Center for Arms Control

The Heritage Foundation’s Missile Defense Fantasies

By Matthew Fargo

Heritage Foundation President Ed Feulner’s op-ed in the Washington Times on April 23 muddled the history of ballistic missile defense when he blamed President Barack Obama for the inability of the United States to field anything more than a nascent missile defense system. The United States has been developing missile defense systems for almost sixty years without success. Without irony, his solution to persistent cost overruns and schedule delays would be to increase the missile defense budget by nearly 40%, adding an additional three billion dollars a year to an already astronomical price tag. Furthermore, Dr. Feulner approves of the United States’ abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty that contributed to strategic stability for forty years by trying to argue that missile defense, if it actually worked, would improve relations between the United States and Russia despite repeated threats from Russian military officials regarding the future of missile defenses in Europe.

A Brief History of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty

Signed in 1972, the ABM Treaty restricted the deployment of strategic defensive systems by the United States and the Soviet Union (and later the Russian Federation) to a total of 200 launchers and interceptors at two distinct geographic locations. In 1974, both sides signed an additional protocol to the treaty which reduced the permitted launcher and interceptor deployments to 100 at a single location – we chose to defend an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) field in North Dakota, the Russians chose to defend Moscow. In 1976, the United States deactivated its sole missile defense system because of problems which continue to plague missile defense – namely, extraordinarily high development and operational costs and significant technical hurdles.

The United States withdrew from the ABM Treaty in June 2002, ostensibly to gain greater freedom to test missile defense technologies. Between 1999 and June 2002, the United States conducted six intercept tests using its primary missile defense interceptor, the Ground Based Interceptor, deployed as part of the Ground-Based Mid-course Defense (GMD) system. In the nearly ten years since June 2002, the United States has conducted only ten intercept tests. In response to the United States’ withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, Russia announced that it was no longer bound by the conditions of the START II agreement which had it entered into force, would have led to the removal of multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles from U.S. and Russian ballistic missiles.

Strategic Defense Initiative – Reagan’s Darling

Dr. Feulner’s assertion that it is the fault of the Obama administration that we have not yet achieved President Reagan’s vision of a robust or comprehensive national missile defense system misrepresents the history of the Strategic Defense Initiative. Designed to be capable of neutralizing incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles, the Strategic Defense Initiative never made if off the ground largely because the numerous sophisticated technologies on which it was to rely had not yet been invented. President Reagan himself admitted that it would likely take decades before his optimistic plans would take shape, but the program relied on unstable technological foundations and proved prohibitively costly.

It could be argued that the Obama administration’s efforts to reformulate missile defense, especially the creation of the “European Phased Adaptive Approach”, (the EPAA) have placed missile defense on a firmer technological footing. However, both the EPAA and GMD remain severely flawed. One proposed alternative would be to methodically test and fix missile defense technology without concurrently deploying systems whose efficacy remains questionable. This would prevent the deployment of unproven and unreliable technologies and would dramatically cut costs.

Dr. Feulner’s conclusion that our “victory” in the Cold War will also be undermined if we do not live up to Reagan’s unrealistic vision of a comprehensive missile defense system presupposes that we are still perpetually standing on the brink of conflict with the Russians or others. He mentions that the Iranians, North Koreans, and Chinese are all expanding their nuclear missile capabilities and that the United States should maintain “comprehensive, multilayered” ballistic missile defenses in order to counter these mounting threats, but he forgets that Iran does not have nuclear weapons or long range missiles on which to deliver them, or that North Korea’s potentially nuclear-capable missiles continue to break apart seconds after launch. The Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Representative Howard “Buck” McKeon, has made the same mistake.

Deterrence Theory and the ABM Treaty

Dr. Feulner also argues that acceptance of the ABM Treaty was tantamount to continuing to promote the policy of mutually assured destruction and that in withdrawing from it the United States can finally leave that antiquated notion in the past. More accurately, the ABM Treaty was designed to provide continued strategic stability by not impinging on the ability of either side to maintain a secure second-strike capability – something that the Russians consistently argue that the EPAA could endanger.

Undersecretary of State for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher has called for a shift away from mutually assured destruction toward “mutually assured stability”, but Russia continues to make egregiously threatening statements regarding European missile defense. The United States’ refusal to allow Russia joint command and control over European missile defenses and the administration’s inability to obtain a legally binding (read: ratified in Congress) treaty that assures the Russians that the EPAA will not target Russian strategic forces will remain major stumbling blocks to further bilateral arms control talks – all over a system that cannot reliably defend Europe or the United States.

Lessons Not Learned

Dr. Feulner concludes by acknowledging that a decade since we unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (AMB) Treaty, we should be far beyond our current rudimentary missile defense capabilities. On this point, at least, we can agree – the state of our missile defense capabilities is poor given the billions of dollars and years of effort we have devoted to its development. The solution, however, is not to throw good money after bad, but instead to stop further deployments until fundamental technological challenges are overcome.

Matthew Fargo is an intern at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation

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