Myths Of Missile Defense

This column was written by By Matthew Yglesias.
For decades, inquiring minds have wondered if there's anything at all that won't inspire Republican politicians to speak of the need for a national missile defense program. The initiative had its origins, of course, in the Cold War standoff with the Soviet Union. Then the U.S.S.R. went away. At this point we learned that missile defense was more vital than ever to safeguard us from rogue states. Liberals pointed out that the country should be focused on terrorism instead. Then came 9-11. Did the right drop it after that? No.

Instead, the White House's official fact sheet on the topic argued "the events of September 11 demonstrated the security environment is more complex and less predictable than in the past" because we now face "threats that range from terrorism to ballistic missiles intended to intimidate and coerce us by holding the U.S. and our friends and allies hostage to WMD attack."

How an attack that didn't involve ballistic missiles perpetrated by people who don't have ballistic missiles underscored the threat of ballistic missiles is hard to say. But last week, President Bush outdid even himself in the realm of missile defense lunacy.

North Korea, the only potential adversary thought to have a long-range missile capable of hitting U.S. soil — by which missile hysterics mean "part of Alaska" — tested its long-range missile. And it didn't work. Bush's analysis was that this turn of events "means we need a ballistic missile system" to defend ourselves. From the missiles that don't work, that is.

This is madness. We're spending billions of dollars to defend ourselves against ballistic missiles that don't exist. What's more, the defense system doesn't work and never has. At best, it occasionally kinda sorta passes rigged tests. I'm a "never say never" kind of guy, but the odds of it ever working seem bad. The technical challenges are daunting: Building a missile that can reliably hit another missile is simply very difficult. Missiles are small, move very quickly, and are difficult to launch within the time frame necessary to intercept one that's already in the air. What's more, unlike, say, computers or telecommunications, the general field of aerospace engineering hasn't seen any significant advances in decades. Even if we do manage to build a system that could identify a missile launch, track the object, and fire a counter-missile missile, nothing in the current plans is prepared to deal with any possible countermeasures or decoys.

What's more, even were we able to build, say, an 80 percent reliable system, it wouldn't do any good. A country capable of shooting one missile at the United States could launch a dozen. It's silly to think that a country would be dissuaded from launching them at us by the fact that probably only two or three of the missiles would get through. Be it 12 out of 12, 11 out of 12, or one out of 12, our best defense against a missile threat would always be the one we already have — the 100 percent chance that launching a nuclear-tipped missile against the United States would result in the swift and merciless destruction of the country that did the launching.

The only situation in which a missile shield, if it worked, would possibly be useful is if we wanted to invade another country and stop it from deterring us with its missiles. This, however, is a pretty terrible idea. As we've been learning in Iraq 'lo the past three years, whether or not your hypothetical medium-sized invasion target can strike the American homeland, invading and conquering such countries is incredibly costly and difficult. There's no reason at all to think that starting a war with North Korea would be a good idea, and equally little reason to think that making it slightly easier to do so without Alaska being hit by a missile would accomplish anything worthwhile.

But to grasp the full scope of the madness, one must return to the beginning. Not only are we talking about a system that doesn't work and whose utility would be questionable even if it did, we're talking about countermeasures to a threat that doesn't exist.

No rogue state has missiles capable of hitting the continental United States. Until last week, it was thought that North Korea's Taepodong-2 might be able to hit parts of Alaska. But when they tested it, we learned that, in fact, it can't. Indeed, it can't even launch at all. In other words, if our missile defense system did work, which it doesn't, there would be nothing for it to defend against.

It's a bit hard to work out what the game is here. Money — in the form of lucrative defense contracts and campaign donations to supportive legislators — would seem to be the likely culprit. But wasteful defense spending is fairly common, and nothing reaches these levels of absurdity. Your typical unnecessary pieces of military hardware — the DD(X) destroyer, the F/A-22 Raptor plane, the Virginia Class submarine — at least work. The military doesn't really need this stuff, and the cash would be better spent on other things, but if we do build those things, they'll get used and there's little doubt they can be made to function as designed. Surely missile defense dollars could at least be redirected into some B-list uselessness along those lines.

Not only doesn't that happen, Republicans barely even talk about any other kind of military system. It's all missile defense, all the time. Before 9-11, one could chalk this up to a kind of intellectual laziness. Conservatives hadn't had to run national security since the end of the Cold War, so it wasn't all that surprising to see their main agenda consist of a warmed-over bad idea from the 1980s. Their persistence in the matter, however, suggests a distressing level of conviction. Surely they can't have failed to notice the whole terrorism problem or the military's serious shortfalls in the field of post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction. But despite everything that's happened in the past five years, they remain eerily out of touch with reality, spooked by the phantom menace of ballistic missiles and oddly obsessed with waging hypothetical preventative wars against countries trying to deter us with hypothetical missiles.

Ballistic missile defense is, in short, not just a waste of money, but the tip of a wildly misguided intellectual iceberg — a whole worldview that radically misconceives the nature of America's interests and the contemporary international situation. The conservative movement is committed to an outlook that revolves around impractical solutions to unreal problems, and missile defense is just one more example to add to a pile including the invasion of Iraq, the decision to spurn Iranian peace overtures, and the effort to define the (necessary) struggle against al Qaeda in the broadest and most apocalyptic terms available.

The liberal challenge is to see, and to make the country see, that these aren't "mistakes" — mere errors of judgment. They're the fruits of a serious — and seriously wrong — ideology that needs to be replaced with something better.

By Matthew Yglesias
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved