Debunking the Missile-Defense Myth
The National Interest
May 7, 2012
Go to the Pentagon report: http://www.acq.osd.mil/dsb/reports/ADA552472.pdf
A report by the Pentagon's own Defense Science
Board (DSB) has poured cold water on
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
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
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.
If missile defense is so dysfunctional and so
simple to outfox, why do
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)
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.
that the system is not directed at
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.
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
security. NATO, in contrast, proposes the creation
of two entirely separate systems that would
exchange information. To date, missile-defense
this contentious issue.
Chinese concerns about
systems are also a source of great uncertainty,
reducing Chinese support for promoting
negotiations on the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty
option of future military plutonium production.
The bipartisan Strategic Posture Commission points
out that "
of its ICBM force in response to its assessment of
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
can never neutralize the deterrent value of any
possible future Iranian nuclear ballistic missiles
with any incarnation of missile defense. A
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
missile-defense system shouldn't change
strategic calculations with respect to its
enemies. Washington would treat North Korea,
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
conventional ballistic-missile technology for
prestige or regional security. Whether or not a
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
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
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.