War Stories

Bombs Away

Bush’s indefensible missile-defense plan.

And so it begins—or, rather, begins all over again. President Bush announced today that he has ordered Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to start the process of actually deploying the long-awaited “missile defense” system. By the fall of 2004, Bush wants 10 anti-missile interceptors (i.e., missiles designed to shoot down incoming missiles) fielded at the new test site in Ft. Greeley, Alaska, with another 10 by 2005 or ‘06 and many more beyond then. Defensive missiles will also be put on the Navy’s Aegis cruisers, while missile-detecting radars will start going up on the ground, at sea, and in outer space.

What the president did not say is a) that we’ve been through this before, many times, with equal exuberance, enormous investments, and no returns; b) that as recently as 18 months ago, the program’s top general said it was still at an early stage and warned against rushing things; and c) that, no matter how good defenses might get, any “rogue” with enough sophistication to build and launch a ballistic missile can easily maneuver around those defenses. On this last point, it is worth noting that U.S. weapons scientists and intelligence analysts have known about these maneuvering tricks for more than 40 years; that no one has the slightest idea how to deal with them; and that Bush’s current test program does not even attempt to do so.

One common fallacy, propagated by some officials who know better (as well as many who don’t), is that the case against missile defenses has been purely doctrinal in nature—a reluctance, on the part of arms-control theorists, to give up the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction. During the Cold War, holding each other’s population hostage—the essence of MAD—was seen as the way to deter either the United States or the U.S.S.R. from launching a nuclear first-strike. Mounting a defense against nuclear strikes, some argued, might erode deterrence. The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972, which sharply limited (and, in later revisions, banned) missile defenses, is viewed in this light as the apotheosis of MAD. Bush perpetuated this notion in today’s speech: “The United States,” he said, “has moved beyond the doctrine of Cold War deterrence reflected in the 1972 ABM Treaty.”

In fact, though, MAD was never actual U.S. policy or the motive behind the treaty. The U.S. nuclear war plan has always emphasized destroying Soviet military targets and, from 1961 on, featured options that explicitly avoided hitting cities. The United States (and the U.S.S.R.) gave up on nuclear defenses—not just ABMs, but also nationwide fallout shelters—not out of obeisance to deterrence theory, but because the calculations were clear that offense would always beat defense. And because the technology seemed out of reach, the effort seemed fruitless, in any case. That’s why Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev—neither arms-control softies—signed the ABM Treaty.

The treaty reflected an acceptance of analysis conducted over the previous 15 years, not by doves but by Pentagon engineers and White House physicists, many of them hawks who despaired over their findings. The process began in 1958, under President Dwight Eisenhower, when a Pentagon technical panel concluded that the Army’s Nike Zeus, the first ABM system, could easily be defeated by multiple warheads, decoys, or clouds of metallic chaff that could confuse the system’s radars.

In 1961, Kennedy’s defense secretary, Robert McNamara, ordered his own study, with similar results. The prospect of a “really effective” missile-defense system, the 55-page report concluded, “is bleak, has always been so, and there are no great grounds for hope that the situation will markedly improve in the future, no matter how hard we try.” The main reason: “No one has yet suggested any solution to the problem of overcoming very simple, lightweight, non-discriminable decoys.”

When Nixon tried in 1970, with the Safeguard ABM system, his science advisers told him in top secret memos—recently declassified by the National Security Archive, a private research group at George Washington University—that Safeguard “will be obsolete within three to four years after it is first deployed”; even China’s limited nuclear arsenal could saturate the system with such “penetration aids” as decoys or “chaff clouds.” National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger advised Nixon that Bell Telephone Labs, the program’s prime contractor, “wants to get out of the ABM business” because the system “cannot adequately perform the mission assigned to it.”

None of this pessimism was made public at the time. In 1972, Defense Secretary Melvin Laird testified to Congress that Safeguard had “no technical problems which would affect a decision to proceed with deployment.”

Jump ahead to the latest chapter of this apparently never-ending saga. In September 1999, the CIA’s National Intelligence Estimate concluded that any country able to develop ballistic missiles “would also develop various responses to US defenses,” including such “readily available technology” as decoys, chaff, or wrapping warheads in radar-absorbing material.

The program’s managers know this. In 1997 they decided finally to confront the issue, devising a test plan that would involve shooting down a mock warhead surrounded by nine or 10 decoys, all of which would look like a warhead to the sensors of a heat-seeking radar. In 1998, the program was revised so that the warhead would be flanked by just three decoys. In 1999, plans were again altered; only one decoy would be required, and it could be a large balloon. Philip Coyle, then the Pentagon’s test director, wrote a widely distributed report the following year criticizing this devolution. The balloon’s heat signature, he wrote, was “very dissimilar” to that of the mock warhead, so the radar “can easily discriminate” between the two.

In other words, when Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said in an Oct. 24 speech that we are “moving forward on missile defenses” to the point where “we actually can hit a bullet with a bullet,” he was uttering an irrelevancy. Hitting one bullet with one bullet is certainly a remarkable feat, but it’s among the least remarkable feats that an effective missile-defense system must accomplish.

Incidentally, no tests have yet involved hitting, say, two bullets with two bullets. In one nominally successful test, after the interceptor slammed into the warhead, shards from the collision caused the radar on the ground to malfunction. If a second warhead had followed, the whole system would have been blinded. Despite these self-imposed limitations, the test program has been uneven. To date, five of eight tests have been successful. The most recent test, on Dec. 11 of this year, was a dud.

In June of last year, Gen. Ronald T. Kadish, director of the missile-defense program, said in hearings before the House Armed Services Committee, “I cannot overemphasize the importance of controlling our expectations and persevering through the hard times as we develop and field a system as complex as missile defense.” The program’s “test philosophy,” he explained, “is to add step-by-step complexities over time. It is a walk-before-you-run, learn-as-you-go development approach.”

Judging from today’s speech, it seems that Bush wants his generals to run the New York marathon before they’ve mastered the 100-yard dash.