By Achraf Farraj, Fall 2007 Research Intern
The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) conducted a test of its Ground-based Midcourse Defense system (GMD) – also called National Missile Defense – on September 28, 2007 in which a target missile fired from Alaska was struck by an interceptor launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Riki Ellison, head of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, called the $85 million test a “remarkable technical feat” and claimed it “gives our country security and reassurance” that GMD “can and will protect our public from long-range ballistic missiles.”1
These claims are vastly inflated and obscure the longstanding concerns surrounding GMD’s technical feasibility, susceptibility to countermeasures, tremendous cost, deleterious effect on U.S. foreign policy, and utility in the face of recent threat assessments.
Remarkably, the recent MDA test was less challenging than many of its predecessors because the target missile completely lacked countermeasures such as decoys, balloons, chaff, or radar absorbing material, each of which can be effective in defeating missile defense systems like GMD.2 A 1999 National Intelligence Estimate of the ballistic missile threat determined that any country sophisticated enough to develop a missile capable of reaching the United States would have the technical means to produce countermeasures. Thus, the recent test’s nominal success is a poor indication of how GMD will fare against an enemy’s attacking missile.
The use of countermeasures by a rogue state is by no means unprecedented. Experience shows that simple countermeasures are effective even against sophisticated antiballistic missile systems. For example, Patriot missiles had great difficulty hitting Iraqi SCUDs during the Persian Gulf War. One reason for the Patriots’ disappointing performance was the presence of unintentional countermeasures on the Iraqi SCUDs. The Iraqis had modified their SCUDs to make them fly faster, but they were designed so poorly that the SCUDs would break apart during reentry, forming crude decoys that confounded the Patriot’s tracking software. Thus, an expensive and technically sophisticated missile defense system was defeated by unintentional, crude, and inexpensive countermeasures.3
Their lack of countermeasures aside, the MDA tests, characterized as “demanding” by President Bush while speaking at the National Defense University on October 23, 2007, are heavily scripted during their developmental phase and fail to indicate how GMD would work in a crisis situation plagued by incomplete information and innumerable variables. The MDA had advance notice of where the missiles were coming from, where they were going, and when they were to be launched. Furthermore, GMD operators were on full alert; their equipment was maintained on standby; and authorization to intercept was taken for granted. Other variables such as weather and flight traffic were also scripted prior to the test.
The unrelenting, politicized push for misleadingly positive test results by missile defense proponents is unjustified. According to MDA estimates, Congress appropriated $107 billion to fund MDA operations since 1985, with $9.4 billion approved for 2007. The MDA expects to invest an additional $49 billion in ballistic missile defense development and fielding over the next five years.4
This amount of spending on missile defense is unnecessary for a number of reasons. First, nuclear deterrence still works. Rogue states are bound by the same rules as other nuclear powers, and they are thus unlikely to use nuclear weapons to attack the United States because they know that doing so would invite overwhelming retaliation against them. Because missiles can be traced back to their source, states cannot credibly deny a missile attack. In the event of a nuclear attack, the United States could respond in kind.
Second, GMD does little to dissuade rogue states from developing nuclear weapons. The development of missile defense does not address a critical motivating factor behind their drive to possess nuclear weapon: gaining both domestic and international political clout. Because missile defense systems can be overwhelmed or spoofed, either by countermeasures or multiple simultaneous launches, GMD will not significantly reduce a rogue state’s ability to leverage political advantage from possessing a nuclear arsenal.
For the same reason, developing missile defense may have unintentional consequences. It may cause rogue states to redouble their efforts to produce more nuclear weapons and multiple delivery systems in order to overwhelm or defeat the defenses. At best, missile defense only raises the bar for entry into the nuclear powers club. It will merely change the nature of proliferation, not eliminate it.
Third, GMD harms rather than benefits our relationships with other countries. The threat of large-scale nuclear war has diminished since the end of the Cold War, as additional safeguards have been put into place, communication between major nuclear powers have improved, and nuclear stockpiles have been reduced. GMD’s utility in the post-Cold War world is further limited by the MDA’s admission that it lacks the capacity to intercept a large number of nuclear missiles, rendering it useless against a dedicated nuclear attack from a power like Russia or China with hundreds or thousands of weapons.5
While doing little to improve the United States’ strategic position, the development of missile defenses is hurting our relations with other countries. In response to a proposed GMD site in Europe, Russia has withdrawn from the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty and has threatened to abrogate the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a landmark deal signed by President Reagan and Gorbachev that did much to stabilize relations and end a frightening era.6 Missile defense in Eastern Europe would increase Russian uncertainty because it can be upgraded. Additional interceptors can be deployed, and the radar slated for use is capable of tracking multiple targets simultaneously and can be upgraded to do so hundreds of times more effectively.7 Russian sensitivity to the proposal is heightened by the shrinking size of its long-range missile forces, giving Russia reason to fear that proposed missile defense in Europe, no matter how limited, will eventually threaten its nuclear deterrence.8
NATO has also expressed its uneasiness with the plan. Divisions have appeared among countries in NATO, especially those in southeastern Europe that would be left outside the operational range of the European deployment.9 Many Czech politicians recently decried the possibility of a Russian military personnel presence at the proposed tracking radar to be built in the Czech Republic. The Czech people are additionally uneasy with the deployment because they feel that it could adversely impact their health.10 The proposal to place missile interceptors in Poland is also encountering opposition. The newly formed ruling coalition headed by the center-right Civic Platform party has called the previous Polish government too eager to reach an agreement with the United States. It recently said that the U.S. will have to satisfy tougher conditions to place missile interceptors in Poland.11
China, with its limited nuclear forces, feels threatened that ballistic missile defense will undermine the credibility of its nuclear deterrent, and it has consequently considered expanding its nuclear arsenal. Chinese officials have also bluntly accused the United States of developing missile defenses on the Pacific coast as part of a larger effort to contain China. Moreover, Taiwan has been flirting with missile defense for some time, and the Chinese have reason to fear that American missile defense in Eastern Europe is a slippery slope that may lead to missile defense in Asia.12
Finally, missile defense does not address the more realistic threat of nuclear terrorism, which President Bush has called the single greatest threat to U.S. national security. Sub-state actors like terrorist groups are far more likely to use nuclear, radiological, or biological weapons than states because they are unconstrained by deterrence. Although President Bush has attempted to connect missile defense to preventing nuclear terrorism, it is highly unlikely that terrorist groups would be able to use ICBMs; they are more likely to employ a crude gun-type weapon made with highly enriched uranium or smuggle in a nuclear weapon.
ICBMs are currently deployed by only the most technologically advanced states. They are very expensive, tend to be well guarded, and are typically subject to launch-control safeguards. Because our satellites can easily determine the location of the launch, it is unthinkable that any sovereign state would purposefully allow terrorists to launch their missiles. For these reasons, terrorists seeking to attack American cities would most likely attempt to smuggle fissile material or a small nuclear bomb out of porous Russian borders or from the countless poorly secured facilities containing highly enriched uranium. The best way to counter this threat is to prevent terrorist groups from acquiring fissile material by securing and reducing it worldwide.
In spite of the clear threat of nuclear terrorism, we spend little on Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) and Global Cleanout, programs intended to secure and reduce stockpiles of fissile materials, compared to missile defense. The $9.4 billion appropriated to the MDA in 2007 is greater than the entire amount budgeted for programs focused on securing nuclear warheads, materials, and expertise, which received a relatively paltry $8.2 billion from 1992 through 2006 in constant 2005 dollars.13 The amount of money being spent on GMD and ballistic missile defense draws limited resources away from more realistic threats such as nuclear terrorism.
There are many compelling reasons not to pursue GMD: it is susceptible to countermeasures; it is immensely expensive; it does little to deter and possibly encourages rogue states to pursue nuclear weapons; it does not address the greater threat of nuclear terrorism; and it harms our relations with other countries. The recent MDA intercept of a missile lacking even foreseeable countermeasures should be seen for what it is: an agenda-ridden operation to boost support for a program that has done little to improve our security and a justification for years of misdirected research and misappropriated funds.
1. Victoria Samson, “Missile Defense by the Numbers,” Center for Defense Information (October 4, 2007).
4. Associated Press, “U.S. Missile Defense Test Successful” (September 28, 2007).
5. Robert G. Gard, “Excessive Claims for Missile Defense,” Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation (August 8, 2007).
6. Philip Coyle, “Missile Defense Folly: Cuts to Proposed U.S. Site in Europe, ABL, Well Aimed,” Defense News (October 1, 2007); Robert G. Gard, “National Missile Defense in Europe: Premature and Unwise,” Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation (July 2007).
7. George L. Lewis and Theodore A. Postol, “European Missile Defense: The Technological Basis of Russian Concerns,” Arms Control Today (October 2007).
8. Daryl G. Kimball, “Missile Defense Collision Course,” Arms Control Association (July/August 2007).
9. Gard, “National Missile Defense in Europe: Premature and Unwise.”
10. Jan Korselt, “Czechs Say Want No Russian Soldiers At Radar Site,” Reuters (October 24, 2007), available online; Vaclav Hudec, “Czech Fears Over Missile Defence Radar,” interview with BBC News (June 6, 2007), available online.
11. Ryan Lucas, “New Polish Leader Wants More From US,” Associated Press (October 22, 2007).
12. James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, “China’s Opposition to US Missile Defense Programs.”
13. Anthony Wier, “Overview of Funding,” Nuclear Threat Initiative (updated July 28, 2006).