The Enduring Illusion of Missile Defense—30 Years Later

, former co-director | March 22, 2013, 5:00 pm EST
Bookmark and Share

Thirty years ago tomorrow—March 23, 1983—President Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” speech spawned an enthusiasm for missile defense that even today dominates defense discussions in Washington. Much has changed in those 30 years, so where are we?

What’s Happened in 30 years?

Here’s a snapshot. Since 1983, the goal of missile defense changed from protecting the U.S. public from a Soviet nuclear attack, to “enhancing deterrence” by protecting U.S. military sites, and now to stopping a small number of missiles from North Korea or Iran. Guidance and homing technology improved enough to allow development of “hit-to-kill” technology intended to destroy an incoming warhead by ramming into it; previous systems relied on nuclear-tipped interceptors to destroy a warhead at a distance.

In 2002 the Bush administration pulled the U.S. out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that had long limited U.S. and Russian anti-missile systems so they didn’t spur an increase in offensive weapons or—more relevant today—interfere with efforts to cut nuclear arsenals. The administration then began fielding interceptors in Alaska and California; today the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system has 30 interceptors between the two sites. It also built a huge floating Sea-Based X-band (SBX) Radar, which it argued was essential to making the system effective, but which is now semi-mothballed in port because it’s too costly to operate.

In 2009 the Obama administration announced a 10-year plan to expand the Navy’s Aegis ship-based missile defense system to include hundreds of interceptors of increasing capability for use in Europe and elsewhere. Last week it announced that it will add 14 ground-based interceptors to the Alaska site. In addition, Congress has mandated an environmental impact statement as a first step in scoping a third deployment site for interceptors, most likely on the east coast.

So, despite changing directions over the years, missile defense is continuing to expand—with a budget of more than $10 billion per year. And it allows political and military officials to point to something as a response to the North Korea problem.

Does It “Work”?

There have been a number of official statements—most recently by White House spokesman Jay Carney last week and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in December—expressing confidence that U.S. missile defenses could stop a North Korean missile attack.

Such statements are nonsense since there simply is no test data that shed light on how well the defense would work against a real-world missile attack. Moreover, no one knows what North Korea might equip its missiles with to surprise and fool the defense.

To understand this disconnect, consider what it means for the system to “work.”

The goal of a missile defense is to intercept and destroy the warhead of a missile fired in a real-world situation. That requires the system to do two things. First, it must be able to reliably launch an interceptor that can guide itself to collide with a warhead that has been identified and tracked by the system’s sensors. That capability is “hit-to-kill” and is what the intercept tests conducted so far have been attempting to develop. It’s a difficult thing to do, but hitting an identifiable warhead is a well-defined technical problem and eventually this system should be able to do it with some level of reliability. That’s technically quite impressive.

Unfortunately, it’s not enough. The second thing the system must be able to do is identify the warhead in the short time available and tell the interceptor what to shoot at. That is a very different kind of problem since it’s not a well-defined technical issue—the defense is facing a reactive enemy that is designing decoys and other countermeasures in just those ways to make it most difficult for the defense. The U.S. intelligence community, among others, has said a country like North Korea developing a long-range missile would be able to add such countermeasures by the time it fired its first missile.

For example, lightweight decoys can be released with the warhead, which is itself disguised to look like a decoy (this is called “anti-simulation”). Not all the decoys need to look exactly the same; in fact the best approach is to have them all look and behave slightly differently so that nothing identifies an object as a decoy versus a warhead. Enough is known publicly about the defense system and its sensors that the attacker can design its countermeasures with the aim of denying those sensors the information the defense would need to identify the warhead.

As discussed in the recent National Academy of Sciences report on missile defense, the Pentagon still doesn’t know how to solve this problem. That’s why the large difference in technical sophistication between the U.S. and North Korea does not automatically tip the balance in favor of the U.S. in this challenge.

None of the intercept tests conducted so far of the U.S. ground-based or ship-based systems has included realistic countermeasures that you should expect in a real-world attack from North Korea. The tests haven’t even included a warhead that is tumbling—intentionally or not—which is a very hard target for interceptors to hit. Some tests have included objects referred to as “decoys” but in each case the warhead and “decoys” looked different and the interceptor was told in advance which object to attack. Such scripted tests may be appropriate at this relatively early stage of development of the system, but they do not show the system will be effective against a real-world attack.

So, if by “work” someone means successful hit-to-kill against an identifiable warhead, as in the tests, then you can say the systems “work” to some extent. When the Obama administration says Aegis is “proven” or the ground-based system can intercept missiles, that’s the definition it is using.

Of course, even in that case, the ground-based system has been having problems in tests—see below.

But that’s not what “work” should mean, because that is not something that will protect you against an actual attack. After all, if North Korea has the capability of building a long-range missile and a nuclear warhead to put on it and has the motivation to fire it at the U.S., you have to assume it also has the capability and motivation to build countermeasures into that missile to make it effective against the defense it knows the U.S. is building.

People frequently downplay the countermeasures issue, in part because it makes the problem so difficult. But unfortunately it is real. The bottom line is that it makes no sense to add interceptors and/or an east-coast deployment site until the system has been shown to be effective against a real-world threat.

The administration may view its rosy claims about its confidence in missile defense as part of deterring a North Korean launch. But political leaders may also come to believe that they have capabilities they in fact do not, and make bad decisions based on that. They should heed the words of Nobel laureate physicist Richard Feynman, who served on the presidential commission studying the 1986 explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger and wrote:

“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”


Test Record of the Ground-based System

The west-coast Ground-based Missile Defense (GMD) system has failed at least seven of its 15 intercept tests (the “hit” in the 2006 test was a glancing blow that did not destroy the mock warhead). And its record has not improved over time: of the seven intercept tests conducted since the system was fielded in 2004, at least four were failures. 

Posted in: Missiles and Missile Defense Tags: , , ,

Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.

Show Comments

Comment Policy

UCS welcomes comments that foster civil conversation and debate. To help maintain a healthy, respectful discussion, please focus comments on the issues, topics, and facts at hand, and refrain from personal attacks. Posts that are commercial, self-promotional, obscene, rude, or disruptive will be removed.

Please note that comments are open for two weeks following each blog post. UCS respects your privacy and will not display, lend, or sell your email address for any reason.

  • Thank you for an interesting insight that should be taken seriously in the missile defense debate.

    However, I’d like to argue your determination that expressing “confidence that U.S. missile defenses could stop a North Korean missile attack” is nonsense, I also think that your determination that “it makes no sense to add interceptors and/or an east-coast deployment site until the system has been shown to be effective against a real-world threat.” is wrong.

    Missile defense doesn’t rely on one type of interceptor but on a ‘basket’ of tools – sensors and interceptors relying on different technologies and methods, these should (theoretically) engage a threat at different phases – boost, early midcourse, pre or terminal phases. In its current state the North Korean threat consists of just few long-range missiles that potentially can reach US territories in the Pacific and, maybe, Hawaii. The number of missiles is not likely enough to saturate the defense. Therefore, AEGIS ships in the Pacific and GBIs could be engaged to defeat a potential attack.

    The GBI interceptor can place a kill vehicle in space in time and place to meet the threat and the challenge is to get to the right target. Therefore, you can employ multiple GBIs and SM-3s against such targets to overmatch such threat. Presently, its the best you have in hand.

    Over time, seeker and BMS technology will be able to deal with countermeasures better. Countermeasures are most likely to deploy in the mid-course, and would be consumed in the reentry phase, since only the main warhead would be heavy enough to survive reentry. Moreover, countermeasures are likely to look different in each of the flight phases, and this could help warhead discrimination based on continuous data collection through the exo-atmospheric flight. Especially with the enhanced kill vehicles (GBI’s CE-2) that will be fielded in the GBIs in the future and SM-3 Block IB, that will employ a new seeker that has better target discrimination.

    Should the U.S. delay of fielding GBI in the East Coast, until more effective capabilities are proven? You clearly stated that this is an open race, and that new countermeasures will always be used. Having interceptors in place to better defend the Continental USA will provide the foundation for the future defense, not having the interceptors in place, but also laying the infrastructure – radars, silos, C3, etc., – all these activities are time consuming. The spiral upgrading of the interceptors to would therefore enable the deployment of credible defense, not such that will ‘freeze in time’ as the GBI did, lacking the administration’s support. Such upgrades were successfully implemented in Israel through four Arrow II block upgrades.

  • David Wright

    Thanks for your comment.

    The idea of “layering” the defense that you mention, to engage missiles in different phases of flight, has been around for a while as something that potentially complicates building effective countermeasures and makes the defense more effective. But the U.S. is not developing any defenses against long-range missiles except for midcourse defenses, so even if layering helps in theory it doesn’t help in this case. Patriot and other terminal defenses can’t deal with the speed of an incoming ICBM warhead, for example.

    Similarly, the Pentagon talks about combining different sensors—radar, infrared, and possibly optical sensors—to discriminate warheads from decoys, but that’s not enough. A detailed analysis like we did in our Countermeasures study shows that the warhead’s appearance to all of these sensors can be masked, so there is no unique signature that distinguishes a warhead from a decoy, for example.

    You don’t need to take my word for this, since the recent National Academy report states that the Missile Defense Agency still doesn’t know how to deal with countermeasures.

    If the system can’t deal with countermeasures, then “overmatching” the attack with multiple interceptors for each warhead doesn’t help if each missile is carrying dozens of decoys, for example. Unless you can solve the discrimination problem so that you can identify which of the objects your sensors see are the warheads you need to shoot at, then building a new generation of interceptors doesn’t help. If you are blind, buying a new rifle is not going to help you hunt.

    If the U.S. was on the edge of a breakthrough in solving the countermeasures problem, then you might argue that it should get everything in place—new interceptors and a 3rd deployment site—so it would be ready when that breakthrough happened. But given the nature of the countermeasures problem I don’t see that happening, and the National Academy report makes pretty clear that the Pentagon hasn’t even figured out an approach to solving the problem. Until it shows in realistic tests that it can address real-world threats, continuing to add to the current system strikes me as wishful thinking.

  • BS”D

    Human intelligence must be invested in the education efforts, that will bring about permanent international peace. Specifically these education efforts center on the universal code of ethics known as the 7 Noahide laws, which is the basis of stability and perfection for all the 192 UN member states, including North Korea,Iran and Iraq. The 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, who held an engineering degree from the Sorbonne in France and worked during World War 2 under the code name “Operation Yehudi” for the United States Defense Department, came up with the idea then to install bright lights on the US planes flying into Europe, which prevented the German submarines from seeing them and shooting them down. In 1992 he had worked behind the scenes through the Jewish wheat dealer Kunin from the US to get the Russians back to the negotiation table,and so Gorbatschov and Bush met in New York and signed an arms reduction agreement. For many decades he advocated that leaders of countries that came to him adopt this code of universal ethics,as it is the logical unifying spiritual morality, which can actually brings all the nations together around a common shared ground, e.g. the sanctity of all life and the purpose of humanity to “serve the Creator in unison”.

    Humanomics (sm) and “The Integration of Labor” is the other half of the solution as they deliver to the UN the content and the technology to go from being an administration for the unresolved problem of man’s identity- which leads to war in the first place – to being a truly capable peace institution that delivers programs and technologies with which education,healthcare, and economic advancement can be achieved for all people – through consciousness education,the gateway to life,health,prosperity and peace.

    With blessings from Jerusalem

    Hannah Porat

  • The element so often left out of the anti-missile discussion is the power of the bomb. A nuclear weapon is powerful enough to kill up to a million people, depending on concentration of population and intervening structures. The firestorm and resulting cloud of radioactive debris will travel and distribute radiation over a vast area deternined by the winds of the moment. The resulting panicked mass of humanity fleeing the fallout will choke every route of escape, and could cause as much death as the weapon itself. We are talking about one weapon that is not crushed or detonated by anti missile systems doing damage exceeding that of the worst hurricane or superstorm. The whole surrounding area will be paralysed. Normal medical facilities will be overwhelmed. The panic will spread far and wide. Because of its overwhelming power, to be a reliable defense, anti-missile systems must stop 100 percent of incoming missiles! Given our desire to act without restraint, it is easy to imagine that the presence of anti-missile systems could lead to provocative actions endangering the Earth. The only anti-missile system that can guarantee 100 percent effectiveness is the total abolition of nuclear weapons.