National Missile Defense: The Secrets the Pentagon Doesn't Want You to Know

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 all.

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 all.

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 straight face.

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 changed.

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. Strike One.

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 environment.

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 constructive engagement.

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 areas.

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.

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