Congress is not asking the right questions about missile defense

By Deverrick Holmes, June 25, 2019

In the first US “salvo” test of ground-based missile interceptors, two interceptors were launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on March 25, 2019. They successfully intercepted a “threat-representative” ICBM target launched from a test site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. This photo shows the launch of the “lead” interceptor, which destroyed the missile’s reentry vehicle. The “trail” interceptor struck the remaining “most lethal object” it could find. Credit: Missile Defense AgencyIn the first US “salvo” test of ground-based missile interceptors, two interceptors were launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on March 25, 2019. They successfully intercepted a “threat-representative” ICBM target launched from a test site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. This photo shows the launch of the “lead” interceptor, which destroyed the missile’s reentry vehicle. The “trail” interceptor struck the remaining “most lethal object” it could find. Credit: Missile Defense Agency

The United States is no stranger to colossally bad ideas put forth in the name of security. The invasion of Iraq immediately comes to mind, or that time the Air Force thought about nuking the moon. The national missile defense program deserves a spot near the top of this list. It’s not just that the program is costly and unreliable, although both of those things are true. The real issue is that missile defense creates an unstable environment that is counterproductive to US interests. Of course, none of these arguments are new, yet Congress continues to push forward uncritically despite the clear and present downsides.

The Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces held a hearing in early April in which the phrase “missile defense” was mentioned more than 250 times, but “arms control” was not mentioned once. There was no discussion about how missile defense affects strategic stability, or about the negative repercussions the United States already faces because of its investments in missile defense. US military decisions do not exist in a vacuum, and US policies on defense factor into decisions other countries make about offense. It is long past time for Congress to ask tough questions about the future of national missile defense.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Samuel A. Greaves, director of the Missile Defense Agency, and other high-level military officials testified on missile defense policies and programs at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces subcommittee on April 3, 2019.

The current missile defense system intended to protect the continental United States is the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense System (GMD). GMD’s spotty track record in scripted tests is well known. While Congress should question the system’s exorbitant costs and lackluster performance, a better question would be: Should the United States be pursuing this capability at all?

A poor track record. As currently constituted, the US national missile defense system is not effective. Recent claims in Congressional testimony that the system is 97 percent capable assume a “shot doctrine” in which multiple interceptors would have to be launched for every incoming warhead, because some of the interceptors are likely to miss. But no real enemy would attack piecemeal, rather than with a barrage of incoming missiles to overwhelm US defenses. Also, the claim of 97 percent effectiveness assumes the reasons for failure are not common to all interceptors. A simple design flaw would quickly reduce the system’s effectiveness from 97 percent to 0.

Since the GMD program began testing in 1999, 19 flight intercept tests have been conducted, with 11 of them deemed successful by the Missile Defense Agency, representing a roughly 58 percent success rate. More recently, GMD has done no better. Of the six flight intercept tests conducted since the beginning of 2010, only three have been successful (in the latest test, two interceptors were launched, and both killed their intended targets). You read that right. For the eye-popping cost so far of nearly $70 billion, the United States is fielding a missile defense system that fails about half the time.

Even with a heavy thumb on the scale, the Missile Defense Agency has not been able to prove it can reliably shoot down a missile. The agency acknowledges that its tests are scripted for success. This is understandable: Missile defense tests are expensive, and failures undermine the credibility of the system. Nonetheless, the fact that GMD has such poor performance despite being optimized for success only makes its test record more alarming.

This whole mess could, and should, have been anticipated. The George W. Bush administration rushed to deploy GMD, knowing it didn’t work but choosing to fix the system along the way—a process the administration called “spiral development.” In practice it is a spiral disaster, leading to numerous setbacks and sunken costs. The Missile Defense Agency recently announced it will be canceling work on the Redesigned Kill Vehicle, citing technical difficulties that are “effectively insurmountable.” After 20 years of work, the United States doesn’t even have a reliable kill vehicle. This is unacceptable.

Counterproductive consequences. Beyond the technical issues with GMD, Congress has yet to wrestle with the strategic consequences of missile defense.

Following a recent successful “salvo” interception test, Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska (where the bulk of the GMD program is located) boasted, “…this test gives our enemies pause, making them doubt the effectiveness of their offensive capabilities.” Sullivan is correct that these tests make enemies question the effectiveness of their deterrent, but that’s the problem. US adversaries view their offensive capabilities as fundamental to their security, and they will take any and all steps to maintain those capabilities. US attempts to undermine the deterrent forces of other countries create a dangerous cycle in which each side is compelled to find new and increasingly destabilizing ways to maintain the upper hand. Increases in defense only drive US adversaries to find ways to counter those defenses.

For example, both Russia and China are developing hypersonic missiles, specifically hypersonic boost- glide vehicles. Unlike traditional intercontinental ballistic missiles, these new systems fly along an unpredictable path, and the GMD system is not capable of dealing with such a threat. Russia has also unveiled evasive and creative new delivery systems, including a nuclear torpedo and a nuclear cruise missile. These new Russian offensive missiles are in direct response to US insistence on strategic missile defense—and exist solely for the purpose of defeating it.

Adding to the challenges, missile interceptors are far more expensive than offensive missiles. That makes it cost-effective for US adversaries to just build more and more missiles to overwhelm US defenses. In turn, this prompts the United States to respond by making more and more interceptors, virtually ensuring a new arms race. That sort of instability is exactly what the United States should try to avoid. In fact, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was enacted to deal with this exact scenario. Unfortunately, the United States pulled out of the treaty in 2002, due in part to advice from current National Security Advisor John Bolton, who worked as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security at the time.

Inconsistent logic. Advocates for missile defense argue that concerns about stability are unfounded, that GMD is only meant to deter “rogue states” like North Korea or Iran. This argument is inadequate for a few reasons. First, despite the claim that missile defense is not intended to threaten their deterrent, Russia and China are both uneasy about the future. Given its relatively small nuclear arsenal, China views missile defense as a real threat to its retaliatory capability. Russia, on the other hand, has a long history of perceiving missile-defense efforts as the pretense for a first strike. This scenario played out in a frightening way during the war scare of 1983.

The United States has also been inconsistent in its comments regarding exactly who missile defense is intended to deter. In front of an audience at the Department of Defense, President Donald Trump said “the goal is simple. It is to ensure we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States, anytime, anywhere and any place.” Comments like that contradict advocates’ statements about the purpose of missile defense, and, in the long run, only hurt the case for stability and arms control.

Unconcerned about these facts, the Pentagon’s 2019 Missile Defense Review made it clear the White House wants to significantly increase US missile defense spending, pouring more money into a fantasy shield that actually makes the country less safe. It is the job of Congress to perform oversight and ensure that US tax dollars are being put to good use. Lawmakers need to take a harder look at the technical and political problems associated with national missile defense before facilitating an arms race that endangers America.


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A single mirved missile with 10 warheads and 50-100 decoys would thoroughly overwhelm and defeat this and render it as laughably irrelevant.

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