There is a dirty little secret about national missile
defense the Pentagon doesn't want you to know. It is
this: missile defense is fundamentally flawed--not
just in technology but in rationale and in concept.
It should not be built. It should never have even
been started. And like the war in Iraq, if deployed,
missile defense will leave the U.S. more vulnerable
and less secure than if it had never been built at
Let's do a little thought experiment. How would we
know if a weapon system such as missile defense was a
good idea or not? Well, like any complex system
looking for a justification, missile defense must pass
four simple tests: Is it necessary? Can it work?
Are there better alternatives? And, does it do more
good than harm? These are very simple, very sensible considerations. The problem with missile defense is that it fails not just one, but all four of these tests. And badly. Consider:
First: Is it necessary? Missile defense's purported
rationale is to defend against so-called "rogue
states" launching a nuclear attack on the U.S. This
has been almost laughable from the beginning. It is
hard to imagine people can even talk about it with a
The purportedly suspect countries (North Korea, Libya,
Iran, and Iraq) do not possess ballistic missiles.
The 2005 target readiness date was based on a worst
case scenario developed in 1997 of North Korea
possibly being able to launch such a missile within
eight years. But North Korea had suspended its
missile development program almost two years before
that scenario was even created. And until President
Bush promised to invade it, North Korea was steadily
working toward rapprochement with South Korea.
Somehow, however, the magical 2005 date was never
And what of the other so-called "rogue states"? Iraq
is in rubble, militarily occupied, and posing no
threat to anybody but the hapless US soldier on the
ground. Iran does not possess either nuclear weapons
or ballistic missile delivery systems. Libya never
showed the capacity to develop anything even as
technically sophisticated as a watch much less an ICBM
capable of accurately delivering a nuclear warhead
thousands of miles away on the first try. And it has
recently come over to the side of goodness and light.
Second: Can it work? The tests to date have been
more comical than credible. Most of them ended in
failure. The one that didn't was so phony it prompted
charges of fraud by contractor employees who said they
were pressured to fake their data. And on the most
recent test, the target contained a homing beacon
advertising its trajectory so that only a blind mule
couldn't find it.
The problems with workability are four-fold. First is
the very real difficulty of "hitting a bullet with a
bullet". Actually, this metaphor understates the
problem as incoming ballistic missiles travel at 10
times the speed of a bullet.
The second problem with workability is testing. A
truly operational missile defense system would be the
biggest machine ever conceived-hundreds of millions of
lines of computer code, tens of millions of parts,
strewn across millions of miles of earth and space.
And it has to work perfectly. The first time.
Without ever having been tested in its real-world
Think about that. Would you operate your company's
accounting department with such a system? Would you
agree to blindly pay whatever phone bill was sent to
you by such a system? Would you trust your personal
checking account to a system that had never been
realistically tested? And yet missile defense
proponents want you to bet yours and the nation's
security on such a system. It is beyond arrogance.
It is lunacy.
The third problem with workability is that it is
impossible to distinguish "dummy" warheads from the
real thing. But it is much cheaper and easier to
proliferate dummies than it is to hit all of them.
This asymmetry of offense and defense makes it
impossible for the defense to win. And needless to
say, it only takes one real one to slip through and
the system has catastrophically failed.
The last and most damning problem with workability is
that a bomb placed in the cargo hold of a ship or the
bed of a truck bypasses the entire system. This, of
course, is how a real aggressor would deliver a
warhead (if he had one). Think 9/11. It is vastly
easier, quicker, less costly, more certain of success,
and more discreet than an ICBM with a return address
emblazoned in its exhaust plume. Missile defense is
completely useless against such a simple recourse. No engineering workarounds, no amount of expanded funding, and no amount of Buck Rogers "spin" can fix it. Strike Two.
Third: Are there better alternatives? The most
conservative estimates of the system's cost place it
in the low hundreds of billions of dollars. (Some $90
billion have already been spent and we've hardly even
started.) Critics put the final cost at closer to a
trillion dollars. Given the Pentagon's history of
cost overruns (remember $700 hammers?), there's good
reason to believe the latter estimates will prove
closer to the mark.
A trillion dollars could pay off a significant portion
of our $7 trillion (and growing) national debt. With
regard to "rogue states" we could: offer incentives
to stop any missile development programs; permanently
position warships off of their coasts to shoot down
any missile launched from their soil; give them
economic development assistance; give them access to
U.S. markets; dramatically step up inspections at U.S.
ports; or any of a number of other types of
All of these combined would not begin to approach the
cost of a missile defense system. Any one of them
would likely be more effective. In particular, a
simple commitment to North Korea to not invade it
would, according to North Korea itself, invite the suspension-and verification-of its nuclear weapons programs. It seems a simple, astoundingly cost effective proposition. Yet it is routinely rebuffed by the U.S. Strike Three.
And finally, fourth: Does such a system do more good
than harm? This is perhaps the most damning
indictment of missile defense. Missile defense
destroys the entire framework of international arms
control and non-proliferation that was built up over
the past fifty years. And it is the U.S. that is the aggressor, the destroyer.
Both China and Russia have said they would respond to
such a system by dramatically increasing their
offensive capabilities so as to be able to overwhelm
any system the U.S. deployed. It would spark a new
global arms race, especially in south Asia, increasing
tensions in one of the world's already most unstable
Our European allies are opposed to missile defense
precisely because of this certainty-that it makes the
world not more but less secure. The president of
France, publicly mocking the idea on Bush's first
visit to Europe, said accurately, "It is a fantastic
invitation to proliferation." North Korea's response
to the invasion of Iraq is instructive: it now views
nuclear weapons as its only insurance against a
similar such invasion. And this is entirely logical.
This same logic applies equally well to missile
defense. If the U.S. is going to build it and others
perceive that it threatens their security, they will
not sit idly by. They will proliferate their nuclear
warheads and their delivery systems so as to overwhelm
or underfly any US attempt at effective defense. And
more nuclear weapons in the hands of more states would
leave the U.S. and the rest of the world less stable
and more insecure than if such a system were never
built in the first place. Strike Four.
Note that to be justified, a weapon system must pass
not just one but all four of these tests. For
example, even if it could work, such a system must
first be necessary. And even if it was necessary and
worked, it must still produce more good than bad. And
so on. The overwhelming indictment of missile defense
is not that it does not pass all four of these tests.
It's that it doesn't pass any! A more dangerous,
ill-conceived system could scarcely be imagined.
So, why, then, if there exist all these problems, the desperate, headlong rush to deploy? First, missile "defense" has never really been about defense at all.
Its proponents know the above flaws much better than
the public does. Missile "defense" is now and always
has been about missile offense. It is about control
of space as the next battle frontier. And it is about projecting instantaneous, indefensible US destructive capacity over the heads of every country on earth.
From its very inception-in the days of the Reagan administration when it was routinely derided as Star Wars-the heart of missile "defense" has been the nuclear pumped X-ray laser. This system generates an intense laser beam by detonating and channeling the force of a nuclear weapon from space. According to Roy Woodruff, the physicist who headed the X-ray laser program at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, "If the lasers can be made powerful enough to destroy enemy missiles, they also would be able to destroy targets on Earth surgically and instantaneously."
To reinforce this point, consider the following from
Space and Security News: "Studies done for the
Department of Defense have concluded that before a
system of laser battle stations gets good enough to be
really useful against ballistic missiles, they would
be powerful enough to incinerate cities in minutes."
Consonant with Bush's radical doctrine of pre-emptive
war, national missile "defense" offers the U.S. the
exquisite pre-emptive capability: to be able to take
out any weapons system from any adversary before it
could ever be used. It represents the ultimate
decapitation of any enemy's conventional war fighting capability.
But remember the caution above. The simplest
workaround to missile "defense" is to simply bypass
the system, to deliver nuclear weapons through
conventional means-boats, trucks, airplanes, etc.
Think of the French Maginot Line in World War II.
German Panzer divisions simply drove around this
supposedly impregnable line of fortresses, leaving to
the English language the standard epithet for an
expensive, ineffective illusion of defense.
Far from making the world safer from nuclear threats,
then, national missile offense actually increases such
risks. For alternatives are cheap, more discreet than missiles, and much more certain of success. And by both provoking such recourse while starving the nation of the means to defend against it, missile "defense" leaves the US far less secure than if the system had never been built in the first place.
The second real rationale for missile "defense" is
that it has always been a welfare program for large
military contractors whose gravy train dried up with
the end of the Cold War. Like it or not, we have a
class of politically well-connected dependents in this
country who live at the trough of military
spending-they can't do anything else. They are big.
They are powerful. And they spend millions of dollars
buying politicians the way most people buy groceries.
From their point of view, missile "defense" is the
perfect weapon system: it is unnecessary; it doesn't
have to work as defense; it generates hundreds of
billions of dollars in direct revenue; and the cherry
on top of the sundae is that since it invites
retaliation by China and Russia, it delivers a new,
built-in global arms race, a vast new opportunity to
arm all sides of all new global conflicts for the next
half century. It is the Mother of All Self Licking
Ice Cream Cones.
Either of these rationales-missile "defense" as
missile offense, or missile "defense" as corporate welfare-provide a more credible explanation of known motives and technical realities than do the childish fantasies of "defense" offered by the military.
It is a particular perversity of our political process
that this dangerous, Rube Goldberg scheme has become
the litmus test of "strength" in military affairs.
And the mainstream media is not simply culpable but
craven in the perpetration of the fraud. It has not
only shown itself timorous in taking on the powerful
weapons industry. It has, as with the invasion of
Iraq, happily put itself at the industry's disposal to
act as its Hallelujah Chorus in the selling of the
program to an ignorant, credulous public.
But the failed Iraq invasion notwithstanding, the U.S.
is still stronger today than it has ever been. We won
the Cold War, remember? There are no credible
challengers to U.S. military might anywhere in the
world. If ever there was a time to offer the world a
true "Pax Americana" this is it.
This is the first opportunity in fifty years to be not
just strong but wise, to seize the peace we fought
half a century to win and turn it into a prosperity
that buoys all the world. We have a rare opportunity
to make former enemies reluctant to wage war against
their greatest benefactor, to make them, instead,
co-creators in a more peaceful, more prosperous world
for all of humanity.
We seized a similar such opportunity at the end of
World War II. The Marshall Plan not only rebuilt
Europe from the ashes of the greatest devastation
ever, it not only proved an effective bulwark for
shattered democratic states against the predation of
Soviet aggression, it also jump-started the greatest
engine of wealth creation the world has ever seen.
But missile "defense" renders such possibilities
stillborn. While it is an unequaled, unending bonanza
for the U.S. weapons industry, missile "defense" would
be the death knell of the just and peaceful and
prosperous future the world's people now deserve.
Robert Freeman writes about technology and economics. He can be reached at