For Missile Defense, “It Depends” Is Not Good Enough

By Tom Z. Collina

How much confidence would you demand in a missile interceptor system before paying $25 billion for it? When asking your advisers if the system would work against nuclear-armed ballistic missiles and they say “it depends” on things out of your control, how much confidence would you have in the system’s ability to protect the United States?

Not much. No president could have confidence in a missile interceptor system under these conditions, and in the midst of a fiscal crisis, $25 billion would be more wisely spent on weapon systems the nation might actually be able to depend on.

Yet a September report by the independent National Research Council/National Academy of Sciences (NAS) recommended that such a system be built, with a new site on the East Coast, to “protect” the nation from future North Korean or Iranian missile attack.

And missile defense supporters in Congress, such as Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, are touting the NAS report as validation of their call to build an East Coast site by late 2015.

However, a close read of the NAS report reveals that the system it proposes makes little sense, and does not support Rep. Turner’s position. In fact, the panel says its system “is by no means a certain solution” and there is little reason to be confident that the new system would work any better than the current one on the West Coast. And the new system would certainly not be ready to deploy in three years time.

No Basis for Confidence

In a nutshell, the NAS panel found that the current U.S. Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system now deployed in Alaska and California is so expensive and ineffective that it should be replaced with a new system. NAS proposes to build faster missiles, more-maneuverable interceptors, and additional sensors. The proposed system, like the current one, would seek to intercept incoming warheads while in space, or in the “midcourse” of their trajectory.

The midcourse approach has its drawbacks, most notably that it must “discriminate” between real warheads and decoys, also known as countermeasures. One of the main conclusions of the report is that no practical missile defense system “can avoid the need for midcourse discrimination,” which “must be addressed far more seriously if reasonable confidence is to be achieved.” Until that reality is accepted, they say, “there will be no end to the poorly thought[-]out schemes proposing to avoid the need for midcourse discrimination.”

The report emphasizes that, “at some point, countermeasures of various kinds should be expected.” Initial decoys may be unintentional, such as debris from the booster rocket that would be traveling along with warheads through space. Yet, “as threat sophistication increases, the defense is likely to have to deal with purposeful countermeasures,” that adversaries may use to “frustrate U.S. defenses.”

Indeed, the 1999 National Intelligence Estimate found that by the time nations like North Korea or Iran could deploy their first long-range missiles, they would be able to deploy effective countermeasures, such as balloon decoys.

OK, the system has to be effective against decoys. Got it. So, you ask your advisors the obvious question: would the system work? The answer: “It depends.” 

According to the NAS report, the proposed system would have a “reasonable chance” of keeping the United States “generally ahead” of adversaries in the contest between offense and defense. In other words, the United States fields a missile interceptor system with certain sensors, and then Iran or North Korea could design countermeasures to fool those sensors. The United States could then try to adjust its sensors, and then adversaries respond to that, and so on.

The NAS report concludes that “there is no static answer to the question of whether a missile defense can work against countermeasures.” Wow. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t. “It depends on the resources expended by the offense and the defense and the knowledge each has of the other’s system.” Note that the United States can only control one side of this equation.

This ongoing action-reaction cycle makes it essentially impossible to say that midcourse missile defenses can be effective, since the defense would not necessarily know what the decoys would be and the offense always has the last word. The defense deploys its system, the offense adjusts to it, and then chooses the time of attack.

The effectiveness of any defense against decoys “inevitably will vary with time” as the offense adapts to the defense’s fielded system and the defense seeks to respond to fielded countermeasures, the report said.

If this is really the case, then both sides of the missile defense debate are right. Now it works, now it doesn’t. But the reality is that no U.S. president would be able to have confidence in his or her missile interceptor system because they are unlikely to know if it would work when the chips are down.

Richard Garwin, who has been working on missile defense since the 1950s and designed the first hydrogen bomb, recently wrote that the NAS report advocates a system that depends on midcourse discrimination against countermeasures, “without any indication of how this might be achieved.”

Such details aside, once the new system is ready, the NAS report says that 30 new interceptors should be deployed on the East Coast, possibly at Fort Drum in New York or an unspecified site in northern Maine, and then used to replace the missiles deployed at the West Coast sites. The report’s co-chairs, former Lockheed Martin Missile Systems chief L. David Montague and former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Walter B. Slocombe, said at a Sept. 11 press briefing that their redesigned system would take at least six to eight years to deploy. The report says the system would not be ready until 2019-2020, and would cost up to $25 billion over 20 years for two East Coast sites.

Who is the Target?

The $25 billion direct cost for the proposed system is just the beginning. In addition, we must add the security costs of Russia and China’s likely responses.

While the United States says its missile interceptor systems are aimed at “emerging” missile programs in North Korea and Iran, Russia and China see themselves in the crosshairs, and are planning accordingly.

For example, Russia sees the ongoing U.S. and NATO missile defense deployments in Europe through 2020 as a threat to its strategic deterrent. In response, Moscow is resisting further bilateral reductions in nuclear stockpiles beyond the 2010 New START treaty and is planning to modernize its forces, including a new ten-warhead ICBM by 2018 optimized to penetrate missile defenses. This is an unwelcome development for U.S. security, as these fixed-silo, liquid-fueled missiles are highly vulnerable and destabilizing.

In Asia, Beijing is expanding its still-small nuclear arsenal, in part out of concern that U.S. and Japanese hardware, such as Aegis ships, joint development of the SM-3 IIA interceptor and a second X-band radar for Japan announced last week by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, might undermine its minimal deterrent. Evan a small buildup of the Chinese arsenal will not go unnoticed by India, and thus Pakistan.

The irony is thick: U.S. missile interceptors are fielded to thwart long-range missiles from North Korea and Iran that do not (yet) exist—neither country has deployed, nor even successfully tested, a missile capable of reaching the United States.

But those same missile interceptor deployments are causing very real responses from Moscow and Beijing that do not serve the interests of U.S. or global security.

Who wins in this new offense-defense competition? If the missile interceptor systems are effective in defending against as-yet unrealized threats from North Korea and Iran, then one could argue this value is worth the increases in Chinese and Russian forces.

But if the United States fields an “it depends” interceptor system, then it would provide a false sense of security to those it is supposed to protect, and provide false insecurity to those who perceive themselves to be on the receiving end.

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