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Myths Of Missile Defense

North Korea Missiles: Taepodong-2 Missile with North Korea and US flags with nuclear symbol
AP / CBS
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.