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The Emperor’s New Missile Defense

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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"Regardless of Russia’s actions in this regard, as long as I am president, and as long as the Congress provides the necessary funding, the United States will continue to develop and deploy effective missile defenses to protect the United States, our deployed forces, and our allies and partners". So said President Barack Obama in a letter to the Senate in defense of the language contained in the New Start Treaty linking strategic missile defense and strategic offensive arms.

This letter arrived as the Senate was in the middle of a tight debate to see if the New Start Nuclear Weapons Treaty would be ratified before Congress adjourned and was one of the key factors, along with several fiscal and language compromises, that helped contribute to the successful ratification of the Treaty. Some Republicans were worried that the proposed treaty inhibits the flexibility and efficacy of present and future missile defense systems, while Pentagon officials and Democrats argued that the treaty places no meaningful limits on such systems.

However, absent from the debate was a key reality check: The President’s statement was wrong. We do not have an effective Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Defense system, and no one has ever demonstrated that such defense is technologically and strategically workable. This point should have been brought home on the day the Senate voted to begin debate on the treaty. That same day our existing Missile Defense system was tested, and once again, for the second time that year, it failed.

The air of unreality surrounding the Senate Debate followed a long tradition in this country. In a survey taken well before our current ballistic missile defense system was installed in 8 silos in Alaska and California in 2003 and 2004, 50% of the US public thought we already HAD such a system in place. They were about as correct in their assumption at that time as they would be now.

Failure has been the norm rather than the exception regarding our experience with Missile Defense. Before deployment, the system failed in at least 40% of its tests, even allowing for some debate about what constituted success, and after deployment the failure rate has been worse, with even the Defense Department acknowledging success in only 8 of 15 tests.

In 2002, the American Physical Society, which represents the entire physics community in this country, was so concerned about the technological challenges that it passed a resolution which seemed eminently reasonable, although it was subsequently ignored. The resolution called on the US government not to deploy a missile defense system until it was demonstrated to be workable against a realistic threat.

In fact, the system has never been tested against a realistic threat: an incoming missile with decoys, long known to be the Achilles Heel of Missile Defense. A decoy was supposed to be used in one recent test, but that test failed because the decoy failed to deploy.

The central problem with missile defense systems is that decoys are always cheaper to deploy than interceptors. Moreover, an imperfect system is intrinsically destabilizing, because it encourages building and launching more weapons. Even a system with 90% efficiency, far in excess of any existing system, will result in a 50-50 chance of successful penetration for every 5 missiles launched.

In 1972 Richard Nixon signed the ABM treaty because an active campaign by the scientific community convinced his administration that a workable ICBM defense system was not technologically feasible. Nothing much has changed in the interim.

This unfortunately has not stopped active campaigns to resuscitate expensive and flawed missile defense systems. Our current dysfunctional system has cost in excess of 100 billion dollars, with about 10 billion dollars per year going into the program.

Efficacy questions aside, there are serious National Security issues that make one wonder whether we should be spending such sum—and even in today’s world 100 billion dollars is significant—instead on systems that might address realistic threats.

Even ignoring the fact that neither North Korea nor Iran are currently capable of delivering nuclear weapons to the US via ballistic missiles, one wonders whether any potential adversary would choose the risk of immediate obliteration (ballistic missiles automatically allow one to determine, on the basis of their trajectory, where they were launched), or instead might decide it was preferable to attempt to smuggle a nuclear device into, say, New York harbor, where its origin might be harder to unambiguously discern and prove.

Some ABM advocates have argued that even if strategic missile defense systems have fundamental technological obstacles, simply the threat of a system that might shoot down some incoming missiles is enough to dissuade a possible aggressor from attacking. Logic suggests otherwise. In the first place, if an attack was based on rational decision-making (and again, since such an attack would have a high likelihood of being followed by an annihilating counterattack it is hard to wonder how reason would enter into such a decision)—presumably to inflict damage or terrorize our country—then in the face of an imperfect ABM system, reason would dictate launching several missiles instead of 1 against any prospective target.

Others have questioned why, if any potential ABM system is flawed, Russia objects so strongly to the US building such systems. One clear answer, which has been enunciated by Russia since the days of the former Soviet Union, is that such a system encourages a costly renewed arms race, requiring building more missiles to overcome each interceptor. There could easily be another, even more cogent Russian concern. An imperfect missile defense system is nevertheless likely to be most useful when we know in advance an attack is imminent, and from where that attack will come. Such circumstances would occur if we chose to strike first for example. In this sense, building an ABM system can be viewed as an aggressive step rather than a defensive one.

There is no doubt that now that New Start has been ratified both the United States and Russia will be more secure in the near term. However, what will be the long-term cost of ratification? If it empowers proponents of missile defense to grow a flawed program or otherwise increase the already ludicrous sums being spent on these systems, the net impact of the treaty on our national security could be more ambiguous.

What we need to do, now that we have introduced some more rationality into the international balance of nuclear weapons between the superpowers, is to follow up New Start with further negotiations on tactical nuclear weapons, and to focus on the best defense against nuclear catastrophe: getting rid of nuclear weapons altogether.

Whatever the future brings, it was nevertheless unfortunate that the debate in the Senate on an issue as important as New Start—of relevance to the safety and security of much of the world’s population—was not more firmly grounded in empirical reality.

About the Author: Lawrence M. Krauss is co-chair of the Board of Sponsors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and a member of the American Physical Society’s Panel on Public Affairs. His newest book, Quantum Man will appear in March of 2011.

 

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Comments 14 Comments

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  1. 1. tharriss 9:20 am 01/7/2011

    I suppose if you assume the goal of missile defense is actual missile defense, this all makes sense, but I think it is clear the goal really just political and economic.

    Political because it plays well in Washington to play the "you’re totally safe because we’re defending you from everything" card, and Economic because feeding the military machine (and thus jobs and big corporate payouts) pays well in votes.

    Nobody actually in charge of decision making for this stuff actually believes or cares if it ever is capable of stopping a single missile, decoys or no decoys.

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  2. 2. zsingerb 10:54 am 01/7/2011

    I could have saved myself reading the whole article if the last line, "What we need to do, now that we have introduced some more rationality into the international balance of nuclear weapons between the superpowers, is to follow up New Start with further negotiations on tactical nuclear weapons, and to focus on the best defense against nuclear catastrophe: getting rid of nuclear weapons altogether." was the first. Those who believe that nuclear weapons can be gotten rid of will say anything for the cause. Getting rid of nukes is like getting rid of guns, sticks, and violence, impossible. No one picks on the big guy, and nukes make you a big guy.

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  3. 3. promytius 11:17 am 01/7/2011

    I agree with zsingerb, except that I hold out some small hope that someday we’ll grow up and put down the guns, and like a truly BIG GUY, leave in peace without threatening others; oh wait, we’re only human, flawed, aggressive, self-absorbed borderline morons; never mind. Better to have a fe more missles than the other guys, than feed the 5 billion humans that live in the mud…

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  4. 4. fixerdave 5:44 pm 01/7/2011

    Yes… but…

    Your logic doesn’t take into consideration one very, very important fact. Non-nation entities are now building vehicles that can reach space. There was even a Canadian volunteer team, funded by donation, that was competing for the X-prize! Yes, yes, not exactly an existential threat, so far. Nevertheless, we’re on a trajectory where small groups of dedicated people will be able to build extremely long-range weapons. They won’t care about retaliation; they won’t be making dozens of them, complete with decoys. They will, however, at least be considering the idea of launching whatever at whomever they have a beef with.

    I don’t care if a missile defense shield only has a 50-50 chance of stopping all 5 out of 5 incoming missiles (and that, by the way, is a really silly way of specifying risk). If one missile is arcing through near-space, with an unknown payload, heading for somewhere around where I’m at, well, I’d be glad if there was someone that could at least have a chance of taking it out before it got here, even if it took 5 shots.

    There are people that will not be deterred by mutual assured destruction. It won’t be long before those people will have access to technology that allows long range missiles. That’s where we’re heading; that’s why I support missile defense initiatives.

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  5. 5. tharter 8:52 pm 01/7/2011

    The problem with this kind of reasoning is it ignores many other factors. For one thing if it makes nuclear disarmament more difficult then it actually FOSTERS the very thing you are afraid of because the ONLY way any non-state group is going to get a nuclear weapon is by acquiring it from a state, making one in your garage is never going to be feasible.

    Beyond that don’t you think spending the 100 billion we’ve wasted so far on other more productive things actually reduces the risk more? I’d say so. This is a lot of money. It would be better spent on say securing the world’s supplies of high enriched uranium and plutonium.

    Finally if you simply give up and assume that nuclear weapons cannot be done away with then you have reached a level of complete fatalism because if we don’t do away with them then sooner or later they WILL be used and that will be the end of humanity. So effectively this kind of statement is "we’re all doomed anyway, so why bother to try". If that is the way we’re going to approach life then heck, just stick a gun in your mouth and pull the trigger.

    This world’s challenges are not what we would like them to be nor are they necessarily things we believe are even possible. Yet humanity has persisted in doing the impossible for 1000′s of years. When you have no other choice, you get the job done. Failure simply is not an option.

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  6. 6. letxequalx 1:47 am 01/8/2011

    The missile defense program will continue to cost too much money and continue to fail many tests. This doesn’t matter- it is the most important element in our countries future defense, one day it will work and one day it will save us from attack. The most important things to accomplish are often the most difficult. We don’t stop to criticize, we push forward.

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  7. 7. tharter 9:57 am 01/8/2011

    No, it will NEVER work. Read the studies that have been done on this. BMD is fundamentally unworkable. It doesn’t matter if you spend $100 trillion on it, it will still not work. That is the whole point. This has been demonstrated time and time again to be true. The whole program is pork. An endless fool’s errand into which infinite money can be dumped without any need to ever show actual results.

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  8. 8. fixerdave 1:21 am 01/9/2011

    Nuclear disarmament will not happen because Mutual Assured Destruction works. Obtaining a feasible nuclear deterrent is about the reasonable way to defend against superpower aggression. Well, when we come up with something more lethal than nuclear weapons, then they will go away. Yes, I’m a pessimist.

    However, your comment infers that the only thing worth putting on a missile is a nuclear warhead. It’s not. Lots of payloads, payloads much easier to make, can be delivered by missile. Very nasty payloads. Further, as I pointed out, how will people know what this payload is, until it’s delivered.

    Further, you state that missile defence is impossible. No, it’s not. The successful tests, as poor as they are, do show that it is possible to intercept a missile. It has been done; ergo, it is not impossible. An impenetrable shield may very well be impossible and the author states that this is worse than nothing. This is what I disagree with. I happen to think a shield that is about as effective as what exists now is about perfect, just lousy enough to not start a new arms race between nation states and just good enough to make non-nation entities not bother making missiles because they would likely be shot down.

    As for the cost… well, if the money wasn’t spent on a defensive weapon like missile defence, it would likely be spent on offensive weapons like better nuclear warheads. People seem to assume that money saved on a military program would automatically be spend on feeding homeless people in Zimbabwe or something. It won’t.

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  9. 9. tharter 11:55 am 01/9/2011

    "Further, you state that missile defence is impossible. No, it’s not. The successful tests, as poor as they are, do show that it is possible to intercept a missile. It has been done; ergo, it is not impossible. An impenetrable shield may very well be impossible and the author states that this is worse than nothing. This is what I disagree with. I happen to think a shield that is about as effective as what exists now is about perfect, just lousy enough to not start a new arms race between nation states and just good enough to make non-nation entities not bother making missiles because they would likely be shot down."

    I can only suggest you read the actual extensive literature on this subject. Anyone with the technical sophistication to make a missile can trivially build in countermeasures against a BMD system. The cost of the countermeasures is orders of magnitude less than the cost of the BMD required to penetrate the countermeasures. Thus even much smaller countries like say Iran would easily be able to afford to build sufficient countermeasures to negate any defense that the US could afford. This is really not even open to dispute and the supposed ‘BMD’ we have now is so unreliable even in highly contrived tests without countermeasures that we can safely assert we have made practically no progress on a realistic BMD system.

    "As for the cost… well, if the money wasn’t spent on a defensive weapon like missile defence, it would likely be spent on offensive weapons like better nuclear warheads. People seem to assume that money saved on a military program would automatically be spend on feeding homeless people in Zimbabwe or something. It won’t."

    Ummmmm. So what you’re saying is we have no choices, we just have to heap piles of money into bonfires every year without any thought or analysis? This is preposterous. Of course we can choose. We are thinking human beings with the ability to make choices, not ignorant children.

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  10. 10. ildenizen 1:09 pm 01/9/2011

    There are few hostile nations (think North Korea, Iran) that will ever independently achieve long range nuclear capability, much less the same with effective countermeasures. They want the tech, but in reality they would likely stoop to terrorism by smuggling a nuke though a porous border or coastline. We can’t stop drugs coming in, what makes you think a nuke or other weapon will be stopped? It also helps that it makes identification of the culprit that much harder, negating the immediate MAD arguments.
    That, or they might acquire the technology from a disgrutled Russia, mismanaged Russian arsenal, or some profiteering business in a country like France. The tech is likely to be acquired in very small numbers (think 1 or 2).

    So missile defense – at most – reduces the porous overhead threat gap from "rogue" nations only, and leaves the rest wide open. It is a relic from the cold war era, and am saddended Obama had to use that as a negotioating chip.

    On a side note – there have been some studies questioning the efficacy of both our and Russian nuclear stockpiles. I only hope that the mad proponents of this technology that is never supposed to be used, are right, and it never is.

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  11. 11. tharter 2:44 pm 01/9/2011

    "On a side note – there have been some studies questioning the efficacy of both our and Russian nuclear stockpiles. I only hope that the mad proponents of this technology that is never supposed to be used, are right, and it never is."

    It seems to me that this is really the route to ‘nuclear disarmament’. I don’t disagree with the skeptics that total elimination of nuclear weapons is something that we should realistically look forward to in the foreseeable future. We could however steadily create more and more restrictions on the activity of designing, testing, and maintaining these weapons and their delivery systems. Eventually it reaches a point where confidence in their efficacy becomes low, readiness is minimal, and yet they are still scary enough to be a pretty good deterrent.

    Honestly we don’t need a nuclear deterrent against nations like Iran or North Korea anyway. Even supposing one of those nations were to launch a nuclear attack it is doubtful we would respond in kind. Such a nation would be utterly and completely isolated and subject to catastrophic conventional response.

    I can see the ultimate endpoint being a few scattered deep reserves of nuclear warheads. Any nation making an attempt to redeploy them in an immediately useful form would simply trigger a corresponding action by other stockpile owners, thus gaining them no real advantage. Instead of MAD deterrence we would have a deterrence of futility. In that context ABM technology would be of little benefit as it would simply tend to undermine such a regime.

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  12. 12. Dr. Strangelove 10:41 pm 01/11/2011

    If you believe in the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) strategy, the best defense is an effective counter offense capability. I’m not sure if the MAD strategy was effective. A nuclear war was avoided between the former USSR and US because of or inspite of the MAD strategy?

    Btw, MAD was a strategy based on game theory developed by mathematicians including John von Neumann. The willingness to do total violence to avoid violence seems irrational but MAD assumes the players are rational. If the players were irrational, it wouldn’t work bec. they would not be deterred by certain annihilation. If they were rational, they wouldn’t want to destroy and be destroyed.

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  13. 13. steve-l 5:29 am 01/12/2011

    This is a good exchange and most of current viewpoints have been made, but there a few more facts that have not been expressed and are also important.

    In today’s military environment military effectiveness depends more than ever on logistics and sustainment. It is not just the weapons in storage, but the ability to resupply before all the war material stored is consumed. In today’s world, our entire stockpile could be consumed in 30 days. The consequence of not having an industrial complex ready and able to feed the war machine is certain defeat, but in order to do this, it takes care and feeding of the military industrial complex…. This is why the 100 billion is not wasted. We no longer will have the luxury of time to tool up for war, as in WW II and make no mistake, our eventual victory was to no small extent, due to logistical sustainment.

    Secondly, we have no choice, we must develope a BMD system. Of course it’s possible. It’s ludicrous to state otherwise. Nobody ever said it isn’t difficult or inexpensive and society does benefit from the technical advances made along the way, just as it has done because of the space program.

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  14. 14. bucketofsquid 12:42 pm 01/12/2011

    Nice discussion. I’ve done extensive reading on the ABM concept and am surprised that the discussion has narrowly focused on interceptor missiles. Back when laser rifles were a preposterous idea, the feds ran an experiment where they painted a missile in flight with a ground based laser. We now have laser rifles on the market for about $7,000. Not very practical but still they exist. A computerized system could adjust the tageting of the laser a few thousand times a second so an interceptor could use laser targeting to home in on it. There is also the Gauss gun concept where an enormous number of small steel pellets could saturate the trajectory of the missile and also any possible decoys with high velocity impacts. There are also emp cannons that could fry the electronics of anything airborn.

    It used to be that you couldn’t out run a bullet. Now we have kevlar so you don’t need to. The weapon/defense evolution has continued through out history. I see no reason why it would suddenly stop now. If you are really worried about nukes then get us off of the planet so we aren’t tied to one easily destroyed target.

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