War Stories

Trump’s Star Wars Fantasy

The president is proposing the most ambitious and costly missile defense system since the Reagan era. It won’t make us any safer.

An SM-3 Aegis missile launches.
An SM-3 Aegis missile launches on Nov. 21, 2002, from the Ticonderoga class guided missile cruiser USS Lake Erie.
U.S. Navy/Getty Images

As if we didn’t have enough problems, President Trump is now launching a new round of the nuclear arms race. That was the upshot of his speech at the Pentagon on Thursday, outlining a stepped-up missile defense program, described in an 80-page document called the “Missile Defense Review.” Missile defense may not sound so provocative, but a close look at the report reveals that it has an offensive foundation that will likely prompt an offensive response from Russia, China, and possibly other countries.

There has always been an offensive flip side to defensive weapons. In the 1950s and early ’60s, the United States vigorously pursued anti-ballistic-missile (ABM) systems, but then, in 1964, an Air Force officer named Glenn Kent made a startling discovery. Analyzing the costs and benefits of various ways to limit the damage of a nuclear war, he discovered that, no matter how many defensive missiles one side of a conflict might deploy, the other side could produce more offensive missiles much more quickly and cheaply. In other words, even the most perfect defensive system—a network of interceptors that could shoot down every nuclear warhead that an enemy threw our way—would ultimately be outgunned. Rather than protect the population, a missile defense program would only spur an offense-defense arms race, which the defense would lose.

As a result of Kent’s study, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara scaled back missile defense research and pushed his Soviet counterparts to do the same. The Soviets were suspicious at first but soon grasped the logic. Arms-control talks began, dealing with offensive and defensive weapons. In 1972, Presidents Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev signed both the Interim Agreement on Offensive Arms (capping the number of long-range nuclear missiles) and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (setting strict limits on missile defenses), on the premise that the two reinforced each other. A decade later, President Ronald Reagan got it in his head that a “missile shield”—which he called the Strategic Defense Initiative and which critics dubbed “Star Wars”—would render nuclear weapons obsolete. His ambitious programs remained a dream, but the idea became a cause in Republican circles. When George W. Bush ran for president in 2000, he vowed to turn it into a reality, and soon after he won the election, he formally abrogated the ABM Treaty to make it so.

But the notion remained both a pipe dream and a provocation. It was never going to work, in that the offense would always overwhelm the defense. Yet the Russians took it as a serious threat and, to the extent they could, responded by boosting their offense.

Cut to the present day. The New START Treaty—which President Obama and Russia’s then-president, Dmitry Medvedev, signed in 2010, and which both sides have since been observing—is set to expire in 2021. If Trump seems to be expanding missile defenses, Vladimir Putin may well see a need—or exploit that fact as an excuse—to break the treaty’s limits and build more offensive weapons.

The Russians, and Putin in particular, have always viewed missile defense as a covert adjunct to a first-strike strategy, and in the early days of such programs, many U.S. officials viewed it the same way. A common scenario in the world of U.S. nuclear strategists went like this: The Soviets invade Western Europe or another area of vital interest; the U.S. responds with a nuclear strike against Soviet missiles and other military targets; if the Soviets retaliated with their surviving missiles, the U.S. would shoot them down with ABMs.

This may seem a far-fetched scenario, but certain passages in Thursday’s “Missile Defense Review” might persuade a mildly paranoid Russian analyst that the Americans still have it in mind. For instance: “If deterrence fails and conflict with a rogue state or within a region ensues, U.S. attack operations supporting missile defense will degrade, disrupt, or destroy an adversary’s missiles before they are launched.” (Italics added.)

There are also passages in the report suggesting that the Russians and Chinese shouldn’t worry about any of this. For instance, it refers to a “comprehensive approach to missile defense against rogue state and regional missile threats”—later defined as North Korea, Iran, and other possibly emerging states or militias. The report also states, at least twice in some form, “The United States relies on nuclear deterrence to address the large and more sophisticated Russian and Chinese intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities.” (The authors don’t spell out why deterrence—preventing war by threatening to retaliate to an enemy missile attack rather than trying to shoot down the missiles—would suffice to ward off an attack by Russia or China but not by North Korea or Iran.)

However, the report devotes thousands of words to improvements that Russia and China have been making to their ballistic missiles. Why emphasize—why even mention—them if Russia or China aren’t targets of the program?

The Defense Department has been spending about $10 billion a year on missile defense since President George W. Bush abrogated the ABM Treaty in 2002. But Thursday’s report says that the systems that have been fielded since then—the Ground-Based Interceptors in Alaska, shorter-range missiles on Aegis ships, the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD), and Patriot Advanced Capability missiles—can’t deal with “the increasingly complex missile threat environment” of today and tomorrow. So the report proposes a vast array of new ways to shoot down enemy missiles—the most ambitious, and costly, plan we’ve seen since President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative back in 1983.

Fragments of Reagan’s dream are here, notably the idea of putting lasers up in outer space to shoot down enemy missiles as they blast off from their launch pads. The report also floats the idea of putting anti-missile interceptors on F-35 jet fighters. The basic theme is the “exploration of innovative concepts”—as many as defense contractors can throw up in the sky. Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan (a former Boeing executive) put it this way in his prelude to Trump’s speech in the Pentagon: “We are not interested in keeping pace with the emerging threats; we want to outpace them.”

But before Shanahan’s warriors jump in their Starfighters and fire up their plasma blasters, they should snap out of their daydreams and take a look at the grim numbers. The current missile defense programs, which have been in development or production for 20 years, aren’t doing so well. Take a look at the official test data for the Ground-Based Interceptor, which is designed to defend against missile attacks on the United States, the mission that Trump calls his top priority. These interceptors have been tested just 18 times since 1999, and they’ve shot down their targets just 10 of those times. That’s a success rate of 55 percent—not bad as a technological feat, but nothing on which to pin a nation’s survival. The program’s record hasn’t been getting better: Just two of the five most recent tests have been successes.

Shorter-range interceptors have done better. The Aegis system, based on Navy ships, has shot down targets simulating ballistic missiles 40 out of 49 times. The THAAD system, which is deployed in South Korea to protect against North Korean missiles, works just about every time it’s taken out for a spin. But two things are worth noting about these (and all other) tests: First, the operators know ahead of time where the target is coming from and when it was launched; second, these systems have almost never been tested against more than one incoming missile at a time. Even a rogue nation would have a pretty good chance of penetrating the defense simply by shooting two missiles instead of one.

For better or worse, none of the futuristic high-tech systems described in today’s report—the space-based lasers and so forth—are likely to see the light of day. At best, it will take years, maybe decades, to develop such devices. The “Missile Defense Review” notes that the Pentagon “is developing a Low-Power Laser Demonstrator to evaluate the technologies necessary for mounting a laser on an unmanned airborne platform to track and destroy missiles.” Take a close look at those italics (which I’ve added): They tell you that the Pentagon is nowhere near actually building such a weapon (which would have to involve a high-power laser, by the way).

This report has been in the works for nearly two years. It was supposed to have been finished a year ago. The cause of the delay is unclear, but some who have observed the process cite several factors: bureaucratic wrangling, notably between the military (which sees missile defense as a way to protect U.S. and allied troops on a conventional battlefield) and national security adviser John Bolton (who sees it as an adjunct to a regime-changing strike against Iran); hesitation to call out North Korea as a threat, given Trump’s budding romance with Kim Jong-un; and interservice disputes over how much of the Pentagon budget to spend on this dream. (the current budget allots $15.3 billion, and judging from the report, next year’s will spill more.)

Trump is making a big deal of this. It’s unusual for a president to make a speech at the Pentagon touting one program, with the vice president, secretary of defense, the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff, and an auditorium full of other military officials in attendance. But it was painfully clear that he has no idea what it entails. In what seemed to be ad-libbed remarks, he boasted that the program would “shield every city in the United States”—a claim that the Pentagon report doesn’t make and that anyone even slightly knowledgeable would scoff at. He also spent an unseemly amount of time berating Democrats in Congress for not funding his wall on the southern border (“the party has been hijacked by the open-borders fringe,” he said at one point), allies in Europe for spending too little on their own defense, and previous presidents for acting like “fools.” And he engaged in a bit of typical incoherent rambling (for instance, “We have some very bad players out there, and we’re a good player, but we can be far worse than anybody, if need be”).

Shanahan did his best to go along with all this, noting in his preliminary remarks that the president asked his department to do more on missile defense and it will abide. “This is the Department of Get Stuff Done,” he barked, prompting neither applause nor laughter. He also quoted President John F. Kennedy’s remark in 1962: “The greatest danger of all would be to do nothing.” He did not point out that Kennedy said this in his televised address alerting the nation to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The current situation bears no likeness whatever to that event. Many nations have had ballistic missiles for many years; defenses against those missiles have been analyzed for still longer. Nothing about any recent developments changes the math or should stir a crisis.

The good news is that Shanahan is but an acting secretary of defense, and Trump, even if he serves out his entire term and possibly is elected to another, will not be president by the time any of the new missile defense programs will be near production. Anyone out there who’s panicked by this speech and this report should consider that before jumping to any guns.