Is Missile Defense Obsolete?

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, President Ronald Reagan challenged the Pentagon to render "nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete" by building a system to "intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil." Thus, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) – or Star Wars, as it was called by its critics – was born.

Originally conceived as a shield against Soviet ballistic missiles, the missile defense program has gone through several changes. When the Soviet Union withered away, SDI became GPALS (Global Protection Against Limited Strikes) in the waning days of the Bush 41 administration. Instead of a shield, the goal of GPALS was to be able to intercept a ballistic missile launched from anywhere in the world and aimed anywhere in the world [.pdf]. During the Clinton administration, GPALS gave way to NMD, or national missile defense, with a goal of building a missile defense system within the constraints of and consistent with the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, and the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) became the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO). Under George W. Bush, the BMDO became the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), which was a promotion, since in the Department of Defense an agency is higher on the food chain than an organization. In a case of going back to the future, the mission of the MDA is "to develop and field an integrated, layered, ballistic missile defense [BMD] system to defend the United States, its deployed forces, allies, and friends against all ranges of enemy ballistic missiles in all phases of flight."

Throughout the various incarnations of the Pentagon’s missile defense program, its supporters continued to argue that missile defense was necessary to protect America from the grave threat of ballistic missiles – often using doom-and-gloom scare tactics. For example, according to (a project of the Claremont Institute): "The greatest strategic threat to the United States is an attack by one or more ballistic missiles armed with nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction. Today, the United States remains completely vulnerable to this form of attack." To be fair, the truth is that we are defenseless against ballistic missiles. If a nuclear ballistic missile were launched against the United States, we would have no choice but to wait for it to detonate. But that truth needs to be put in context. First, only two other countries currently possess ballistic missiles with sufficient range and armed with nuclear warheads to reach the United States: Russia and China. But Russia is not the foe that the former Soviet Union was. Although the U.S. and Russia still target each other (probably in large part because de-programming the targeting codes is not a simple matter, plus the respective military establishments would have to explain why they need nuclear weapons that aren’t aimed at each other), the U.S.-Russian relationship is not strictly adversarial, nor are the two countries engaged in direct military competition.

According to the most recent Pentagon report, "Military Power of the People’s Republic of China" [.pdf], China currently has only about 40 nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that could reach the United States. Even with expected strategic nuclear force modernization, China would still lag far behind Russia. Moreover, it is still to be seen if China aspires to become a strategic hegemon and military competitor with the United States. Doing so would require closing a huge gap, with the United States having a tremendous head start. And the vast U.S. nuclear arsenal (still thousands of warheads) acts as a strong deterrent against any ballistic missile attack, since such an attack would provide a return address for sure and swift retaliation.

Despite all this, the Heritage Foundation has the chutzpah to portray an end-of-civilization scenario in its 33 Minutes: Protecting America in the Missile Age documentary, which, in a less than subtle ploy playing on Americans’ 9/11 fears, uses a soundtrack with Middle Eastern overtones. Heritage’s James Carafano, standing at ground zero in New York City, intones, "Imagine if instead of planes this had been a nuclear weapon on a ballistic missile" – even though terrorists would not likely use ballistic missiles, given their size, cost, technical complexity, and the aforementioned return-address phenomenon. And you have to love former undersecretary of state Robert Joseph proclaiming that "hope is not a good foundation for a national security strategy." I guess Heritage believes fearmongering is.

So missile defense acolytes must have been taken by surprise last week by Marine Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. According to Cartwright, formerly the head of U.S. Strategic Command (the operational military command with responsibility for missile defense), "Ballistic missiles are about as passé as e-mail." Cartwright essentially said what many critics of missile defense have been saying all along: "No stupid person, enemy out there would be so silly as to come at us anymore with a minimum-energy trajectory. Come on. Give me a break. There’s just no reason to. I mean, even the people that we would call Third World have gone beyond that."

In other words – according to second highest-ranking person in the military, not some peacenik critic – ballistic missile defense is all but obsolete. So much for:

You would think this would give the Pentagon reason to pause and maybe think about canceling – or at least scaling back – the program. But as with practically every other major weapons system, you would be wrong. Not surprisingly, Gen. Cartwright believes that the technologies being developed for ballistic missile defense could be used against new threats, such as maneuverable warheads and trans-atmospheric vehicles. But why should we believe that ballistic missile defense technologies will work against these threats when BMD has yet to prove itself to be operationally capable and militarily effective against ballistic missiles? According to February 2009 testimony to the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee by Dr. Charles E. McQueary, the Pentagon’s director of operational test and evaluation, "There’s simply not been enough testing done in order to be able to state" a high level of confidence in the missile defense system. And McQueary essentially admitted that the Pentagon doesn’t know whether missile defense would work if tested under actual live fire: "If the North Koreans launched an attack against us this afternoon, we wouldn’t say we need more test data before we decided whether we were going to launch against and try to intercept that. We’d see how the system works and we’d find out."

Yet even as Cartwright argued that the missile defense program should be reconfigured to deal with new and emerging threats (despite not yet being capable against current threats), he provided a damning reason for pulling the plug before another hundred million dollars is frittered away: "The reality is that our ability to stay up with the pace of change, to outguess the enemy, to be able to be in the right place at the right time, has never been a forte of the military. We almost always guess wrong."

Just put a fork in it. It’s done.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.