Bullet to Bullet: The Myth of Missile Defense

by on October 9th, 2004

These days, it’s easy to take journalistic potshots at security. The whole notion of it has been so overblown since 9/11 that it is laughably easy to find holes in America’s homeland security. Newspapers from Hawaii to Maine have run articles talking about how people slipped through the newly federalized bag checkers at their local airports, armed with everything from Mace to stun guns to firearms. Michael Moore and his Trooper Bob demonstrated only one small part of our porous coastal defense; in terms of money, training and sheer magnitude, the paranoiac level of attention required to seal the borders of America would take decades to realize. Really—if the combined forces of the American military, the FBI, ATF, DEA, Coast Guard and local police forces haven’t been enough to slow the flow of illicit drugs into the country, how well will they really fare against the much more protean and slippery enemy of ‘terrorism’?

It’s not that anyone is opposed to security, per se: it’s just so easy to see where the weak spots are and how to exploit them. When lax protection measures inspires slacker college kids to slip aboard flights or write programs simply to make the point of how to improve security, you know you’ve got problems. But for all the thousands of examples that could be laid out to display the shortcomings of conventional security, there are larger issues that, because of their immense complexity, are allowed to escape the public’s eye. Like the bag-checking drones at your local airstrip, these new places are there for your supposed security; but like them, they are just as ineffective.

Don Rumsfeld’s creation of the Missile Defense Agency took little more than a memo transforming a new agency out of prior existing Pentagon working groups. But the activity of the MDA over the past four years has been frenetic, as the Bush administration has pushed past science, past reason and past budget in its goal of dropping a layered missile defense system into place. Based on a delicate system of balances between afloat and land-based assets, the concept of missile defense is to stop ballistic missiles as they track in towards the American continent, by way of our own missiles which (in theory) would destroy enemy projectiles either in midcourse or their final descent. In case you’ve been sleeping for the past twenty years, this is Ronald Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ come to life, albeit from earthbound intercept stations, rather than engaging in outer-space shenanigans.

In theory, it’s a great program (or at least as great as these things go; I’m not sure anyone would think that an ICBM headed towards Toledo is a positive). But in reality, neither sufficient time nor attention has been allowed to complete the science required to perfect the technology. At its very best, the MDA can only allow for a 88% success rate, and as the Arms Control Association points out, that’s after some very dodgy math, not to mention certain selective omissions when testifying before Congress. A more likely representation of success, depending on when the missile is intercepted and in what manner, remains between 60-71%. By any reasonable standard, that is not a passing grade. If your kid came home with grades like that, you’d sit him down at the kitchen table and make him study some more; we certainly shouldn’t be using a Bell curve when it comes to national defense.

Like most things in the military, missile defense has moved away from its primary objective and edged into the realm of the political. When missiles actually leave their canisters but miss their targets, it’s still considered a success because that’s what the wobbly-heads at the Pentagon want to say. When journalists raise the concern that not enough in-flight tests have been produced (and that when they are, they are unrealistic to the extreme), the MDA says that computer simulations are better testing tools than the actual bullet-to-bullet test, which for some mysterious reason never seem to live up to model scenarios.

The true frustration behind the administration’s vehement defense of a national ballistic missile shield is their placement of interceptors in Alaska and California. There is no rogue nation among Bush’s axis of evil with the capacity to launch missiles within capable of hitting even the Aleutian Islands, let alone Los Angeles (North Korea has its No Dong, and Iran has its Shahab-3, but both of these are regional threats at best). The placement of these sites is purely symbolic. The only country that could be countered by these interceptors would be China, and no one on either side of the Sino-American fence thinks of the PRC as an immediate missile threats; and even if it were, the MDA itself allows that their missile shield is ‘limited’-a military term that equates to ‘diddly-squat’ in plain English. The shield simply isn’t built to counteract a large-scale ICBM attack, which would be the most likely case in the China ‘nightmare scenario’.

Much like their counterparts at the TSTA, those military chiefs declaring missile defense to be an integral part of homeland security are either deluded or willfully deceitful. A strategic measure such as the NMD shield will no more stop a nuke smuggled in through the hull of a cargo ship than bag checkers will stop a suicide bomber from wrapping himself in explosives and walking into your local mall. At a time when the money spent at the MDA could be better spent on body armor for combat troops (or, God forbid, harbor security) the rush to placement of these facilities is a fraudulent squandering of military resources. Attention to this issue should be forced out into the public so that the members of Congress can bring force to bear against yet another wasteful and politically motivated weapons system.

Eric A. Webb