Alaskan Folly

We've doubled down on a defense that doesn't work against missiles that don't exist.


The Obama administration’s announcement that it would spend $1 billion to deploy 14 additional antimissile interceptors in Alaska was a clever move. It sent a strong signal to North Korea — and to China. It reassured close allies Japan and South Korea. It won praise from Republican opponents and generated great newspaper headlines: "U.S. beefs up missile defenses." It hit all the right buttons.

There is only one problem: The interceptors do not work.

The Ground-based Midcourse Defense has cost almost $40 billion, but it has not had a successful intercept test since 2008, the year President Obama was elected. It has failed to intercept targets in half of its 15 carefully scripted tests. The success rate is getting worse, not better. It hit only two targets in eight attempts since 2002. In some of these tests, the interceptors could not even get out of the silos. The problems are so bad that the Pentagon has not attempted an intercept test for two years.

Philip Coyle, the former director of operational testing for the Department of Defense, said four years ago, "The GMD system still has no demonstrated effectiveness to defend the U.S., let alone Europe, against enemy attack under realistic operational conditions." Despite efforts to fix it, a scathing report from an expert National Academy of Sciences committee last year said that "the system has serious shortcomings," with major technical and operational problems. It only provides a "fragile" capability against a primitive North Korean threat — that is, one or two missiles without any counter-measures. The committee called for a complete redesign with brand new interceptors, radars, and locations. "The technical core of the U.S. missile defense program is in tatters," says Coyle now.

Some of these problems may be fixable given time and billions more dollars, but the basic problem is with the whole idea of trying to intercept long-range missiles with ground-based missiles. After a few minutes of powered ascent, an ICBM coasts through outer space before reentering the atmosphere in its final few minutes of flight to strike its target. Ground-based interceptors attempt to hit the small, cold, dark warheads flying at 17,000 miles an hour while they are still in space. This is a difficult task, which is why early missile defense systems that the United States and Russia planned in the 1960s and 1970s used interceptors armed with nuclear warheads — they eliminated the need for precision.

Today, amazingly, interceptors can, under ideal conditions, "hit a bullet with a bullet." The kinetic energy of the impact destroys the target. But a determined foe can thwart today’s interceptors in many ways, all cheaper for the enemy to execute than for the defense to counter. This includes salvo launches to overwhelm the defenses, attacks on radars to blind the defenses, or, easiest of all, counter-measures to make it impossible for the interceptor to see its target. In space, aluminum balloons or clouds of paper-clip-size wires or radar-absorbing paint could foil even the finest sensors. In 1999, U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that these decoys, chaff, paints, jammers, and other techniques are well within the capability of any nation that can build a long-range missile.

The NAS committee found that a U.S. defense against Russian or Chinese long-range missiles "is not practical, given the size, sophistication, and capabilities of Russian and Chinese forces and both countries’ potential to respond to U.S. defense efforts." Even for a limited threat, they warned, "the midcourse discrimination problem must be addressed far more seriously if reasonable confidence is to be achieved." In other words, right now we do not have "reasonable confidence" that interceptors can see or hit the warheads. And yet the Obama administration is saying we do.

For Democrats, this is part of a larger problem. "Defense Democrats" decided years ago to triangulate the missile defense problem. Knowing that the public expresses strong support for missile defense and tired of attacks from the right for failing to protect the country, they opted to embrace antimissile systems, increasing budgets and trying new schemes. They played along with the game. At $10 billion per year, missile defense is now the single largest weapons system in the Pentagon budget.

Fortunately, when it comes to North Korea, the threat animating last week’s announcement, most officials and experts agree with Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), who said this Sunday, "I don’t think the threat is imminent. I don’t think they have the delivery mechanisms that are necessary to really harm us." The country would need several more years and many more tests to miniaturize a nuclear weapon so it could fit on a missile and survive the stresses of launch, and to develop and test a re-entry vehicle, advanced guidance systems, and missiles capable of flying much farther than their current ones. Iran is further behind in missile technology and does not have a nuclear weapon.

What’s more, there are two major silver linings in the administration’s missile defense decision. The first is a pledge by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel: "We certainly will not go forward with the additional 14 interceptors until we are sure that we have the complete confidence that we will need." This is a chance to introduce the missile defense program to reality. Rushed into deployment, the existing interceptors have never been tested against a target with ICBM range or realistic decoys, and the new "kill vehicle" that was supposed to fix problems with the previous model failed its first two tests, as arms expert Kingston Reif details on his blog, Nukes of Hazard.

The second positive move is the decision to cancel the planned Phase Four of the antimissile system being deployed in Europe. Instead of going ahead with the development of a new interceptor, the Standard Missile 3 IIB, the administration will shift funding to the Alaska site. The interceptor was still just a paper concept and eliminating it makes sense, writes Reif, noting that the Government Accountability Office had criticized the system and the NAS committee called it ineffective and unnecessary.

This appears to have been primarily a program decision by the Department of Defense, but it has significant ramifications for U.S. relations with Russia. Moscow had focused its objections to the European antimissile system on Phase Four, fearing that the SM 3 IIB would be able to intercept Russian missiles as well as Iranian ones. The dispute had blocked progress on a new agreement to further reduce the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. "In effect, by sticking with a plan that was neither likely to work in the last stage but was creating significant and needless diplomatic hurdles we gained nothing," says Eisenhower Institute scholar Sean Kay.

The cancellation, little noticed in most news accounts, may have the most real world impact of all. If the Russians react constructively, this could open the way for a new round of reductions and perhaps impact Russian plans to build a new ICBM. If so, canceling a missile defense program may end up destroying more missiles than the system itself ever could.

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