Missile Defense Folly

March 9, 2016
Laura Grego
Former Senior Scientist

North Korea continues to make slow progress in its weapons of mass destruction programs, and there are no easy answers. But after a North Korean nuclear or missile test, you can bet that missile defenses will be promoted as a fix.

The idea that missile defenses could render the U.S. immune to a missile strike is undeniably attractive, but it is wishful thinking, or maybe inattentive thinking. For even after a decade of development with large budgets, homeland missile defenses have no demonstrated capability to defend against a North Korean long-range missile. Reliably, a few weeks ago, just after North Korea’s successful satellite launch, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial, “The Rogue-State ICBM: The intercontinental nuclear missile threat arrives in America,” that pointed to this launch and to ballistic missile activity in Iran as “vindicat[ing] the long campaign for missile defense.” The Journal blamed arms control for getting in the way:

Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative helped win the Cold War, and North Korea is precisely the threat that continued to justify the cause after the Soviet Union’s collapse. The Union of Concerned Scientists, Joe Biden, John Kerry and other arms-control theologians fought it at every turn, while the Clinton Administration dragged its feet. “I don’t support a missile defense system,” Barack Obama said in 2001 as a young lawyer, repeating dogma that would have kept the U.S. defenseless.

But the GMD system’s failure to thrive isn’t due to arms-control theologians. The failure has its origins in the approach the George W. Bush administration took to hustle a system into the field, and to exempt it from normal oversight and accountability. This approach has been largely retained by the Obama administration, and Congress hasn’t really challenged it. That approach has been a particular problem since strategic missile defense is really a very difficult physics and engineering problem.

Since UCS was called out specifically, we responded to the editorial with a Letter to the Editor, which was not published (not really a surprise). But here it is:

The February 11 editorial, “The Rogue-State ICBM,” misses the mark.

While ballistic missile defense is an enormously challenging endeavor, the George W. Bush administration’s approach, largely still in place, made it less likely to succeed. To build missile defenses under an unrealistic timeline, it cut oversight and exempted these programs from the time-tested “fly before you buy” development process.

A decade of this approach has led to an expensive system with little capability. The $40 billion Ground-based Midcourse (GMD) missile defense system, intended to protect the homeland from future North Korean missiles, is fraught with quality control problems and a poor test record. The GMD system has destroyed its target in fewer than half of its 17 intercept tests and the record is not improving over time.

Yet nearly every interceptor was fielded before its design had been successfully demonstrated even once, and we keep buying more interceptors as if the system has passed inspection with flying colors. Who’s minding the store?

The Congressional add-on of a third, “East Coast,” site is emblematic of this dearth of oversight. It meets no validated military requirement, and the Director of the Missile Defense Agency has stated that he has higher priorities for the next dollar. Yet missile defense advocates attempt to fund such a site each year.

Instead of rigor and accountability, the system has been built with haste and waste. The folly is not arms control, rather it is attempting to deal with the problem of North Korean ballistic missiles by spending large amounts of money without discipline.

Laura Grego, PhD.

Union of Concerned Scientists

Cambridge, MA