The Bush administration's missile defense fantasy.

Military analysis.
May 22 2003 4:48 PM

Build It and It Will Work

The Bush administration's missile defense fantasy.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

The Bush administration seems to be no longer even pretending that its missile defense system will work. More than that, it no longer seems to care. The administration still displays extraordinary support for the program. Its military budget, now before Congress, authorizes $9.1 billion for missile defense next year, with plans for hefty increases each year for long after. The first stages of a system—10 anti-missile interceptors and their launch gear—are scheduled to be deployed in Alaska and California by October 2004.

But look at the Bush's new National Security Presidential Directive, "National Policy on Ballistic Missile Defense," an unclassified version of which was released by the White House on May 20. Buried within the five-page statement—the usual litany of prospective threats and strategic rationales—are these two sentences:

The United States will not have a final, fixed missile defense architecture. Rather, we will deploy an initial set of capabilities that will evolve to meet the changing threat and to take advantage of technological developments.

"Architecture," in this context, means pretty much what it means in its colloquial sense: a detailed blueprint with measurements, an underlying design, a notion of how a structure's materials fit together, all rooted in basic principles of physics and engineering.

For the administration to start deploying a missile defense system before devising an architecture is no different from a construction firm starting to hammer nails, put up joists, and lay out a roof before knowing the style or size of a house.

Another sign of unreality is the news—revealed this week by Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee—that the Pentagon has, without explanation, canceled nine of the 20 missile defense tests it had planned to conduct between now and 2009. One of the canceled tests—which was to have taken place between April and June 2004 (that is, before deployment begins the following October)—might have marked a major step toward realism-in-testing. For the first time, an interceptor was to have been fired at a missile along the same flight path as that of a missile launched from North Korea. Incidentally, it's not as if the program's test record has been so smashing that its managers can afford to relax their standards—five hits out of eight tries, none of them involving multiple targets, decoys, or realistic trajectories.

A May 19 article on Bloomberg.com—one of the very few pieces about the canceled tests (alas, the piece is no longer online except to the service's subscribers)—quoted Maj. Gen. Peter Franklin, the Pentagon missile defense agency's deputy director, as justifying the cancellations. "To focus just on the interceptor test alone," he said, "does not take into consideration everything else that has been built up to get to the point where we are—numerous ground tests, simulations, and war games."

Franklin surely knows better. Any American officer who has advanced to the rank of general must have learned, at some point in his career, that ground tests, simulators, and war games are unreliable predictors of what will happen in a flight test of real hardware.

Sen. Levin, who is oddly the only Democrat who has made a serious go at challenging Bush's rush to deploy this thing, put the matter in better perspective: "The decision to field an as-yet-unproven system has been accompanied by a decision to eliminate or delay the very testing that must be conducted to show whether the system is effective."

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