Bush's latest missile-defense folly.

Military analysis.
March 12 2004 5:48 PM

Bush's Latest Missile-Defense Folly

Why spend billions on a system that might never work?

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The anti-missile missiles that Bush plans to deploy later this year are the simplest elements of this system. Yet, Christie notes, they aren't ready for prime time, either—or, as he puts it, their development has been "hindered" by several shortcomings. There is currently no deployable rocket to boost them into space. Sensors, which would guide the kill vehicles to their targets, are not placed in the most optimal locations. (In the tests to date, a "transmitter" has been attached to the target, making it easy for radars to track.) A ship-based radar, which would be more flexible, won't be ready even for testing until, as Christie delicately puts it, "the post-2005 time-frame."

In general, Christie writes, kill vehicles need to be tested "at higher closing velocities and against targets with [radar] signatures, counter-measures [such as decoys], and flight dynamics more closely matching the projected threat." For now, he continues, "the small number of tests would limit confidence" in the performance of the system—or, for that matter, of any component in the system.

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For many of these components, tests will not be ready for a while. The upgraded version of the Patriot air-defense missile, known as PAC-3, has shown "shortcomings" in operational testing. Further tests are scheduled—three this year, 12 next year, five in 2006, and seven in 2007—but, Christie notes, "the adequacy of this testing cannot be fully assessed because detailed objectives for most of the tests ... are not yet defined." In other words, the program managers not only haven't yet tested the missile; they haven't yet figured out what they need to test. Ditto for the vital Space Tracking Surveillance System. "The full capabilities of STSS," Christie writes, "cannot be tested until ... 2006 and 2008."

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is not exactly stepping into gear. In the Senate Armed Services Committee hearings on Thursday, Sen. Carl Levin, the panel's ranking Democrat, pointed out that seven of the eight flight tests scheduled for 2003 and 2004 have been canceled or delayed until next year.

The trade publication Aerospace Daily reports today that the Airborne Laser—a program that involves attaching a kill laser to a modified Boeing 747—is suffering major cost overruns (its $3 billion budget over the next five years is soaring to $5 billion), and its first tests, once scheduled for December 2004, have been pushed back to the middle of next year at the earliest.

Here's the question smacking us all in the face, proponents and opponents alike: How much are we willing to spend, over how long a period of time, not to build an effective missile-defense system but just to discover whether such a thing is feasible?

The Pentagon plans to spend at least another $50 billion over the next five years—through about the time when the Space Tracking Surveillance System will just be starting its tests (in other words, not just well before the system is ready for action but well before we'll have discovered whether it will ever be ready). If at the end of the day we ended up with an effective defense against missiles, it would almost certainly be worth the cost. But in fact, we might discover that it isn't feasible after all.

Already, the $10.7 billion that Bush is spending for fiscal year 2005 is more than the entire U.S. Army is spending on research and development. More to the point, it's nearly twice as much as the Department of Homeland Security is spending on customs and border patrol.

The world poses a "spectrum of threats," as strategists like to say, and there's only so much money to deal with them. Where should we focus our attention and resources: on tangible, present-day threats that can be addressed by means that don't involve bumping up against the laws of physics—or on hypothetical threats of the future that this administration is trying to defeat with technology that might never get out of the lab?