How much money would it take to persuade you to turn your home into a high-profile military target? If you’re the state of Michigan, the going price is $3.6 billion—the estimated cost of building a new site for a system designed to shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles. This past summer, representatives of the Missile Defense Agency descended upon the Mitten State, promising the creation of 2,100 new jobs and assuring citizens that they would be playing a crucial role in protecting their nation. “North Korea has launched satellites into outer space,” Lt. Col. Chris Snipes told residents gathered at public meetings. “They have that technology, and it’s not a far leap to progress to the next level. If we wait until those threats appear, we’re too late to defend the homeland.”
It was a classic sales pitch, appealing to both pocketbooks and patriotism. And, like all adept salesmen, the MDA reps—along with their local supporters in government and the military—largely persuaded customers to buy an overpriced product that doesn’t work as advertised.
At present, there are two missile defense sites in the United States, at Fort Greely in Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The system, known as Ground-Based Midcourse Defense, or GMD, is the latest scaled-down iteration of Ronald Reagan’s proposed anti-missile shield, which has been kept on multibillion-dollar life support every fiscal year since the end of the Cold War. The GMD system, rushed into deployment by George W. Bush’s administration, relies on interceptor missiles tipped with “kill vehicles” that, in theory, will detach, detect, and collide with incoming ICBMs, destroying their warheads. The interceptors are designed to target missiles during the vulnerable midcourse phase of their trajectory—the time period when ICBMs are coasting in space after they have burnt out their boosters but before they re-enter the atmosphere under the influence of Earth’s gravity.
To date, 30 interceptors have been deployed on the West Coast, with plans to send 14 more to Alaska in response to the perceived growing threat of North Korea. But, members of Congress, arguing that this geographic imbalance has left the East Coast vulnerable to missile attacks from Iran, inserted a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2013, telling the MDA to find a suitable location for constructing a third site. The four finalists for this anti-ayatollah shield are New York, Maine, Ohio, and Michigan, where the MDA is spending $4.5 million to conduct 18-month mandatory studies to assess how this project would affect the local infrastructure, economy, and environment in each state. Hence, the sales trip to Michigan and other states to gauge local support and listen to public concerns.
Unfortunately, elected officials are not listening to the concerns of the Pentagon. Congress wants to build a third site, but the MDA itself doesn’t think it’s necessary. As a result, the MDA finds itself in the peculiar position of touring the states and extoling the virtues of a system that it doesn’t want to expand. On March 18, in prepared testimony before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, MDA Director Vice Adm. J.D. Syring reiterated his belief that the existing West Coast sites “provide capability necessary to protect the U.S. homeland against the current and projected ICBM threat from North Korea as well as the future Iranian ICBM threat should it emerge.” In fact, Syring warned that building a third site would drain time and resources away from “higher priorities”—notably, getting the missile defense system to actually work.
For more than a decade, the $40 billion GMD program has been plagued with management problems, cost overruns, and technological failures. During flight tests, the interceptor kill vehicle repeatedly missed its targets. MDA sought to solve the problem with a new-and-improved kill vehicle—until it was discovered in 2013 that it suffered from the same key design flaws as its predecessor. A June 22 intercept test was the program’s first success in six years.
According to a report published by the National Academy of Sciences, these setbacks can be attributed to an agency culture that has “spawned an almost ‘hobby shop’ approach, with many false starts on poorly analyzed concepts.” Likewise, the Government Accountability Office says the MDA’s methodology of “concurrently manufacturing, deploying, and testing interceptors is high risk because tests may uncover issues requiring costly design changes and retrofit programs.”
The Pentagon’s response to such criticism has been simply to double down and move ahead with its planned deployment schedule, while trying to patch up problems along the way. The lengthy fix-it list includes upgrading the GMD ground systems (which were built with 1990s technology) and developing yet another version of the current kill vehicle (unimaginatively named the Redesigned Kill Vehicle). The result is a faith-based timeline that confidently predicts that, after two more tests, 14 additional improved interceptors will be ready for deployment by the end of 2017. The Redesigned Kill Vehicles—again, after conducting just two tests—will be ready in 2020.
No one credible believes that outcome is feasible. But, facts matter little when a $3.6 billion prize is at stake. In Michigan, the proposed missile defense site—which would be built at the Fort Custer Training Center, straddling Kalamazoo and Calhoun counties—has been endorsed by the Michigan State Senate and the Kalamazoo County Board of Commissioners, as well as Battle Creek Unlimited, an economic development group. (“Yes, it's a costly strategy,” BCU board Chairwoman Beth Brutsche wrote in a letter to the Kalamazoo Gazette. “But I place immeasurable value on human life.”)
And, the Detroit News recently reported that Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow and Republican Rep. Fred Upton are working with Gov. Rick Snyder’s office to win the competition. “We’re in the official hunt,” said Upton. He told his constituents: “With growing threats from rogue states like Iran and North Korea—along with emerging threats posed by well-financed terrorist organizations like ISIS—we as a nation need to be prepared for the worst.”
Precisely how ISIS would acquire the capability to launch nuclear ICBMs at the United States is anyone’s guess—but, if you’re marketing fear, why not go all in? In fact, the sales pitch for a new GMD site often skirted reality. If the states are the laboratories of democracy, they’re also the testing grounds for promoting government boondoggles.
Case in point: Lt. Col. Mark Gorzynski, commander of the Fort Custer Training Center, acknowledged that the system has a 50 percent hit-to-kill ratio, adding that “destroying even half of any inbound missiles shot at the U.S. is better than taking out none.” And Snipes offered assurance that “the system does work. In our last intercept test on June 22, we had a successful intercept, and it is the Missile Defense Agency’s longest time of flight and the highest closing velocity to date.”
Putting aside, for a moment, that a 50-50 chance of being nuked is being touted as America’s new gold standard for national security, that number doesn’t reflect real-world conditions. The June 22 intercept was indeed successful, but these tests are carefully scripted so that it is known in advance where and when the target will be launched and what it will look like. Real ICBMs will not be so obliging. What’s more, the tests don’t consider the myriad types of countermeasures, such as decoys, that incoming missiles can deploy to improve their chances of penetrating defenses.
Even if we took at face value the claim that GMD has a 50 percent success rate, that would mean the United States would have to “salvo fire four or five interceptors at each incoming missile to get above 90 percent,” says Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. So, those additional interceptors that are being deployed in Alaska, at a cost of $1 billion? “North Korea can defeat that by building three extra ICBMs,” Lewis notes.
And then there’s the argument for urgency. “The Korean missile threat and the Iranian missile threat are real,” Col. Ron Wilson, commander of the Battle Creek Air National Guard Base, told the media. “If we don't pay attention to it, it's going to sneak up and bite us one day, and it will be too late.” But, “MDA is wasting money on an interceptor that has no hope of keeping pace with new threats,” says Lewis, who points to recommendations in the NAS report that the Pentagon should undertake a complete overhaul. NAS supports the idea of a third missile defense site, but only if the United States redesigns the interceptor and develops more robust radar systems and sensors to target warheads and identify countermeasures. The new system, NAS claims, could be developed and operated for 20 years at a cost less than completing and operating the current system.
Nobody brought that up in Michigan. And it probably wouldn’t have made a difference if someone had. “We acknowledge the legitimate questions about whether building a third missile defense system is the best use of federal dollars,” stated an op-ed by reporter Julie Mack in the Kalamazoo Gazette. “The fact is, if Southwest Michigan rejects the project, it would simply go elsewhere, along with the economic benefits it would bring. It would be foolhardy to turn away that opportunity.” And as long as Congress continues to throw good money after bad, buyers can be assured that supplies will last.