Sunday, May 13, 2012

Debunking the Missile-Defense [sic] Myth

Debunking the Missile-Defense Myth

Yousaf Butt

The National Interest

May 7, 2012


Go to the Pentagon report:


A report by the Pentagon's own Defense Science

Board (DSB) has poured cold water on U.S. missile-

defense plans. It basically backs up what

independent scientists and engineers have been

saying for decades: a dedicated adversary easily

could defeat the planned system by using simple

decoy warheads and other countermeasures. So while

missile defense will create incentives for U.S.

adversaries and competitors to up their ballistic-

missile stockpiles, it won't provide any combat

capability to counteract these enlarged arsenals.


The simplest countermeasures to the planned

missile defense are cheap inflatable balloons.

Because the missile-defense interceptors try to

strike ICBM warheads in the vacuum of space, any

such balloons and the warhead would travel

together, making it impossible to tell the decoys

from the real thing. An enemy bent on delivering a

nuclear payload to the United States could inflate

many such balloons nearby the warhead and

overwhelm the defense system by swamping it with fake signals.


The DSB report says that "the importance of

achieving reliable . . . discrimination [between

the warhead and decoys] cannot be overemphasized."

It underlined that missile defense is "predicated

on the ability to discriminate" real warheads from

other targets, "such as rocket bodies,

miscellaneous hardware, and intentional

countermeasures." One way around this challenge is

to attempt to intercept the missile before it

releases the warhead and decoys. But intercepting

missiles in their boost phase, while the rocket

booster is still firing, is "currently not

feasible," according to the DSB.


There is a short interval between the time the

missile stops burning and when the payload is

released, assumed to be about one hundred seconds

by the DSB. But, again, intercepting the missile

in this window "requires Herculean effort and is

not realistically achievable, even under the most

optimistic set of deployment, sensor capability,

and missile technology assumptions." The main

problem the DSB found is that missile-defense

interceptors would not be able to reach the target

quickly enough: "in most cases 100 seconds is too

late" to prevent the release of decoys. And if

"the defense should find itself in a situation

where it is shooting at missile junk or decoys,

the impact on the regional interceptor inventory

would be dramatic and devastating." In short, the

interceptor inventory would be exhausted in

chasing decoy warheads.


The latest tests of both the ground-based and sea-

based missile-defense systems have failed-and

these are rigged tests, where the intercept team

knows the timing and trajectory of the incoming

missile, and the missile has no decoys. There are

no such luxuries in the real world, where

adversaries launch surprise attacks and use

countermeasures and decoys. And on the very few

occasions that the Missile Defense Agency (MDA)

has tested countermeasures, even these carefully

rigged tests have never succeeded. The sea-based

missile-defense system also has never been tested

in really rough sea conditions and is known to be unreliable.


How did such an untested and unworkable technology

make it so far in the DoD procurement process?

Another recent government report, this one from

the GAO, explains that instead of flying before

buying, the MDA has been doing the exact opposite.

Its cart-before-the-horse methodology has resulted

in "unexpected cost increases, schedule delays,

test problems, and performance shortfalls."


All told, the missile-defense program has cost

more than the entire Apollo program without

providing any credible combat capability against

enemy ballistic missiles hosting simple countermeasures.


The Reaction


If missile defense is so dysfunctional and so

simple to outfox, why do U.S. adversaries appear

to be so concerned? The answer is simple: their

military planners are hypercautious-as are the

ones in the Pentagon-and must assume a worst-case

scenario in which the system is highly effective.


Missile defense will therefore strengthen the

hands of overcautious, misinformed, opportunistic

or hawkish elements within the Iranian and North

Korean-as well as Russian and Chinese-political

and military establishments. Both unknowable

future circumstances and pressures from hawkish

internal constituencies will pressure all these

regimes to increase deployed nuclear stockpiles

and military expenditures.


Since the interplay between strategic defense and

strategic offense is explicitly recognized in the

New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START)

between the United States and Russia, it is highly

improbable that Russia will ever accept NATO

missile defense, even if it's dysfunctional. Any

system that raises uncertainties about the strict

balance of arms agreed upon in New START is a

natural concern to both parties.


The United States and NATO have repeatedly stated

that the system is not directed at Russia and

poses no threat to its nuclear-deterrent forces.

And though NATO has invited the Russians to join

the program, there has been no consensus on the

degree or the form of that participation. Moscow

prefers to develop a joint European missile-

defense network with NATO to ensure that the

elements of the system (in a number of European

countries) will not threaten Russia's national

security. NATO, in contrast, proposes the creation

of two entirely separate systems that would

exchange information. To date, missile-defense

talks between Russia and NATO are deadlocked over

this contentious issue.


Chinese concerns about U.S. missile-defense

systems are also a source of great uncertainty,

reducing Chinese support for promoting

negotiations on the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty

(FMCT)-China's leaders may wish to maintain the

option of future military plutonium production.

The bipartisan Strategic Posture Commission points

out that "China may already be increasing the size

of its ICBM force in response to its assessment of

the U.S. missile defense program."


Strategic Uselessness


But if Tehran obtains nuclear weapons, surrounding

it with missile defenses, no matter how effective,

will never eliminate the threat that a single

missile could penetrate the defense system-

especially given how easy it is to outfox the

system by using decoys. Thus, the United States

can never neutralize the deterrent value of any

possible future Iranian nuclear ballistic missiles

with any incarnation of missile defense. A

nuclear-armed Iran would have to be treated

identically by Washington whether or not missile

defenses were in play.


The strategic uselessness of missile defenses

aimed at devaluing nuclear-tipped missiles is a

conceptual problem, not merely a technical one.

The reason is simple: there is always a reasonable

probability that one or more nuclear missiles will

penetrate even the best missile-defense system.

Since even a single nuclear-missile hit would

cause unacceptable damage to the United States, a

missile-defense system shouldn't change U.S.

strategic calculations with respect to its

enemies. Washington would treat North Korea, Iran

and other adversaries the same before and after

setting up a missile-defense system.


It's often asserted that missile defenses dissuade

adversaries from researching and producing

ballistic missiles. But the countries developing

ballistic-missile technology do so for numerous

reasons, not just to launch nuclear attacks

against the United States. Many countries desire

conventional ballistic-missile technology for

prestige or regional security. Whether or not a

U.S. missile-defense system is operational, such

nations will still try to acquire ballistic-

missile technology. In fact, the countries of most

interest to the United States-Iran and North

Korea-currently have reasonably well-developed

ballistic-missile programs. They have not been

dissuaded by the missile-defense "shield."


And even if some future incarnation of missile

defense could be made to work effectively, it

would only encourage a change in the delivery

method of the nuclear weapons used by our

adversaries. It would not devalue the nuclear

weapons themselves. A "functional" missile defense

to counter North Korea's ICBMs, for example, may

encourage the nation to develop a ship-launched

nuclear cruise missile instead or to deliver

nuclear weapons directly by boat. Since a cruise

missile or boat-borne nuclear device is more

difficult to detect and attribute to a given

country, our adversaries may be less inhibited in

using such delivery methods as compared to an

easily detected ICBM with a clear point of origin.


Missile defense will not counteract any possible

future Iranian ICBMs with simple countermeasures-

but it will erode relations with Russia and China

right now. Because it encourages adversaries to

assume the worst and creates incentives for them

to increase their nuclear stockpiles, it will also

lead to more nuclear weapons and a more dangerous

world. There is simply no upside to a

dysfunctional missile "defense" and plenty of

downsides in addition to its gargantuan cost.


Yousaf Butt is a nuclear physicist and serves as a scientific consultant to the Federation of

American Scientists, a DC think tank.


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