The National Academy of Sciences recently released a detailed study assessing various alternatives for missile defense. While the 260-page report is quite technical (and personally, I’m skeptical of some of its recommendations), it fundamentally echoes what most outside physicists who have examined missile defense have been saying for decades, even as we have continued to spend tens of billions of dollars every year designing—and, more recently, deploying—such systems: All existing claimed missile defense systems are woefully inadequate to deal with realistic threats, including the likely use of offensive countermeasures in the event of a real intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) strike on this country.
Ever since the scientific community convinced Nixon in 1972 that it is generally cheaper and easier to build more nuclear weapons and missiles than it is to build missile defenses, one problem has persisted: No existing missile defense system can accurately distinguish decoys from the real thing. This has certainly been the case for our flawed domestic defenses, which have failed to intercept most incoming warheads in the tests that have been performed—and no tests have been performed with realistic decoys.
The Republican approach is that more is better, even if the fundamental components are flawed. The Democratic approach has been to play down the nonexistence of our domestic system and focus instead on building an equally ineffective system to protect Europe from shorter-range missiles that might be built someday by Iran.
The National Academies Report argues that while a smaller-scale European missile defense system might one day be workable, the deficiencies in the current ICBM system designed to protect the homeland are so severe, they should be fixed first. Continuing to deploy our current missile defense systems is throwing good money after bad. Neither Iran nor North Korea has nuclear warheads that can be carried by ICBMs. And why would either country use them, given that such an attack would likely result in retaliatory annihilation? The more realistic threat is someone smuggling a nuclear device into this country without providing a clear signature of its origin, unlike the trajectory of an incoming ballistic missile.
More recently, a Washington Post story emphasized the woeful state of this country’s infrastructure for storing and manufacturing nuclear weapons. The efficacy of our current ridiculously large arsenal is not in question, at least by all serious scientific groups who have examined this issue. However, the apparatus responsible for maintaining these weapons is outmoded and severely in need of repair. In this sense, the Republican position that we need to invest in infrastructure if we are to maintain our nuclear arsenal is valid. The problem is that the cost required to address these problems at this point is truly astronomical, in the many hundreds of billions or trillions of dollars, and Republicans have certainly not elaborated a strategy to generate the funds for this, even if it were technical feasible in the short run.
Both of these issues once again suggest the obvious. The only sound nuclear defensive strategy is to provide leadership to reduce nuclear proliferation by making it less attractive for non-nuclear countries to build nuclear weapons. The first step in the process is for countries like the United States to be willing to take unilateral actions to dramatic reduce the size of its own obscenely large nuclear arsenal. This might not only send an important message that we are serious about disarmament, it would make clear economic sense.