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.

While the world awaits war in Iraq, little attention has been paid to President Bush's military budget proposal for next year—less still to a line item that would have attracted enormous notice in more placid times. This is the missile defense program, the successor to what, in Ronald Reagan's day, was called the Strategic Defense Initiative or "Star Wars." The program's budget, which was released to no fanfare on Feb. 3, is startling for a couple of reasons.

First, it totals $9.1 billion. That's nearly three times what Reagan managed to spend on the program in any of his years in office and a 20 percent increase over the $7.5 billion that Congress gave Bush last year—completing the transformation of the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency from an insular research shop into one of the flushest branches of the U.S. armed forces.

Second, to go with the big boost, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has asked Congress to exempt missile defense from the law that requires all weapons systems to undergo operational tests before being deployed in the field. Carl Levin, the Senate Armed Services Committee's ranking Democrat (and the only lawmaker raising a fuss about this move), noted that the purpose of this law is "to prevent the production and fielding of a weapon system that doesn't work right." Yet Rumsfeld, justifying the bypass, said, "We need to get something out there," in case, say, North Korea attacks us with ballistic missiles soon.

At first glance, this may sound like a prudent step. North Korea is on the verge of restarting its long-dormant nuclear-weapons program; it is also developing long-range ballistic missiles. (It's another matter to miniaturize the nukes and fit them on the missiles, but let us stipulate the possibility.) A closer look, however, reveals some drawbacks to this haste: a) By the MDA's own admission, the $9.1 billion—on top of the $73 billion appropriated for missile-defense R&D over the past 19 years—buys little, if any, protection in the near future; b) in the longer run, again by their own testimony, the MDA's managers don't know where the program is going, what it will look like, when it will be finished, or how much it will cost; and c) the program is still technologically immature—some of its most vital elements have yet to be built, even as prototypes.

These problems exist quite apart from a couple of broader issues: There are far cheaper ways, which Bush has resolutely dismissed, to neutralize the North Korean threat; and there are far cheaper ways, which he has gravely shortchanged, to deal with more immediate threats.

One thing is clear, though insufficiently appreciated by many: Bush is serious about missile defense. He didn't pull out of the Anti-Ballistic-Missile Treaty as a symbolic gesture; he means to start deploying anti-missile interceptors and radar systems, on the ground and on ships at sea, by the end of next year (and in the air and outer space a few years from now). His fiscal 2004 budget provides all the money he needs to do that. (For a list of what will be deployed over the next year or two, click here.)

However, these extra efforts and resources will not produce a real, working system that can shoot down an enemy's ballistic missiles. At a press conference last December, J.D. Crouch, the assistant secretary of defense for international security, said the budget will buy "a very modest initial interceptor inventory" that will "provide a useful defensive capability but one that, you know, has limits."

When I read this passage of the transcript aloud to a Pentagon official who is very familiar with the program's tests to date, he laughed and said, "It has limits, all right!" The MDA can deploy all the interceptors it likes, but, the official added, "They will not be operational"—in other words, they will not form a working system.

For one thing, there are still major components that have yet to be built. A new "X-band" radar system, which is needed to track incoming warheads, is still in fairly early development. The airborne laser, vital to shooting down missiles in the midcourse phaseof their trajectory, is still in early research. The networks that would link together these pieces of hardware to computerized controls are but gleams in some programmer's imagination.

Even the components that have been tested, even successfully tested, are by no means finished products. In its budget document, the MDA boasts of the tests to see if an interceptor can collide with, and destroy, a simulated incoming warhead—in military parlance, to see if a bullet can hit a bullet. In the past two years, ground-based interceptors (which, in a real system, would try to shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles) have hit their targets five out of eight times; modified Patriot missiles (which would go after short- to medium-range missiles) have hit two out of four; SM3 missiles (also aimed at shorter-range missiles and based on Aegis cruiser ships) have gone three for three.

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.

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.