yeah!"s from the conservatives in my FB feed either. Is anyone but the generals and ratings-starved media fuckwits jazzed about this?

  18. Safety Man! Says:

    @demmocommie

    iirc there is a holdover agreement in place from Obama re: the Russians in Syria that we notify each other before these kinds of strikes to minimize chances of killing anyone who matters to the powers that be.

    I'm going to take an unpopular stance here: much like the show-trial of Sadam Hussein, the chemical weapons attacks are reprehensible enough that I can't muster any indignation, especially after Assad openly threatened retaliation after Obama first talked about taking any actions. To really go down the rabbit hole, if Trump lets the Rangers hunt Boko Haram (the ones who kidanpped all those schoolgirls) for sport I'd buy one of his damned hats.

  19. Major Kong Says:

    We're between the proverbial rock and hard place here. Assad is a very bad guy, but so are the people he's fighting.

    If there were ever any "moderate rebels" I think they've long since been absorbed by the Islamists.

  20. democommie Says:

    @Safety Man:

    I said, ca. mid 2002 till early 2003, that if the U.S. gummint was intent on removing Saddam Hussein from the scene, a $1B reward for his head in a suitable container (HD construction trash bag) would get him gone. A secondary, sorta unintended consequence would be the dimunition of his posse by people who had axes to grind or just bad pix to compare with the then dictator. And after the deed was done, we would let the folks know (if they needed telling) that we had lotsa $B to do it again, if necessary.

    I was told at the time that it was a stupid idea and that it was illegal, also, too.

    14 years and several $T later, we are up to our armpits in various flavors of Isjihaboistas.

    While extra-legal killings of all sorts bother me; extra-legally killing Assad with psychoturboimproved extreme prejudice is fine with me. My math skills are shit, but his life against anyone those of the non-combatant civilians in those places his troops and the russians have bombed–yeah, I can figure that sum.

  21. Leon Says:

    @Anubis:

    As I said, Nick Kristoff for one. As Geoff reminded me, Brian Williams and Fareed Zakaria. Not to mention Schumer and Pelosi giving support from the left. As has been pointed out, Assad is a shitbag, and chemical weapons are a big problem, but I'm neither comforted, nor filled with hope, that people are supporting this impulsive change of (s)heart by our fearful leader. This isn't policy; this isn't strategy. At best, this is dick waving, and at worst it's the beginning of war. And Christ, being a wartime president got W re-elected. Not that trump is nearly the statesman or deep thinker that W was, but those things don't play particularly well in the (s)heartland. Explosions and racism is where it's at for Real 'Murica, and that's what we're getting.

  22. Kaleberg Says:

    Basically, a cruise missile gives us old fashioned battleship diplomacy. Battleships could fire explosive shells at least a dozen miles, well out of the range of the typical third world shore battery, should one exist. They were more or less unsinkable by the targeted nations, so they were perfect for enforcing the colonial world order from late in the 19th century and well into the 20th. It was only shore based missiles and aircraft launched missiles, like the Exocet, that made battleships vulnerable.

    Cruise missiles have reopened the gap and re-enabled battleship diplomacy. That's nothing new.

  23. democommie Says:

    "Not that trump is nearly the statesman or deep thinker that W was,"

    B43 was as shallow as a wading pool.

    Trump is not nearly the stateman or deep thinker that my hairy little roommate, Buddy the Wonderdog is–when Bud's having one of his idiopathic seizures. I do think that Bud with his tiny little penis resembles Trumpligula in THAT regard.

  24. Prairie Bear Says:

    It's probably coincidental, but the timing is also interesting in that everybody for the last month or so has already been jerking off over the centennial of the US entering WWI.

  25. Mark Says:

    It is not often that I agree with this blog, but I do in this instance. It is far time that we leave these countries to their own devices and bring all our military home to be a true department of defense.

  26. Monkey Business Says:

    This is the end result of a century of Western meddling in the Middle East.

    On one side you have a brutal secular dictatorship, and on the other you have religious fanatic rebels. The reason that we didn't get involved in the first place is because no matter who wins, the people of Syria and America lose.

    This is why energy independence and removing ourselves from fossil fuels is a national security imperative. The sooner we can stop propping up countries that take our money and use it to fund terrorism or their own lavish lifestyles, the sooner we can support real democracy and freedom and build real allies in the region, instead of a neverending string of failed strongmen.

  27. mago Says:

    When I was 10 years old nothing excited me like a string of Black Cat firecrackers, and a couple of cherry bombs and M-15s. Explosions! Noise! Destruction! Kid stuff.

    So this 70 year old with stubby dick and fingers gets to spend a cool 100 million on (whoo hoo) launching Tomahawk missiles (cause he's a MAN). Big surprise.

    The media cheerleaders are most disgusting. Wow! Missiles in the night! So big! So beautiful! Go Boom! Kill! Whee! (Clap hands and prance like overweight toddler with sugar rimed lips). The bottom feeders have surely risen to the top. Fuck these people.

    And anytime somebody pulls out the old "we're doing it for the poor children" trope grab your wallet and run.

  28. Chicagojon Says:

    http://fafblog.blogspot.com/2010/04/your-planet-is-run-by-egomaniacal.html

    Also, Fareed Zakaria needs to go away. He was never good even when he was good.

    http://fafblog.blogspot.com/

  29. Major Kong Says:

    "It was only shore based missiles and aircraft launched missiles, like the Exocet, that made battleships vulnerable."

    The Imperial Japanese Navy begs to differ.

  30. Brian M Says:

    I agree with Major Kong. Just look at the mess the Peace Prize President (and Hillary C) left in Libya.

    How will the crowd of Wahabii nuts and Jihadists be better for Syria than Bad Assad?

  31. RobW Says:

    @Leon

    How far right does one have to be to consider Brian Williams and Fareed Zacaria as part of the Left?

  32. Dave Says:

    Geoff-NBC is owned by Comcast now, no longer General Electric.

  33. Talisker Says:

    @Major Kong: Yep. Torpedoes or bombs launched from aircraft will do the job. As the (British) Royal Navy found out to its cost, when the Prince of Wales and Repulse became fish habitats.

  34. Safety Man! Says:

    @ demmocommie

    Thanks, I seriously expected people to call me names for that one, pleasantly reminded why I follow this group.

  35. Katydid Says:

    @MajorKong; a huge news story today is of the doctor who was physically bloodied and dragged off a United flight. His 'crime'? No, he wasn't wearing leggings. Instead, he paid for an airplane ticket, boarded the plane in an orderly fashion, and sat quietly in his seat until told he "won" the lottery to get bumped so a member of a flight crew for another United flight could take his place. Their flight was leaving from an airport a 4 – 5 hour drive away. Rather than hiring a van to drive them or arranging a flight on a non-overbooked flight, the airline chose to start jettisoning paying customers.

    Your opinion?

    Mine (as a rando who occasionally flies in an airplane but has no direct knowledge of how airline companies work); the airlines need to reserve, say, 4 or 5 seats on each flight for their own staff/non-revs/emergency situations.

  36. quixote Says:

    Katydid, you're not seriously suggesting the airline pass up some money from selling seats are you? That's crazy talk.

  37. democommie Says:

    @ Katydid:

    Well, unless the airline has some pretty incriminating footage or a bunch of passengers who thought the guy was a ter'rist, he's prolly flying for free–and then some.

    Mark:

    I think your group was down in front of the WOH, today, with Richard Spencer who was Trumpligulas NNBFF* until he found out about teh JOOOOOOOOOOOOS in Trumpliguland. I think that they're going back to Skokie, next week.

    BTW, isolationism is NOT the only course available to people who think.

    * Neo Nazi Best Facebook Friend or Freinemy or Fuckhead–your choice.

  38. April Says:

    Jim Wright
    http://www.stonekettle.com/2017/04/throwing-bombs.html
    Keith Olbermann

  39. Khaled Says:

    @Katydid, Major Kong

    United's customer service failed in rather awe-inspring fashion on that situation. The situation was created because (I'm guessing) they had Chicago based Flight Crews (Pilots I assume) that needed to get to Louisville for an early flight. Since FAA regulations and Union contracts state the pilots get mandatory rest time, they NEEDED to get those pilots there by a certain time that would only be accomplished by a plane ride from O'Hare, car rentals or later flights wouldn't cut it.
    From what I gathered from reading the article on the Chicago Tribune on it, United offered $800 and a hotel room to get someone to take a different flight. After that, they said that they would pull people at random from the flight. And so, because low level managers didn't have the approval to get *real* money involved, they now have a million-dollar PR disaster on their hands. If $1600 to $2000 was offered, SOMEONE would have said "okay, I'll make different plans" but $800 bucks is like two flights these days and it's not worth it to disrupt. My wife has to fly for work about once a month and flights are overbooked ALL the time, and even those that aren't are packed. Any disruption creates huge ripple/ butterfly effect problems.

    United, like most airlines, have terrible customer service because most people don't really have much of a choice when they fly. Large Chain Drug Store, when I still worked there, hired someone from United to be the "Chief Customer Experience Officer" to which I told a buddy of mine must have been because no one from a Turnpike Commission was available. United figured out that (approx) 80% of their profits came from like 10% of their customers, and figured out a way to cater to those high-profit customers by giving them special phone numbers and basically moving heaven and earth for them. United basically doesn't CARE about the infrequent fliers because they make no money from them, and I suspect most airlines operate pretty much the same way.

    The Doctor was let back on the plane after an upper level supervisor was alerted after people started Tweeting about the guy being fucked up by Security as he was being drug off the plane, I would suspect. Doctors have money, and money to hire good lawyers, and that dude has a pretty fucking good case to get PAID by United. So PR nightmare, lawsuit that will cost lots of money to settle, and a lot of upset customers. All because they're too cheap to offer REAL money to get someone to change plans. How much money would they have lost from bumping a pilot? Tons. So in what universe did anyone do a cost/benefit analysis and come up with dragging people off a plane? Morons. One of the things you learn (or should learn) as a manager is that NOTHING is worth more than the good name of the company, and allowing bullshit like that to occur drags your company's name through the mud and does real harm to "goodwill" and branding. All for a low-level supervisor not being authorized to go over a certain dollar amount to get someone to switch.

  40. April Says:

    From a tweet I saw….

    Pepsi – "We just had the biggest PR failure of the year."
    United – "Hold my beer."

  41. democommie Says:

    @ Khaled:

    If the guy from the Turnpike Commission or United isn't available they can always call me, Democommie @ youhadabadexperience?You'rejustgettin'started!.com.

    I had a friend who was at the Hershey Theme Park (that just sounds like bad pron) with his kids and some ticket taker decided that his son had jumped the line. My friend was told he would need to step out of line. He ignored the request and, predictably, a security person showed up–whom he also ignored. Then the security supervisor was called in. He told my friend, "Look, you take your son to another ride, we'll get you on there–you can come back here, later.". His response was something like, "If I leave here, I'll be in my motel room making phone calls for the rest of the weekend trying to get you and these other two people fired.". No threats, just a statement of intent.

    Everybody resumed normal programming.

  42. jcastarz Says:

    democommie said: "… if the U.S. gummint was intent on removing Saddam Hussein from the scene, a $1B reward for his head in a suitable container (HD construction trash bag) would get him gone."

    Yep, absolutely. The ultimate "privatization" scheme: use non-invasive surgery to accomplish what we haven't been able to do with direct intervention – or at least try to.

  43. sad Says:

    We?

  44. democommie Says:

    Now that things have quieted down a bit on this thread. I was thinking, when I first saw the header that it was going to be recipes for cocktails–and I don't even drink that sort of thing. If it's good enough to drink on its own, that's how I want it. If it's not good enough to drink on its own, I don't want it*.

    * Unless it's ALL there is to drink.

  45. Nate Says:

    Speaking of WW 2 tech:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Chastise

    The dam busting bomb that was invented by the British here was amazing. They basically spun a barrel of explosives in reverse at 500 rpm and at a low altitude skipped the bomb into dams. It took some serious guts to do those missions and sometimes the bomb skipped over the dam.

  46. democommie Says:

    @ Nate:

    I knew about the bombs, but I missed the bit about the 500 rpm anti-cw spin cycle. That must have been dicey in a an aircraft.

    I went and looked at the link. That aircraft must have been a bitch to drive with that bomb hanging on the bottom. The aircraft's center of gravity and aerodynamics had to be be affected, as well as the fact that removing the bomb bay had to increase drag by a pretty significant factor.

    I looked at the photo of the designer and a group of observers standing on the beach while a test bomb came zooming in to its target. Serious ballsack.

Leave a Reply