Bush's latest missile defense ploy.

Military analysis.
Feb. 20 2003 1:39 PM

More Missile-Defense Madness

Bush's latest ploy for a system we don't even need.

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However, the MDA left out some important caveats to these statistics. First, the numbers are quite small—typically, missile systems undergo about 20 tests before being declared operational. Second, the tests were set-pieces: Everyone involved knew where the mock warhead was coming from, where it was going, and when it would come into view; there were no realistic decoys, no instances of multiple warheads being fired at once (except in a few of the Patriot tests, which involved two warheads fired over a short range). Third, and most telling, the MDA decided late last year to halt the test program; it even canceled two tests that had already been scheduled. The reason, according to the Pentagon official quoted earlier (who asked not to be identified): "The point of these tests was simply to demonstrate the technical feasibility of a hit-to-kill vehicle [i.e., an interceptor that could destroy an incoming warhead by smashing into it]. They did that. Beyond that, the tests weren't realistic, they didn't tell you anything about whether it could handle a real threat." The tests made no effort whatever to see if the interceptors could work as part of an integrated network in which early-warning satellites detect a missile launch, transmit the data to other radar systems that track the missile more precisely, and then aim and fire the interceptors to knock the missiles down.

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In other words, the Pentagon will start producing and deploying the pieces of a missile defense system without knowing where they're going or whether, once they reach a certain point, they'll have to scrap the current blueprint (such as it is) and start all over again. The Feb. 3 budget document noted, "There is no final or fixed missile defense architecture." At the Dec. 17 press conference, Gen. Ronald Kadish, the MDA's director, went further: "The final architecture is not knowable today because we have a lot more research and development to do." Read that carefully: It's not just not known but "not knowable"; and here we are, about to embark on production and deployment when we still have "a lot more" R & D ahead of us.

Crouch, who led the press conference, quickly added that, even in its imperfect state, the deployments will "have a deterrent effect, and we hope they have a dissuasive effect, in the sense that we hope that our missile defense capabilities will keep countries that might be thinking about investing in ballistic missiles from continuing their investments."

There are a couple of flaws in this reasoning. First, our efforts might have the opposite effect: A nuclear-armed rogue state, naively believing that the system does work, might build (and subsequently launch) twice as many missiles—and thus wreak twice the damage—as it otherwise would have. Second, if Crouch is right, it is not a very shrewd plan, economically, to spend tens of billions of dollars on missile defenses in order to persuade a rogue state not to spend millions of dollars on ballistic missiles but instead, in effect, to spend just thousands of dollars on much easier methods of inflicting terror. If some terrorist got his hands on a nuclear weapon, the means of delivery is more likely to be a suitcase than an ICBM.

If Bush is worried about North Korea, as he has every reason to be, he should do what his predecessor did and what the North Koreans have practically begged him to do for four months now—sit down for direct talks and work out a trade: the resumption of economic aid for a halt (and, this time, a more decisive halt) to their nuclear program.

Finally, if Bush is worried about rogue states and terrorists blowing up Americans, as he has even more reason to be, he should do more to stave off attacks that might take place tomorrow. Last November, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees offered Bush a free ride on this road. It passed an amendment that allowed him to take $814 million out of missile defense, transfer it to the Department of Homeland Security, and spend it there in whatever ways he saw fit. Bush turned the offer down.