Missile defense is, in many ways, the poster child for expensive and technologically dubious US defense systems that survive based on misconceptions about their strategic benefits. A November 1 Letter to the Editor in the Washington Times by Admiral James A. Lyons, Jr. provides a classic example of these misconceptions.
Lyons’ letter, entitled “U.S. needs ground defense system,” argues that the United States must bolster its missile defense system to protect itself from an Iranian attack. His first fallacious claim is that Iran is developing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in preparation for an attack on US soil.
This is a misleading claim at best. Michael Ellemen of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a former UN weapons inspector, wrote in 2010 that “There is no strong evidence that Iran is actively developing an intermediate-range or intercontinental ballistic missile. “ The Council on Foreign Relations agrees, pointing out just a few months ago that there is “considerable doubt” as to whether Iran’s efforts to develop ICBMs are still active.
And even if those efforts were active, it’s far from guaranteed that they would succeed. An East-West Institute report from 2009 highlighted the extremely high technological barriers that stand between Iran and the development of a modern ICBM. In addition, the crippling economic sanctions leveled against Iran are making ongoing missile development all the more difficult. Per Ellemen’s estimation, given all of these difficulties, we wouldn’t see an Iranian missile capable of striking the US until 2020 at the very earliest.
Even if it were true that Iran wanted to launch an ICBM attack against the United States, would beefing up our existing missile defense systems solve the problem? Yes, Lyons argues: “The Ground-based Midcourse Defense [GMD] system in Alaska and California already provides a limited defense of the U.S. homeland against an Iranian missile.” But that description glosses over the GMD’s serious operational shortcomings.
Since December 2002, the system has only made three successful intercepts in a total of nine tests, plus one aborted “no-test.” In a recent study on missile defense (which, incredibly, Lyons cited in the letter to prove his point), the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) expressed deep concern about the GMD, saying that the system “lacks fundamental features long known to maximize the effectiveness of a midcourse hit-to-kill defense capability against even limited threats.”
The most important of these missing features is the ability to discriminate between real warheads and decoys, an ability that we don’t have yet. The NAS report highlights the fundamental importance of discrimination, noting that the GMD will eventually need to confront “decoys and other penetration aids and tactics…that adversaries will have deliberately designed to frustrate U.S. defenses.”
Lyons goes on to make the misleading claim that, according to the NAS, “Installing a new site on the East Coast would be the most cost-effective way to improve” the GMD system. To be sure, the NAS did propose the creation of an East Coast missile site. But this wasn’t so much to improve GMD as to replace it entirely, because the existing system is so flawed.
Which brings us to the fourth and final flaw in Lyons’ letter. It’s highly unclear whether the NAS’ proposed new East Coast site would actually “improve” anything at all. Could the new system discriminate any better than the existing system on the West Coast? The NAS report stated that “there is no static answer to the question of whether a missile defense can work against countermeasures.” The answer “depends on the resources expended by the offense and the defense and the knowledge each has of the other’s system.” The Center’s Senior Science Fellow Philip Coyle, who knows a thing or two about missile defense, recently told Arms Control Today that: “Discrimination is the Holy Grail, but no one really knows how to find it or how to get there.”
Lyons’ short letter reflects everything that’s wrong with the way our government has approached missile defense. The letter delivers a one-two punch of misinformation: first, it mischaracterizes and overstates the threat, and then it calls for costly ‘defenses’ that couldn’t even handle the threat if it existed. But two wrongs don’t make a right, and that’s especially true when it comes to expensive long-range missile defense systems that absorb taxpayers’ money while providing little protection.