Faith-Based Missile Defense

Faith-Based Missile Defense.Defense Tech is reporting on the progress and prospects of missile defense (and their title is too good to pass up).

Early in his administration, President Bush put a whole lot of stock in “faith-based” initiatives to solve domestic problems. Now, the President seems to be taking the same approach to military matters.

Defense Tech quotes Slate’s Fred Kaplan:

In the past six years of flight tests, here is what the Pentagon’s missile-defense agency has demonstrated: A missile can hit another missile in mid-air as long as a) the operators know exactly where the target missile has come from and where it’s going; b) the target missile is flying at a slower-than-normal speed; c) it’s transmitting a special beam that exaggerates its radar signature, thus making it easier to track; d) only one target missile has been launched; and e) the “attack” happens in daylight.

It turns out that DoD has scrapped testing of the program and has started building bases and equipment for it. With so many doubts about whether it works, some are what we get for the billions being spent. “Some might argue that merely having some deterrent… — no matter how half-assed — is better than nothing.” But, “if the Pentagon’s own testing chiefs aren’t convinced, what are the chances that the North Koreans are?”

In a followup story, Defense Tech quotes former Pentagon testing chief Phillip Coyle, who argues that the whole thing is a waste of money:

If North Korea began assembling an intercontinental ballistic missile, huge rockets that must be launched from fixed launch facilities, highly visible to U.S. spy satellites, our military would blow it up on the ground immediately. Our military would not wait to see if they could intercept the missile when it was going thousands of miles per hour in space. We would blow up the whole ICBM launch facility with the same weapons that we have seen work so effectively in Iraq and Afghanistan, satellite and laser guided bombs and missiles. With those weapons, we already have a missile defense.

But what if we didn’t see North Korea preparing an ICBM? Suppose the launch surprised us? Would our missile defenses protect us then? The answer is still No. This is because if we didn’t see it, our missile defenses wouldn’t work either, since they depend on our seeing it first with satellites too.

The last test, in December 2002, failed despite advance warning to the interceptor targeting systems and radar beacon targeting aids on the in coming missile. “What is surprising is not that some of these tests have succeeded. What’s surprising is that some have failed” (emphasis in original).

The Missile Defense Agency says they can’t test the system realistically until it has been deployed. This also is not true. The Missile Defense Agency was testing the system from Kwajalein and Vandenberg when I was in the Pentagon, well before the construction began at Fort Greely. And they could still be doing that without Fort Greely. But as soon as President Bush announced his decision to deploy the system the priority went to construction and deployment. and the bottom fell out of the test schedule.

Indeed, DoD has conducted many of tests, including a number during the Clinton administration. It was the repeated failures of those tests — the demonstrated uselessness of the system — that caused Clinton to cancell the program.

Scientific American took up the question of missile defense in an August 1999 article titled “Why National Missile Defense Won’t Work.” The short answer: advances in technology on both sides will always leave missile defense systems behind the missles they’re trying to intercept, while the reality of MDS will force those with missiles to build and launch more missiles. A 50% effective MDS against ten missiles will still result in a greater catastrophe than a single missile.

Defense Tech quotes this interesting item from a reader:

The most dangerous thing about having this system is that someone on our side might be tempted to behave in a crisis as if it were real. Wth our current national leadership, it’s hard for me to conceive of a scenario other than accidental launch where the US having a virtual but not actual missile defense system does not increase the probability and degree of brinksmanship that political leaders might engage in.

[update]: Defense Tech has latched onto this like a dog to steak. They quote Rumsfeld saying that the only problem with missile defense is pessimism. “The problem with the missile defense system isn’t that it has flunked many of its rigged tests. The problem is that we’re not cheering loud enough.” DT also points to this link from the Center for Defense Information listing the details and results of the ten tests so far.