Alaskan Folly

We've doubled down on a defense that doesn't work against missiles that don't exist.

The Obama administration's announcement that it would spend $1 billion to deploy 14 additional antimissile interceptors in Alaska was a clever move. It sent a strong signal to North Korea -- and to China. It reassured close allies Japan and South Korea. It won praise from Republican opponents and generated great newspaper headlines: "U.S. beefs up missile defenses." It hit all the right buttons.

There is only one problem: The interceptors do not work.

The Ground-based Midcourse Defense has cost almost $40 billion, but it has not had a successful intercept test since 2008, the year President Obama was elected. It has failed to intercept targets in half of its 15 carefully scripted tests. The success rate is getting worse, not better. It hit only two targets in eight attempts since 2002. In some of these tests, the interceptors could not even get out of the silos. The problems are so bad that the Pentagon has not attempted an intercept test for two years.

Philip Coyle, the former director of operational testing for the Department of Defense, said four years ago, "The GMD system still has no demonstrated effectiveness to defend the U.S., let alone Europe, against enemy attack under realistic operational conditions." Despite efforts to fix it, a scathing report from an expert National Academy of Sciences committee last year said that "the system has serious shortcomings," with major technical and operational problems. It only provides a "fragile" capability against a primitive North Korean threat -- that is, one or two missiles without any counter-measures. The committee called for a complete redesign with brand new interceptors, radars, and locations. "The technical core of the U.S. missile defense program is in tatters," says Coyle now.

Some of these problems may be fixable given time and billions more dollars, but the basic problem is with the whole idea of trying to intercept long-range missiles with ground-based missiles. After a few minutes of powered ascent, an ICBM coasts through outer space before reentering the atmosphere in its final few minutes of flight to strike its target. Ground-based interceptors attempt to hit the small, cold, dark warheads flying at 17,000 miles an hour while they are still in space. This is a difficult task, which is why early missile defense systems that the United States and Russia planned in the 1960s and 1970s used interceptors armed with nuclear warheads -- they eliminated the need for precision.

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Photo by The U.S. Army