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The Emperor's New Missile Defense


"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.

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

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