At a time of tight budgets, doubling down on a risky, easily foiled technology is more foolish than ever.
- By Yousaf Butt<p> Yousaf Butt is a nuclear physicist who serves as a scientific consultant for the Federation of American Scientists. The views expressed are his own. </p>
James Woolsey — a former CIA chief — and Rebeccah Heinrichs worry that Barack Obama’s administration might inadvertently give away technical secrets in its quest for missile-defense cooperation with Russia. "Should the United States share critical information about its missile defenses with the Russians, a Russian entity — official or otherwise — could pass that information along to Tehran, enabling the Iranians to capitalize on the weaknesses in the U.S. system," they write.
If so, this would be just another problem to add to the long list of concerns about the deeply flawed missile-defense concept — but it shouldn’t be the main thing keeping Woolsey and Heinrichs up at night.
What they should really be worried about is that the system will never protect the United States or NATO — no matter how many more billions of taxpayer dollars are thrown at it — and that it may actually lead to more nuclear weapons worldwide, not fewer.
Missile defense, as it’s currently being set up, can be easily defeated by any country that can field ballistic missiles — no deep secrets leaked from the bowels of the Pentagon are needed at all. As the CIA’s own top specialist in strategic nuclear programs testified in 2000, "Many countries, such as North Korea [and] Iran … probably would rely initially on readily available technology … to develop penetration aids and countermeasures. These countries could develop countermeasures based on these technologies by the time they flight test their missiles."
Nothing has changed in the intervening decade to change this calculus. The simplest countermeasures are cheap inflatable balloon decoys similar to the shiny ones at children’s birthday parties. Because the missile-defense interceptors try to strike the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) warheads in the vacuum of space, these balloons and the warhead would travel together, making it impossible to tell apart the decoys from the real thing. An enemy bent on delivering a nuclear payload to the United States could inflate many such balloons near the warhead and overwhelm the defense system by swamping it with fake signals. No technical secrets are needed to defeat the system because these obvious weaknesses have been repeatedly pointed out by the country’s top scientists since the 1960s.
As the Pentagon’s proposed missile-defense system is predominantly sea-based, an even simpler way for North Korea (or Iran, possibly in the future) to defeat it would be to wait until the weather is stormy. The missile-defense system has not been tested in really rough sea conditions and is well-known to be unreliable beyond a certain sea state.
We could certainly pray that North Korea or Iran attacks during calm sea conditions. But a faith-based missile defense is probably not what most taxpayers had in mind when they were asked to pay for it — a tab that so far runs into the hundreds of billions of dollars.
So, if missile defense could be so easily defeated by North Korea and Iran, why are the Russians so up in arms about it? The answer is simple: Their military planners are paid to be paranoid — just like the ones in the Pentagon — and they must assume a worst-case scenario in which they treat the system as being highly effective, even when it isn’t.
Russian planners might also be worried about the potential for a large expansion in the number of interceptors, unpredicted technical changes in the defense system (such as nuclear-tipped interceptors), and the diversity and scale of sensor systems that are being brought online to support the system.
These worries are beginning to give the Russians cold feet about their arms-reduction commitments. The Russian articles of ratification to the New START arms-reduction treaty allow Russia to withdraw from the agreement if there is deployment by the "United States of America, another state, or a group of states of a missile-defense system capable of significantly reducing the effectiveness of the Russian Federation’s strategic nuclear forces."
The Obama administration’s new "phased adaptive" missile-defense plan calls for roughly 440 interceptors based on 43 ships and on two land sites in Europe by the end of this decade. The plan is to be enacted in four phases, with increasing numbers of the more capable SM-3 "Block II" interceptors in the last two phases, starting in 2018.
Russia is concerned that these more potent Block II missile-defense interceptors might be capable of neutralizing some Russian nuclear forces and will therefore upset the delicate balance of arms agreed to in New START. Indeed, the treaty’s preamble explicitly recognizes this interplay between strategic offense and defense. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has specifically warned against this action. "The fulfillment of the third and fourth phases of the U.S. ‘adaptive approach’ will enter a strategic level threatening the efficiency of Russia’s nuclear containment forces," Lavrov said, as reported by Russian media.
NATO has responded by insisting that the system is not intended against Russia. Rather, the group says, it is aimed at possible future threats from Iran. But the Russians are clearly more concerned about capabilities than intentions. Given that future U.S. administrations — can you say President Palin? — may radically change their outlook toward Russia, it is hard to blame the Kremlin for being skeptical.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had already explicitly threatened to terminate New START over this perceived violation of "parity" — i.e., the precise balance of arms agreed to in the treaty. "If missile-defense systems are to be developed, which would mean the disruption of strategic parity," Medvedev said last month, "the treaty could be suspended or even terminated."
Although the missile-defense system may not offer protection in actual combat, Russian military planners may still view it as effectively neutralizing some Russian warheads — which they could legitimately present as an infringement on the numerical parity at the very basis of New START. The fielding of Block II interceptors on ship-mobile platforms would certainly break the spirit — and, possibly, even the letter — of New START.
The narrative in the West so far is that the main problem Russia has with the system is the two proposed land sites in Poland and Romania — that NATO would be stepping on Russia’s toes by installing bases in what Russia considers its sphere of influence. That is surely part of Russian concerns, but it is not the whole story. Ted Postol of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and I carried out a detailed study of the planned system. Our analysis found that the system could, in fact, easily be reconfigured to have a theoretical capability against Russian ICBMs, especially post-2018, when the more potent interceptors are brought on-line. But even a theoretical capability — which the Russians could, in practice, neutralize through use of decoys and other countermeasures on their missiles — will give their military planners pause.
A NATO decision to proceed with fielding Block II interceptors will result in an apparent paradox: "defenses" with little or no combat effectiveness, but with technical and quantitative uncertainties that will cause cautious Russian military planners to treat them as if they could be effective in the future.
Russia — and China — could react by increasing their stockpiles or perhaps blocking future nuclear-arms-reductions negotiations with the United States.
What’s really needed is an independent, nonpartisan evaluation of the costs — and not just the gargantuan monetary costs, but also the security costs — versus the benefits (if any) of the proposed system. The possible disclosure of sensitive U.S. secrets that so preoccupies Woolsey and Heinrichs is just one of the many risks of an ineffective missile-defense system, from engendering a false sense of security that could lead to serious policy miscalculations to greater worldwide stockpiles of military plutonium to a relaunching of the nuclear arms race with Russia.
Is it really worth giving up the Russian queen in trying — and failing — to protect from an Iranian pawn?