Armourers and the ambiguity of weapons

In a big week for arms sales, the US is supplying antimissile batteries and radar to Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait, apparently in response to Iran’s refusal to halt its nuclear program. And according to officials briefing the Washington Post, ‘the Obama administration is quietly working with Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf allies to speed up arms sales and rapidly upgrade defenses for oil terminals and other key infrastructure in a bid to thwart future attacks by Iran.’ These measure, Washington  stresses, are purely defensive.

And the US has also agreed an arms sale to Taiwan, including Patriot missiles, helicopters and anti-mine ships. The New York Times analysis is that this too is defensive.

By balancing lavish arms deals with statements of their defensive nature, America understandably tries to balance two vital things in a national security policy,  deterrence and reassurance.

But how reassuring is reassurance? China doesn’t probably imagine that Taiwan will use these weapons in an invasion. But it still may look aggressive in other ways, as a bolstered defensive system could increase Taiwan’s willingness to declare independence.

And in Tehran, even a hardened defensive alliance of America and Gulf states could lend fresh life to the rhetoric of the regime: that Iran is being surrounded by enemies, who sponsor fifth columnists within.

Indeed, there is a general problem with the attempt to classify arms as ‘defensive only.’ A strengthened defence, by definition, challenges the power of the enemy’s offensive weapon. Moreover, a country shielded and supplied by the armourer could then become the host and platform for the armourer to launch attacks itself. The ultimate fear of a state – that another can attack it with impunity – gains new force.

Lets look from the other side of the looking glass. China’s formidable array of missiles and submarines is not probably designed to facilitate an invasion of American soil. But it is designed for things that we might regard as more than defensive: the ability to deny America from access to the region in the event of a Taiwan standoff, the ability to overawe neighbouring states and Finlandise them with a new regional dominance, or the ability to seize control of the ‘commons.’

When a Chinese submarine surfaced alarmingly in the middle of a US Naval Exercise and within striking distance of a US carrier, was this a defensive display of its capability and China’s ability to resist America’s naval power in their backyard, and check our appetite for hegemony in the region? Or did we see it differently: as an aggressive, bold and very discomforting pose designed to shake our confidence?

Ultimately, defensive and offensive intentions come from political aims, and are not inherent in any weapon. Iran and China dislike weapons deals to their enemies because of their tense relationship with America and the potential for future conflict.

It may be that these deals are prudent – who knows, if Iran is determined to ignore Obama’s diplomatic overtures and if China is willing to take high risks to coerce Taiwan, then a fatalist decision to rebalance military power may be the right call. But nervous enemies are unlikely to interpret these things as defensive measures and may well result in arms races or retaliatory measures (a quiet Iran-China cooperation?) and this reality should be born in mind.

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