Center for Arms Control

The Wages of Missile Defense

By Matthew Fargo

The House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee met on March 6, 2012 to discuss the Fiscal Year 2013 National Defense Authorization Budget Request for Missile Defense. One of the many topics they discussed was the U.S. Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, (GMD – formerly known as National Missile Defense). Republicans on the subcommittee appeared to criticize the slow pace at which they believe the Pentagon is maturing the GMD system. Given the long and troubled history of the program, however, deploying newer technology before it is ready doesn’t make sense.

Plagued by developmental obstacles and test failures, seven out of fifteen tests of the GMD system have failed since 1999. Most critically, the last two intercept flight tests in January 2010 and December 2010 were both failures. The missile has not been tested since. A missile defense system which cannot reliably destroy incoming missiles under optimum conditions is not a defense system - it is an exceedingly expensive boondoggle.

The main impetus behind such a program is the fear of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) being launched at the United States from rogue states. North Korea in particular has tested a long-range missile design twice in the last decade, though both launches ended in spectacular failure. Both North Korea and Iran continue to make progress toward long-range offensive capabilities through ostensible space programs, but neither has proven that it could reach the continental United States with a missile anytime soon.

Given the credibility of existing American conventional and nuclear capabilities, a strategy of deterrence will continue to be effective against the threat of a “bolt from the blue” ICBM launch by any hostile nation. In fact, it is far more likely that a potential adversary or terrorist organization would attempt to smuggle a nuclear device into the United States rather than launch a missile strike in what would amount to suicide by nuclear armed superpower. Missile defense, of course, does nothing to mitigate such a threat.

As Center Chairman Lieutenant General Gard (U.S. Army – ret.) has reported, in 2010 the director of the Department of Defense Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) stated that ground and computer tests “suggest” that the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system could provide the ability to defend the United States against a limited number of long-range ballistic missiles with “uncomplicated emerging threat warheads”, meaning with no or very simple decoys or other counter-measures. However, in 1999 a National Intelligence Estimate stated that, “We assess that countries developing ballistic missiles,” including North Korea and Iran, “would also develop various responses to U.S. theatre and national defenses.”

The 2011 DOT&E report on GMD said that the Missile Defense Agency lacked “full-scale, high-fidelity test data to validate GMD lethality performance” and that “survivability testing is not adequate to support a survivability assessment of the GMD system and its components.” Earlier this month, the Department of Defense announced that it was delaying another intercept flight test until late 2012 – a full four years since the last successful GMD flight intercept test – so that it could conduct a non-intercept test of the redesigned Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle in July.

The enormous cost of GMD is another significant flaw of the program. The Department of Defense Board Task Force Report on Science and Technological Issues of Ballistic Missile Defense confirmed that the estimated cost of a single ground-based interceptor to be $70 million – all for a false sense of security.

In his first year in office, President Obama reduced the total missile defense budget by 15%, or more than $1 billion. For the Fiscal Year 2013 budget, the president has requested $900 million for GMD, $260 million less than Fiscal Year 2012, which was itself decreased from the Fiscal Year 2011 budget. Though these reductions are headed in the right direction, the program remains expensive and unnecessary. The Missile Defense Agency plans to deploy additional ground-based interceptors in the next several years, but we should stop buying more interceptors until we know whether they will work as intended. As Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-CA) stated at the March 6 hearing, “In the immediate term, for example, in the GMD program, which stands at about a 45 percent test success rate, it means determining the causes of the recent test failures, and that they're adequately resolved and corrected before buying additional costly interceptors.”

GMD does not protect the United States against any realistic threats and will only continue to drain the defense budget in a time of acute austerity. Throwing good money after bad on such a program is exceptionally wasteful. We can ill-afford to clutch on to flawed technology and national defense pipedreams. For those looking to reduce defense spending in order to meet current budgetary constraints, look no further than missile defense.

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

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