Debunking Claims Against Missile Defense

The Fiscal Times recently published a hit piece attacking defense contractors who build ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems and the Members of Congress who support them. The three most egregious claims of the piece are as follows:

1. The system doesn’t work.
2. There is no threat.
3. Members of Congress who support these programs are merely trying to get more defense dollars to their constituents.

Let’s address each of these claims.

1. The system doesn’t work.

This is one of the most persistent claims made by opponents of missile defense. The article says: “Despite partial deployment of land-based anti-missile missiles in California and Alaska and at sea on Aegis class cruisers and destroyers, the majority of experiments involving shooting down single missiles have ended in failure.” If the author wants to lump together a wide variety of complex systems, then it’s fair game to point out that 53 of 67 hit-to-kill intercept attempts have been successful across all programs since the integrated system began development in 2001.

But the U.S. BMD system is comprised of a variety of systems, and each one should be taken and judged independently. Some intercept short-range missiles, some longer ones; and, they are deployed from different places—sea, land, and space. Every major defense program the U.S. has deployed has gone through technical challenges.

A few examples of systems that work:

  • The THAAD system is meant to defend against short-range missiles. It started off having technical problems but now is the poster child of a system that works. Since the current test program began in 2006, THAAD has a 100 percent flight test record with nine of nine successful intercept attempts.
  • The Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system is one of the most complex. It is currently the only program defending the U.S. homeland from long-range Iranian and North Korean missiles. Since 1999, the GMD system has a test record of eight of 15 intercept attempts (three of five successful intercepts using operationally configured interceptors). Yet, like every other complex weapons system, what many deem test “failures” often demonstrate a particular area in the system that needs to be fixed, while the rest of it is working well. Testing allows engineers and contractors to identify strengths and weaknesses and improve the system.
  • The last example of a system that works is the Aegis weapon system. Aegis is designed to defend against medium-range ballistic missiles. With the earlier variants of its SM-3 missile, it has a very impressive test record. Since the first intercept in January 2002, Aegis has demonstrated 22 out of 27 successful intercepts at sea events, including intercepts of two targets by two interceptors during a single test. The more advanced SM-3 missiles are having some technical challenges, but as we improve these programs, any reasonable person would expect the system would not be perfect immediately.

2. There is no threat.

The article asserts that Iran isn’t trying to develop a missile capable of hitting the United States. This is factually inaccurate. Iran has successfully orbited satellites three times, proving it is moving closer to achieving an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability. It would make no sense at all if a regime that desires to threaten, blackmail, and influence the U.S. would not try to attain a nuclear ICBM capability. Although North Korea has had trouble proving an ICBM capability, its recent tests showed the world it will continue to invest in this capability, despite being the most heavily sanctioned country on the planet. All a country needs to pose a direct threat to the U.S. is a marrying of its will to do harm and its ability to make this a reality. Both rogue nations have the will, and it’s only a matter of time before they have the ability. It takes time to develop and deploy defenses, so it would be extreme negligence on the part of the U.S. government to wait until the threat is already upon us before it begins defending the American people.

3. Members of Congress who support these programs are merely trying to get more defense dollars to their constituents.

The article points out that House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R–CA) has received quite a bit of money from defense contractors, more than implying this is why the Congressman supports missile defense. Yet McKeon’s mark-up had multiple provisions that increased government oversight of struggling programs, canceled a missile defense program he deemed worthy of cancellation (i.e., the Medium Air Defense System), and even included provisions that would increase the responsibility of allied countries to help pay for these programs, putting defense dollars at risk.

The author also calls out Representative Trent Franks (R–AZ) for supporting missile defense because, according to the article, there is a manufacturing plant in Arizona. Franks has a history of advocating robust and comprehensive missile defense, regardless of where the programs are specifically manufactured, and some of his most enthusiastic support is for programs that have zero economic benefit to his state (such as space-based defenses). The article then points out that the ranking Member, Adam Smith (D–WA), also receives money from defense contractors for his re-election; yet, the Congressman opposed defense increases supported by Republicans.

The article is not accurate, nor is it a fair representation of those who support a program that is very good and getting better with time. Missile defense is a necessary component of American national security at a time in history when more countries have nuclear weapons or are trying their hardest to attain them. BMD has the potential of deterring enemies from pursuing missile technology, since they know we’ll have the ability to knock them out of the sky. It is the only system the U.S. has to protect cities once an enemy has chosen to fire missiles toward unsuspecting Americans. This is a mission worth pursuing.

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Source material can be found at this site.

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One Comment

  1. The Fiscal Times piece made valid points and don’t see it as any kind of attack, just stating realities about GMD, campaign funding and lobbying.

    The reason for the most persistent claim of missile defense opponents – that it doesn’t work – could be because that is the reality, particularly with GMD. The Fiscal Times article did say “Missiles That Work….Sometimes.” That seems to be the case and I don’t see it changing in the foreseeable future.

    The uncomfortable reality is that the effectiveness of GMD is highly questionable. It has not achieved a successful intercept since 2008. Of the 16 highly scripted integrated flight tests conducted since 1999, eight failed, even in instances where a C-Band radar transponder was placed on the target to show the interceptor exactly where it was. Both 2010 in-flight tests failed and the first flight test of the new “standardized” interceptor failed last year. That’s not very reassuring. To say that a $100 million IFT failure demonstrates what needs fixing is an understatement – failed is failed – making me wonder what all needs fixing given those recent failures. Just when is Boeing et al, going to get it right?

    You can mix the GMD numbers with THAAD, Patriot, Aegis, and other system’s rates of success – mixing apples and oranges to come up with a success rate of barely 72 percent – but the fact remains GMD has a less than 50 percent success rate. Yet the system is currently in the ground in Alaska, in spite of costly silo problems, and California with ongoing efforts by Heritage and two U.S. representatives to install more of it on the East Coast, the “Snooki Defense” the Times article noted, to defend against non-existent and improbable missiles. This on the tail of the Missile Defense Agency saying they didn’t want or need them and the 2010 DOD Ballistic Missile Review saying East Coast basing is not needed. Something’s not right when two Congressmen add requirements to the DOD budget in spite of reality and reason simply for political purposes.

    Even more uncomfortable is the fact that GMD is not being tested in a realistic environment. GAO and other agencies or organizations such as Union of Concerned Scientists or Center for Defense Information have repeatedly pointed out that GMD is not being tested under realistic conditions, and it is not. The Director of Operational Test and Evaluation even said so in a 2008 report, saying that GMD does not “support a high level of confidence in its limited defense capability.” Scripted tests aside, I’m not so sure if whoever it is in people’s imagination were to really launch an ICBM, that they will use the same flight profile and decoys used in U.S. tests.

    It is about discrimination, the ability or inability to discriminate between the real reentry vehicle and those cheap decoys and countermeasures that will accompany each other. So far, GMD has a dismal track record of doing so. GAO highlighted discrimination in its April 2012 report on concurrency which itself wastes money by deploying an unproven, unreliable system. In a 2011 report, the Defense Science Board questioned the ability of GMD to accurately discriminate, noting that it is far cheaper and effective to employ decoys and countermeasures that have proven effective since missile defense was first attempted in the 1950s with Nike-Hercules.

    No missile defense ever attempted – from Nike-Hercules in the 1950s, to Defender and Sentinel in the 1960s, to Safeguard in the 1970s, to Star Wars (SDI) in the 1980s, to GMD now – has ever been effective since each system could be defeated by simple, cheap decoys and countermeasures, was inherently self-defeating or technically unfeasible. When are we going to stop trying? Technology cannot overcome all, no matter how much we want it to or spend on it. When GMD was conceptualized in the 1990s, groups like UCS and CDI stated in detailed, factual reports what we still know today; reliable, effective missile defense is not realistically or cost-effectively achievable and only has a destabilizing effect, continuing an arms race, encouraging proliferation and actually making us less secure.

    As for point 2. The Rumsfeld Commission said in 1989 that rogue nations would have ICBMs in 2003, the Bush Administration said 2010, now I hear two Congressmen say 2015. We can say all we want that some nation in disfavor at the time might be, could be, we think might be (Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns”) developing ICBMs to use in delivering the few weaponized warheads they might have or obtain to the U.S., but then I’d ask why they would want to do that realizing the nuclear or conventional response they would receive. It is not rational. A nuclear weapon in the hands of a nation-state is a only weapon of deterrence, a political instrument of terror. In the hands of a terrorist, it becomes something all too different and certainly will not be delivered by ICBM or IRBM, but by U-Haul or shipping container. The far greater threat we face is a terrorist with a nuclear device no matter how crude. I don’t think GMD, THAAD, Aegis, or Patriot combined as an integrated system is effective against that. Let’s concentrate on the more realistic nuclear threat we face. There’s still money to be made doing that.

    Point 3 is a reality, on both sides of the aisle, what can I say. Everyone is beholding to someone and just follow the money to see who it is. It doesn’t mean always mean constituent jobs either, but it is big money as shown by the Fiscal Times piece. There’s truth to the Gordon Abrams statement in the article about missile defense programs being an ideological litmus test for the GOP regardless of reality and rational thought. Campaign money aside, what was more disturbing in the article was the amounts spent on lobbying. That’s as telling as anything.

    After 60 years of trying and well over $250 billion spent – nearly $100 billion on GMD since 2002 alone – we as rational people need to realize that effective, reliable missile defense is nothing more than a pipe dream and stop throwing good money after bad. We can’t afford not to, for more than one reason. Let’s reduce the deficit instead, maybe spend more on preventing nuclear terrorism by securing and eliminating weapons and fissile material as is being done under the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, or spend the money on working to reduce the nuclear threat we seem to want a defensive missile system for in the first place. Reducing our own nuclear arsenal to rational levels would certainly save billions more and show our resolve and determination for the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but I see where some people don’t want that either.

    GMD is not a mission worth pursuing, it does not have any potential and is a waste of money, a money pit.

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