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Column: Is it time for the US to abandon the pipe dream of missile defence?

While protect itself with the threat of using nuclear weapons is far from ideal, it is infinitely preferable to the situation in which the US has now found itself: chasing its tail over costly and ineffective missile technology, writes Jason Douglas.

Jason Douglas

IF FURTHER EVIDENCE was needed of the levels of prodigality and delusion in the US defence establishment, then, surely, this must be it. America’s latest test of its missile defence capability, which took place on Friday 5 July, was yet another in a long line of failures.

An unarmed ICBM was fired from the Kwajalein Atoll to be intercepted by a missile defence interceptor from Vandenberg Airforce Base in California, but the interceptor missed its quarry. Again.

So far, out of 16 tests, only eight have succeeded. The last successful intercept was in 2008. Having invested around $40 billion in the system over the past two decades, it has yet to make a significant contribution to American security. Not that a threat exists. Missile defences are being rolled out with a greater degree of urgency to deal with a threat which might (or might not) materialise at some point in the distant future. The last major attack on American soil was by terrorists using commercial airliners—not ballistic missiles.

As well as this, US policymakers have conceded that the system could not cope with a full-scale Russian or Chinese attack. But much of this is beside the point. Despite the abject technological failure, the astronomical costs and the lack of a credible threat, missile defences will continue to be researched, developed and deployed—whether they work or not.

Pursuing the pipe dream

Missile defences work—or not—on the premise that it is better to defend against an attack than deter one. They are designed (in theory) to intercept an incoming missile and destroy it before it reaches its target. For all its economic and technological power, however, the US is still nowhere near achieving a fully-functioning system. Pursuing this pipe dream since the 1940s, the US renewed its attempts in 1983 under the Reagan administration.

With the debate in the 1990s reaching theological proportions in the US, with the removal of the 1972 ABM Treaty (which prohibited US and Russian national missile defence systems) by the Bush administration in 2002, the US was legally free to pursue missile defences to its heart’s content, which brings us up to the present day.

Like any other defence programme which has captured the popular imagination, missile defences have a strong domestic political following. Both Democrats and Republicans, the latter traditionally much more hawkish on matters of national security, have come around to the concept of BMD. That nebulous, but frequently invoked entity, the ‘military-industrial complex’ is also on board. At this point, abandoning (should there be a desire to) the idea is nigh-on impossible.

So they have been, and will continue to be, pursued with vigour. To do otherwise would be tantamount to political suicide; after all, what right-thinking leader would give the impression that he/she was purposefully leaving the US civilian population defenceless against incoming missiles, even if the system never quite manages to do what it’s supposed to? Woe betides a president who would even consider such a thing. This point was seized upon by Henry Kissinger in the early 1990s when he argued that no responsible leader could henceforth leave the American people vulnerable. That is, there could be no volte face on missile defences. There may be some tinkering around the edges—as the Obama administration’s recent decision to terminate a component of its European-based missile defence capability, the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) has shown—but they will be a permanent feature of on-going US defence efforts.

Expanding the web still further

Since Obama has come to office, the system has widened in scope. US missile defence assets are scattered across areas of strategic importance to the US. Europe, East Asia, and, of course, parts of the United States homeland, like Alaska and California, all play host to parts of this veritable spider web of defences. There has been talk, too, of placing some interceptors on the East Coast of America, expanding the web still further, an idea which gained renewed traction as a result of the recent North Korea business, pending further tests later this year.

But the reality is, no missile shield can be totally complete, and no defence can be totally impermeable. In their haste to construct a multi-layered missile defence system, the US has also ruffled the feathers of strategic competitors—shorthand for Russia and China—by placing BMD assets on their respective doorsteps. Quite understandably, they are now seeking to remedy this perceived imbalance by modernising and expanding their nuclear capabilities.

An important point to consider is that these series of tests undergone by the system have taken place under lax conditions. The operators have advance knowledge of the incoming missile’s trajectory and location—a real boon when trying to intercept a missile! Unfortunately, they will have no such luxury in real life, meaning that the results are skewed before the tests have even taken place. Further complicating their task is that, in the event of a real attack, adversaries will likely fit their missiles with decoys and chaff, which will distract the missile defence system and render it ineffective to a large degree.

If these states have mastered the difficult process of building an ICBM, simple add-ons like balloons won’t present too many technical problems. Despite the reticence of Obama administration and Missile Defense Agency (the body charged with constructing and rolling out missile defence systems) officials, there has been some speculation that the ill-fated test may have been carried out to counter a decoy system. Its failure points to the extreme difficulties likely to be encountered by the US in the (extremely unlikely) event of a missile attack.

There are worthier causes

As costs continue to mount—the recent test alone cost in the region of $214 million—support for the system has not dampened and it continues to enjoy considerable bipartisan backing. But there are worthier causes. Think of the social programmes, infrastructure, education and job creation programmes which have been neglected in favour of this chimera. In terms of protecting itself, the US is still the pre-eminent military power. It has a large conventional army. It also has a large nuclear arsenal with multiple methods of delivery. What is it for if not to deter an attack? While having to protect oneself with the threat of using nuclear weapons is far from ideal, it is infinitely preferable to the situation in which the US has now found itself: chasing its tail.

Despite its widespread acceptance, both missile defence and its supporters have yet to vindicate themselves. Recent statements from the Pentagon have played down the recent failure, but the result hardly inspires confidence—the system being tested, after all, was a deployed capability, not a new development. Many will blame Obama and his administration for withholding funds and cutting personnel. But the myriad systemic failures speak for themselves.

With a current success rate at around the 50 per cent mark, it would seem logical to question the utility of further pursuing the holy grail of missile defence. Would that logic played a role.

Jason Douglas is a PhD student in UCC. He has written on various nuclear weapons issues such as  deterrence, non-proliferation and missile defences. Samples of his work can be found at Academia.edu. To read more articles by Jason click here.

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