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Missile defense costs $10 billion a year. What do we get for that?

ASK THIS | January 24, 2006

Expert Philip Coyle notes that successes have been only under artificial circumstances and that in the two most recent tests interceptors didn’t even get off the ground; he urges Congress and the press to question the system.

By Philip E. Coyle

Under the administration of President George W. Bush, the Department of Defense has been spending about $10 billion per year on missile defense. The President's goal is to be able to shoot down enemy missiles of all types - short range, medium range, and intercontinental ballistic missiles - with interceptors launched from land, from sea, from aircraft and from space. It's called a layered defense. The idea is that if one layer misses the next one won't. Pentagon briefings picture the United States covered by a series of overlapping glass domes, and we are meant to imagine that enemy missiles will bounce off those domes like hail off a windshield.

In a recent report the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that missile defense spending could double by 2013 to about $19 billion per year. The CBO also proposes an evolutionary approach that would reduce missile defense spending to only $3 billion per year by focusing on research and development, rather than continuing to deploy unproven hardware.

In my judgment, both the Congress and the press need to foster a more vigorous national debate on such a problematic, expensive and potentially destabilizing system. For starters, reporters at all news organizations, not just the largest ones, could be talking to candidates for the House and Senate – pressing them to ask more searching questions themselves.  Questions like these are what I have in mind:

1.  Is there a justifying threat?

A recent Pentagon briefing claims the threat from enemy missiles is growing and shows missiles in 20 countries. But all but two of those 20 countries - Iran and North Korea - are either friends, allies, or countries from which we have no missile threat, e.g. Israel, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, South Korea, Moldova, Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, etc. 

Moldova??? Yes, Moldova.

And, with the exception of Russia and China, none of those 20 countries - including Iran and North Korea - have missiles that can reach the United States anyway.

The most futuristic missile defenses we can imagine will not be effective against the ICBMs in Russia and China, so we'd better get down to business to be sure we avoid war  - or even accidental or unauthorized launches - from Russia or China.

Our federal government is spending four times as much each year on R&D for missile defense as we do on energy R&D. Wouldn't it be just as effective to solve our energy problems - mitigating our dependence on the Middle East, reducing the competition for oil with China and India?

2. Okay, but the research and development to achieve effective missile defenses will take decades, and by then couldn't there be a real threat from North Korea or Iran?

Yes, but even then missile defense will be problematic. Shooting down an enemy missile going 15,000 mph out in space is like trying to hit a hole-in-one in golf when the hole is going 15,000 mph. And if an enemy uses decoys and countermeasures, missile defense is like trying to shoot a hole-in-one in golf when the hole is going 15,000 mph and the green is covered with black circles the same size as the hole.  The defender doesn't know which target to aim for.

3. How much money should we be prepared to spend on missile defense and how long will it take?

The Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency has not had a successful flight intercept test with its Ground-based Missile Defense (GMD) system for three and a half years.  In the most recent two flight intercept tests, the interceptor never got off the ground.  Nevertheless the GMD system is being deployed in Alaska and California. The MDA plans 20 or 30 more developmental flight intercept tests before they will be ready for realistic operational testing. At the current rate of success it could take over 50 years before the system was ready to be tested under realistic operational conditions.

If spending rises as estimated by the CBO, U.S. taxpayers could spend over a trillion dollars on missile defense in that period. This does not include the roughly $100 billion already spent on missile defense since President Ronal Reagan's "Star Wars" speech in 1983.

4.  Is the investment American taxpayers have been making in missile defense paying off? Are we any closer to having viable, effective missile defenses than we were more than two decades ago when President Reagan made his famous speech?

In the last decade, the Missile Defense Agency has had some successes. Some of its flight intercept tests have resulted in hitting a mock enemy target in flight. However, these flight intercept tests have been conducted under artificial and unrealistic conditions. Examples include prior knowledge by the defender as to the time of attack, the type of attacking missile, its trajectory and intended target location, and the make up of its payload. No real enemy would ever knowingly provide such information to the U.S. military in advance of an attack.

As a result, while there have been ten flight intercept tests of the GMD system since 1999, five of which were successful, the GMD system has no demonstrated capability to defend the United States under realistic operational conditions.

5. How can we judge progress in missile defense? Why are there no criteria for success?

Judging success in missile defense requires an honest assessment of the threat, and the ability of proposed missile defenses to effectively deal with that threat.

For example, China only has about 20 ICBMs that can reach the U.S., and some of them have decoys and countermeasures. So in response to U.S. missile defense efforts, China could decide to build up their stockpile of ICBMs to Russian levels, so that China also could overwhelm our defenses. If China does that, missile defense will have destabilized the international situation.

With such considerations in mind, President Clinton established four criteria against which he would make a decision to deploy a National Missile Defense (NMD) system, as it was then called.

The Clinton criteria, announced by the White House in 1999 were:

1. "Whether the threat is materializing;

2. The status of the technology based on an initial series of rigorous flight tests, and the proposed system's operational effectiveness;

3. Whether the system is affordable; and

4. The implications that going forward with NMD deployment would hold for the overall strategic environment and our arms control objectives," (e.g. how China or Russia might respond).

In 2000, at the end of the Clinton administration, the system failed to hit the target in the last two of only three flight intercept tests attempted, so the system was clearly not effective.

Having twice failed the second criteria of effectiveness in rigorous flight tests, the National Missile Defense system was clearly not ready for deployment. The Department of Defense was spared from having to address publicly whether there was a materializing threat sufficient to justify deployment, affordability, and the impact of NMD deployment on the overall strategic environment and America's arms control objectives.

All four criteria are still at issue today.

The Nitze criteria were shorter and even tougher. During the Reagan years, Paul Nitze, the highly regarded conservative scholar and statesman, presented three criteria that any - in those days it was SDI - missile defense system must meet before being considered for deployment. Nitze's criteria were formally adopted as National Security Directive No. 172 on May 30, 1985. The Nitze criteria were:

1. The system should be effective;

2. Be able to survive against direct attack; and

3. Be cost effective at the margin - that is, be less costly to increase your defense than it is for your opponent to increase their offense against it.

In making his decision in December 2002 to deploy the GMD system in Alaska and at Vandenberg AFB in California, President Bush appears to have had no criteria other than an ideological commitment, some might say a "Faith-based" commitment to missile defense.

6. Technology is changing all the time. Won't we eventually be able to develop the technology we need to make missile defense effective?

It is very difficult for Americans not to want to rely on technology. Technology has produced some amazing advances, such as personal computers and the Internet which have changed our lives at home and at work. But too often America relies on technology as the last, best hope to save us from our problems. We see this in defense, in medicine, and in the environment. By appealing to a single-point technological fix, we hope we can avoid dealing with the long term problem. In defense, as in other fields, we use our hope for technological relief as an excuse to avoid accommodating or dealing with our enemies in the global environment in which we both exist.

In 1999, former Secretary of Defense William Perry made what must have been an exhausting series of diplomatic trips to convince North Korea to stop developing and testing long-range missiles. He was remarkably successful. In fact, as news of his success reached the Pentagon, people there used to joke, "There goes the threat!" The joke showed that perhaps the easiest route in dealing with North Korea can be through creative diplomacy, not military technology. Dollar for dollar, Dr. Perry was the most cost-effective missile defense system the United States ever had, and he showed that effective diplomacy is hard to beat.

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