War Stories

Whose Missile Shield Is It, Anyway?

Now we’re talking about putting expensive, useless interceptors in Europe.

The Bush administration’s ballistic-missile-defense program—wildly expensive and no less ineffective—has a new mission, it seems. Monday’s New York Times reports that the Pentagon plans to build a new site of interceptors in Europe, probably in Poland or the Czech Republic, for the purpose of shooting down nuclear missiles launched by Iran.

At the moment Iran has neither nuclear weapons nor long-range missiles, but the U.S. anti-missile missiles—a battery of 10—won’t be in place until 2011, so that’s not an issue. Two critical points are worth making, though:

First, contrary to impressions, the main mission of these interceptors is to block an Iranian attack not against Europe but rather against the United States.

Second, the plan involves the same rocket boosters and interceptors that the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency is currently fielding at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.—with the same grave flaws and incalculable uncertainties.

The main point is that this plan is nothing fundamentally new. It’s not an expansion of a nuclear “shield” so that it covers Europe (as the Times’ headline, “U.S. Is Proposing European Shield for Iran Missiles,” suggests). Rather, it reflects an expansion in the number of potential nuclear enemies and the routes their missiles might take as they streak their way toward America.

Missile defense has been out of the news for a while, in part because the agency in charge of the program hasn’t conducted a successful flight test of interceptors for nearly four years. Still, the program lumbers on, consuming over $10 billion a year—more than any other single program in the Defense Department’s budget.

As aficionados may recall, the task of shooting down missiles is broken down into three phases, with separate radars and interceptors for each: “boost phase” (shooting down a missile just after it’s launched and the rocket lifts it through the atmosphere), “midcourse phase” (as the missile arcs through outer space), and “terminal phase” (as it plunges back through the atmosphere toward its target).

The interceptors envisioned for the European site—like those at Fort Greely and Vandenberg—are designed to shoot down ballistic missiles in the midcourse phase, i.e., as they’re streaking toward someplace else. The existing sites in Alaska and California are (in theory) ideally situated to intercept missiles on their way from North Korea. The site in Europe would be well-placed to handle missiles on a trajectory from the Middle East. (The plan also entails a new radar station at a British air base, to track the over-flying missiles, as well as an upgrade of the radar at America’s Thule air base in Greenland.)

In other words, the point of the new European site is to give the American missile-defense system an additional avenue of coverage.

Programs do exist for the purpose of blocking missiles aimed at European territory—but they’re separate from the plan outlined in the Times, and they haven’t made much headway, either. One, called MEADS (for Medium Extended Air Defense System), is a joint U.S.-German-Italian program, built around the latest modification of the U.S. Patriot air-defense missile, called PAC III. Compared with the exotica of the multiphase missile-defense program, this is fairly simple technology: a radar network tracks the enemy missile’s flight; an anti-missile missile tries to shoot it down. Yet it’s been stalled by political and technical obstacles. The other, called THAADS (for Theater High-Altitude Air Defense System), has been off-and-on for nearly a decade. After serious revamping, it just this month completed its developmental test program—meaning its managers have successfully launched the rocket. Operational tests—firing it at a target (a simulated missile in the sky)—have not yet begun.

Operational tests are where the entire missile-defense program has run aground. The last successful intercept-test took place in October 2002. Since then (and before, as well), failures have ranged from complex (it missed the target) to jaw-droppingly basic (the rocket carrying the interceptor wouldn’t launch). In a February 2003 report, the Pentagon’s own testing director wrote that individual elements of the program—much less the entire system—had “yet to demonstrate significant operational capability.” Nothing has changed since then. (Tests were soon after suspended, to allow major redesigns; they are scheduled to resume late this year or early next.)

There are many, many reasons to be skeptical that this system, or any part of it, will ever work, no matter how many more billions of dollars are poured into it.

If the United States ever does deploy a system, a not terribly clever foe—the leaders of North Korea, Iran, or wherever—could evade it in two easy ways. They could fire two missiles at each target (no missile-defense test has ever been conducted against multiple targets, nor are any such tests scheduled). Or instead of firing a missile from a launch site whose location is known (thus making it easy for us to track the missile’s flight path to the target), they could load a missile on a barge, take it much closer to the target’s coastline, and fire it at such a short range that it doesn’t have to arc high into outer space; it could fly underneath the missile-defense system’s radar. (These techniques, by the way, are well-known and have been much discussed; the bad guys don’t need me to tell them how to do it.)

A good way to win an arms race is to exhaust the enemy—to field weapons systems that are very difficult and costly for the enemy to counter. Even if we managed to perfect a defense against long-range ballistic missiles, an enemy could counter it by delivering a nuclear bomb in a way that’s easier and cheaper.