War Stories

Bush’s Latest Missile-Defense Folly

Why spend billions on a system that might never work?

Forces are finally converging for a genuine debate on President Bush’s missile-defense program. The Republican-controlled Congress is looking for ways to cut $9 billion from the military budget (which, at $420 billion, is getting unmanageable even for hawkish tastes). It’s becoming painfully clear that rogues and terrorists are more likely to attack us with planes and trains than with nuclear missiles. And a recent series of technical studies—bolstered on Thursday by a high-profile Senate hearing—has dramatized just how difficult, if not impossible, this project is going to be.

Bush’s budget for next year includes $10.7 billion for missile defense—over twice as much money as for any other single weapons system. This summer, he’s planning to start deploying the first components of an MD system—six anti-missile missiles in Alaska, four in California, and as many as 20 more, in locations not yet chosen, the following year.

Yet, except by sheer luck, these interceptors will not be able to shoot down enemy missiles. Or, to put it more precisely, Bush is starting to deploy very expensive weapons without the slightest bit of evidence that they have any chance of working.

In the past six years of flight tests, here is what the Pentagon’s missile-defense agency has demonstrated: A missile can hit another missile in mid-air as long as a) the operators know exactly where the target missile has come from and where it’s going; b) the target missile is flying at a slower-than-normal speed; c) it’s transmitting a special beam that exaggerates its radar signature, thus making it easier to track; d) only one target missile has been launched; and e) the “attack” happens in daylight.

Beyond that, the program’s managers know nothing—in part because they have never run a test that goes beyond this heavily scripted (it would not be too strong to call it “rigged”) scenario.

It’s as if some kid were to hit a baseball thrown by a pitching machine straight down the middle at 30 mph and, on the basis of that feat, claimed he could hit whatever Mark Prior might throw him from a real mound, pitch after pitch after pitch, without fail.

There is, in other words, a vast distance between the Pentagon’s current level of testing and the level that would need to be done before anyone could begin to claim that a missile-defense system might shoot down real enemy missiles in a real nuclear attack.

The latest annual report by Thomas Christie, the Pentagon’s director of operational testing and evaluation, reveals just how incalculably vast this distance is. (The report was published with no fanfare at the end of last year and has appeared on private Web sites—but not the Pentagon’s—in the past two weeks.)

Christie’s bottom line is that we’re rushing into this thing blind. Assessments of the system’s capabilities are based primarily on “modeling and simulations” or on canned tests of “components and sub-systems,” not on “operational tests of a mature, integrated system.” Nothing can be reliably inferred from these data, because we don’t know enough about the actual system that might be built and, therefore, don’t know whether it bears any resemblance to the simulations. Or, as Christie puts it: “Due to the immature nature of the systems they emulate, models and simulations cannot be adequately validated at this time.”

Step back and look at what a missile-defense system would involve. Broadly speaking, it would be a meshing of six separate operations: 1) an early warning radar, which would detect a missile launch; 2) satellite-based sensors that would distinguish missiles from deliberate decoys and random space clutter; 3) X-band radar that would track the missiles and control the firing of “kill vehicles” (anti-missile missiles that would shoot down enemy missiles); 4) the kill vehicles themselves; 5) booster rockets to launch the kill vehicles; and 6) the automated command-control-communications network that would connect all the above into a seamless system.

The anti-missile missiles that Bush plans to deploy later this year are the simplest elements of this system. Yet, Christie notes, they aren’t ready for prime time, either—or, as he puts it, their development has been “hindered” by several shortcomings. There is currently no deployable rocket to boost them into space. Sensors, which would guide the kill vehicles to their targets, are not placed in the most optimal locations. (In the tests to date, a “transmitter” has been attached to the target, making it easy for radars to track.) A ship-based radar, which would be more flexible, won’t be ready even for testing until, as Christie delicately puts it, “the post-2005 time-frame.”

In general, Christie writes, kill vehicles need to be tested “at higher closing velocities and against targets with [radar] signatures, counter-measures [such as decoys], and flight dynamics more closely matching the projected threat.” For now, he continues, “the small number of tests would limit confidence” in the performance of the system—or, for that matter, of any component in the system.

For many of these components, tests will not be ready for a while. The upgraded version of the Patriot air-defense missile, known as PAC-3, has shown “shortcomings” in operational testing. Further tests are scheduled—three this year, 12 next year, five in 2006, and seven in 2007—but, Christie notes, “the adequacy of this testing cannot be fully assessed because detailed objectives for most of the tests … are not yet defined.” In other words, the program managers not only haven’t yet tested the missile; they haven’t yet figured out what they need to test. Ditto for the vital Space Tracking Surveillance System. “The full capabilities of STSS,” Christie writes, “cannot be tested until … 2006 and 2008.”

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is not exactly stepping into gear. In the Senate Armed Services Committee hearings on Thursday, Sen. Carl Levin, the panel’s ranking Democrat, pointed out that seven of the eight flight tests scheduled for 2003 and 2004 have been canceled or delayed until next year.

The trade publication Aerospace Daily reports today that the Airborne Laser—a program that involves attaching a kill laser to a modified Boeing 747—is suffering major cost overruns (its $3 billion budget over the next five years is soaring to $5 billion), and its first tests, once scheduled for December 2004, have been pushed back to the middle of next year at the earliest.

Here’s the question smacking us all in the face, proponents and opponents alike: How much are we willing to spend, over how long a period of time, not to build an effective missile-defense system but just to discover whether such a thing is feasible?

The Pentagon plans to spend at least another $50 billion over the next five years—through about the time when the Space Tracking Surveillance System will just be starting its tests (in other words, not just well before the system is ready for action but well before we’ll have discovered whether it will ever be ready). If at the end of the day we ended up with an effective defense against missiles, it would almost certainly be worth the cost. But in fact, we might discover that it isn’t feasible after all.

Already, the $10.7 billion that Bush is spending for fiscal year 2005 is more than the entire U.S. Army is spending on research and development. More to the point, it’s nearly twice as much as the Department of Homeland Security is spending on customs and border patrol.

The world poses a “spectrum of threats,” as strategists like to say, and there’s only so much money to deal with them. Where should we focus our attention and resources: on tangible, present-day threats that can be addressed by means that don’t involve bumping up against the laws of physics—or on hypothetical threats of the future that this administration is trying to defeat with technology that might never get out of the lab?