Op-Eds Missing the Point? What Were the Odds?

Many op-eds have been published in the last few days that berate the Obama administration’s proposed changes to the U.S. missile defense system in Europe. Most of the articles omit a basic statistic that is critical to understand.

According to this Missile Defense Agency fact sheet, the three-stage ground-based midcourse defense (GMD) system, a variant of which was to be built in Europe, has recorded a testing success rate of 62%. When they occurred, these successes tended to exclude realistic countermeasures (decoys) and to be heavily scripted (the defenders knew beforehand both the timing and location of the target missile).

Of course, since the Pentagon Director for Operational Test & Evaluation concluded that the effectiveness of the two-stage European variant “cannot be assumed" simply because it would have been derived from the three-stage variant in Alaska and California, the testing record of the three-stage variant is largely irrelevant. The European interceptors lacked an authentic testing record, and the technology from which they were to be derived had a problematic testing record. This was no basis for technological confidence.

In contrast…

…the SM-3 system proposed by Obama boasts a 83% success rate. This still leaves much room for improvement – particularly when it comes to combat realism - but certainly is superior to the GMD success rate. If you want to get even more statistical, a quick Fischer’s exact test yields a 2-tailed P-value of 0.2347, roughly meaning that there is only a 23.47% chance that the disparity in the two systems’ testing record has to do with bad luck. Instead, it is reasonable to attribute this disparity to the Aegis/SM-3 system’s technical superiority over GMD.

Max Weber once explained that “The primary task of a useful teacher is to teach his students to recognize ‘inconvenient’ facts – I mean facts that are inconvenient for their party opinions.” Unfortunately, this lesson does not seem to have been learned by the syndicate of op-ed writers who have ignored the central logic of technical prudence and depicted the missile defense decision, first and foremost, as a U.S. betrayal of European allies and an inability to stave off Russian pressure.

On a different but also important note, many pundits have criticized the administration’s delivery of the decision. They have faulted Obama for not officially alerting Poland and the Czech Republic far in advance of the announcement. However, Obama’s delivery had little to do with discourtesy and much to do with the modern reality of international diplomacy, politics, and media. Obama could not have told Poland and the Czech Republic earlier because this information would have been immediately leaked and, thus, effectively announced. Given this reality, the announcement had to be made abruptly in a fashion that might seem reckless to some.  

In fairness, announcing the changes on the 70-year anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland was a political oversight that unnecessarily gave administration critics an emotionally-charged talking point.