By Tom Z. Collina
The FY 2013 Defense Authorization Bill is on the Senate floor this week, and Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) is planning to offer an amendment that would promote the construction of a missile defense site on the East Coast. This was a bad idea when the House proposed it this summer, and it’s a bad idea now.
Sen. Ayotte borrowed this proposal from Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee, which voted in May to build a third strategic missile interceptor site on the East Coast by the end of 2015. Sen. Ayotte can be congratulated for taking a more measured approach, calling to study the issue rather than set an unrealistic deployment date.
For his part, Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, got the idea from a report by the independent National Research Council/National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which recommended a new U.S. missile defense site on the East Coast to ‘protect’ the nation from a potential Iranian long-range missile threat, which does not yet exist.
However, a close read of the NAS report reveals that the system it proposes makes little sense and does not support Sen. Ayotte’s or Rep. Turner’s positions. 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.
Instead of Sen. Ayotte’s premature proposal to study possible deployment locations for missile defense sites on the East Coast, Congress needs to take a deep breath, look at how little the nation got for over $30 billion invested on the West Coast, and ask, ‘Haven’t I seen this movie before?’
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 that has yet to be developed. 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. (This system is not like Israel’s Iron Dome, which intercepts short-range missiles in the atmosphere.)
Once the new system is developed, 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 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.
The midcourse approach has its drawbacks, most notably that it must “discriminate” between real warheads and decoys, one type of countermeasure that could be used. 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.
So, if the system has to deal with decoys, can it ever really be effective? The NAS panel’s 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.” 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.”
While Sen. Ayotte studies deployment sites and Rep. Turner sets unrealistic deadlines, the real lesson from the NAS report is that effective defenses against strategic missiles are still a distant prospect.