Missile defense is back

At the NATO Chicago summit, one of Bush's most disastrous ideas will return in full force -- with Obama's support

Published May 19, 2012 1:00PM (EDT)


NATO’s summit will open Sunday afternoon in Chicago as NATO summits do, with pomp and blather about a needed, purposeful, unified, stronger, more efficient Alliance. As austerity’s cousin, "efficiency" will receive buzzword status this year in the form of “Smart Defence,” NATO’s shiny new concept and the source of the sad, unintentional irony at the heart of this summit. This irony will become apparent when NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen stands before the world and touts Smart Defence in the same breath as he applauds NATO’s commitment to an epically dumb Washington-led boondoggle called the European Phased Adaptive Approach Missile Defense System.

The mouthful of a name contains the basics of the system. It is based in Europe, will be rolled out in phases, and, compared to the Bush-era system it replaced, was sold as an adaptive approach to some of the political and technological realities of European missile defense. It is the first missile defense project to be embraced by NATO allies, who historically have been left cold by the American faith that high-speed warheads can reliably be struck by other missiles hundreds of miles above the earth. Officially, consensus-run NATO has gotten religion. In Chicago, all 28 Alliance members will stand behind the outrageous lie that the first of the system’s four phases has achieved “interim operational capability.” NATO brass will declare with a straight face that a foundation has been laid for the next three phases scheduled between now and 2020. The U.S. is so excited it couldn’t wait for Chicago, and last week Navy Rear Adm. Mark Montgomery said that Phase 1 — a triad of Aegis ships equipped with interceptor batteries, a command-and-control base in Ramstein, Germany, and a radar in Turkey — now “provides an initial capability to provide some level of defense of Europe against a threat emanating from the Middle East.”

Montgomery’s claim is one of the most expensive cons ever to grace the wires of the Armed Forces Press Service. Last month the Government Accountability Office issued a devastating reality-based report on Phase 1 of the NATO system, itemizing a litany of “performance shortfalls, unexpected cost increases, schedule delays and test problems.” The GAO report echoed a more detailed analysis released in September by the Defense Science Board, an in-house Pentagon advisory team of preeminent basic and applied scientists. The DSB report concludes that the U.S. and NATO missile defense systems share the same heel of Achilles: Rudimentary decoys and debris render them useless. This is a point the Pentagon scientists make with some force, going so far as to use a rare government-report exclamatory. “If the defense should find itself in a situation where it is shooting at missile junk or decoys,” they write, “the impact on the regional interceptor inventory would be dramatic and devastating!”

In other words, if the nation launching the missile deploys rudimentary decoys, which everyone believes it would, the U.S. and NATO systems will be neutralized, their billion-dollar bullets reduced to raging mechanical bulls charging red flags and clowns in a barrel while the theoretical warhead continues along its arc. Almost as a side note, the DSB report notes that the radars built for the NATO system, the ones touted as “operable,” are too weak to even locate the missiles in the first place.

Nothing in the GAO and DSB reports is that surprising. The Missile Defense Agency is the CitiGroup of the military-industrial complex — a corrupt Too Big To Fail institution that never should have existed in the first place but for some bad legislation from the late Clinton era. The epic levels of waste involved in missile defense is unique even by Pentagon standards. “Missile defense has been exempted from many procurement rules and is subject to much less oversight than your standard defense program,” says George Lewis, of Cornell University’s Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies. “Together with the rush to deploy rapidly this has led to buying before flying.” At the moment, three of the four types of interceptors procured for the U.S. system have been forced to suspend or delay production. According to the recent GAO report, the cost of testing interceptors for the U.S. system has shot over the last decade from less than $250 million to more than a billion dollars a shot.

But unlike other Pentagon pet projects infamous for criminal cost overruns, missile defense can never be finished. This is its beauty. It is a perpetual-motion defense sector profit machine, one that never stops chasing a dream over the horizon point in the the MDA’s logo. Missile defense exists on an endless continuum of new development contracts for next-generation radars, sensors, interceptors and lasers. A foolproof system will always be more necessary than ever, and just around the corner, almost within reach, despite what the scientists and the evidence may say. And until then, at least we’re doing our best to provide what Admiral Montgomery calls “some level of defense” against emerging missile threats.

But what does “some level of defense” mean when it comes to nuclear missiles? And how much is that fractional security worth? These questions have dogged missile defense since the early 1980s. Many billions of dollars later, the answers are the same: “not much” and “nothing.” The technology remains as far as ever from providing the mythical airtight “gas mask” that a young Richard Perle dangled before a credulous Reagan, the political godfather of Strategic Defense.

“Missile Defense proponents say an imperfect system increases uncertainty in the enemy’s mind and that’s good enough,” says Pavel Podvig, a Geneva-based nuclear weapons analyst and a columnist for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. “But the uncertainty is all in the other direction. The number of warheads you have to deliver for deterrence is likely very low. The number could be one, or less than one. A certain probability that a nuclear bomb will land on your megopolis is a sufficient.”

Since the start of ground-based interceptor tests during the first Bush administration, missile defense “successes” have taken place under tightly controlled circumstances using pre-programmed flight paths and decoy-less targets that bear little relation to their likely real-world counterparts. Although rigged in plain sight, the tests are heralded as proof that the system will one day offer absolute protection from ICBM and medium-range missile attack. Those who have watched missile defense’s zombie-like march are hopeful that the Defense Science Board report may mark a turning point.

“The Defense Science Board report is an absolute killer,” says MIT’s Theodore Postol, a leading missile defense critic and a former scientific advisor to the Navy. “The boosters are ignoring it, but finally the Defense Department has acknowledged this crucial fact of physics that sensors can’t penetrate the surfaces of targets and are stymied by decoys and debris. To believe in missile defense, you have to believe in an adversary sophisticated enough to build ICBMs but not sophisticated enough to release decoy balloons around warheads. Viewed through a scientific lens, missile defense makes no sense and has never made sense. It’s an elaborate fraud.”

Richard Lehner, a spokesperson for the Missile Defense Agency, which manages contracts up and down the missile defense chain, claims that the DSB report has been grossly misrepresented. In fact, he says, the thrust of the report is that the technology is “on the right track.” Regarding the decoy problem, Lehner assured me the Missile Defense Agency’s Countermeasures Program is hard on the case. I asked him how much the Pentagon was spending on developing sensors that can tell the difference between nuclear warheads and balloons. “That’s classified,” he said.

Unclassified is the Russian response to the U.S. and NATO missile defense programs. The history of missile defense is the story of a fantasy complicating reality. Not long after Edward Teller dazzled Ronald Reagan with visions of space lasers, the president’s infatuation with SDI torpedoed a grand abolitionist deal with Gorbachev at Reykjavik. For the last 15 years, missile defense has been a reliable stumbling block in arms control negotiations and a constant irritant in relations with Moscow. It is partly because of NATO’s missile defense system that there will be no meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in Chicago.

This was not quite the plan when Europe signed on to the system. The birth of NATO missile defense was timed to Obama’s “reset” with Moscow and sold to allies as a joint system involving Russian participation. That hasn’t materialized, and despite the show of a united front in Chicago, Europe is by far the less eager partner in the system. On Friday, chairman of the Munich Security Conference Wolfgang Ischinger penned an editorial in the International Herald Tribune urging NATO to put missile defense on hold pending meaningful Russian involvement. “It would be wrong,” wrote Ischinger, “to kick the project of a joint missile defense shield into the long grass and move forward on B.M.D. [ballistic missile defense] without Russia. B.M.D. as a game changer: yes. B.M.D. as a game breaker: no.”

This is where many people ask why the Russians or anyone else even care about a profoundly flawed technology that is so easy to outsmart and defeat. “The answer is simple,” writes Yousaf Butt of the Federation of American Scientists in the National Interest:

Their military planners are hypercautious — as are the ones in the Pentagon — and must assume a worst-case scenario in which the system is highly effective. Missile defense will therefore strengthen the hands of overcautious, misinformed, opportunistic or hawkish elements within the Iranian and North Korean — as well as Russian and Chinese — political and military establishments. Both unknowable future circumstances and pressures from hawkish internal constituencies will pressure all these regimes to increase deployed nuclear stockpiles and military expenditures.

The Russian nuclear arsenal still sits on a hair-trigger and remains the most dangerous in the world. Not because the Russians are itching to launch an attack, or even because the button is guarded by human beings capable of error. What makes Russian nuclear psychology so important is their relative blindness. Russia has no satellite cover and majorly degraded radar cover. If something shows up on their screens resembling incoming missiles, they have a 15-minute decision window. Recent years have seen an increased threat of accidental nuclear war based on radar misreads and miscalculation. In Moscow bunkers, there have been close calls involving sunlight reflecting off of clouds and Norwegian weather satellite launches. Any policy that decreases trust with Moscow and makes them doubt their deterrent is a net loss for NATO’s stated mission of maintaining European peace and security.

“On the Russian side, there are easy-to-understand concerns,” says Postol. “From a military point of view, they see the U.S. building a vast radar system on its borders, and sometime in the future maybe the U.S. could put nukes on the interceptors. It creates a lot of uncertainty on the planner. On the political side, it’s another broken promise that fuels distrust. Misperceptions are destabilizing on both sides. Missile defense complicates the situation even though it doesn’t work. Politically and technically, it’s the worst of both worlds.”

Which brings us to a second irony in Chicago care of missile defense. An organization founded in response to the Russian military threat is now pursuing one of the only policies guaranteed to accelerate the reemergence of a Russian military threat, one that is no less dangerous for its radically different nature and context.

NATO’s adoption of missile defense may come as a surprise to those who remember the allies’ anger over the non-NATO European system proposed by the Bush administration in 2005. For decades, missile defense was the lonely obsession of a right-wing faction in Washington. Clinton did his best to ignore GOP calls for abrogating the ABM Treaty and committing the country to national missile defense. He was clearly hoping to run out the clock until it was Al Gore’s problem, but a 1998 “Team B” study on the missile threat chaired by Donald Rumsfeld shifted the debate, and during his last year in office Clinton reluctantly signed the Missile Defense Act. With the arrival of George W. Bush in the White House, the Act became an executive priority. September 11 next provided an unlikely opportunity for the most unctuous missile defense boosters to prey on the nation’s sense of vulnerability. I remember Frank Gaffney, director of the defense-industry sponsored American Center for Security Policy, going on television while ground zero was still on fire and making the case that the box-cutter attack proved missile defense was more urgent than ever.

In 2005, Bush proposed the system be extended to Europe to better address the still-theoretical threat from Iran. Most NATO allies wanted nothing to do with what they regarded as a destabilizing boondoggle but the Bush administration found eager partners in the “New Europe” capitals of Prague and Warsaw, which agreed to host a radar and missile battery. The Russians were outraged. In the early '90s, NATO promised Russia it would not expand toward Russia’s eastern border; then it did and promised it wouldn’t put missile batteries on new members’ territory. Now the U.S. was doing just that. Major NATO allies were also unhappy, both about not being consulted and the growing diplomatic row with Moscow over a plan to protect the continental United States. Soon even the Czechs turned against the plan. Only Warsaw, Washington’s reliable saliva-dripping puppy, was angry when the plan began to fall apart.

Obama arrived in office and quickly scrapped Bush’s system. Republicans on the Hill laughably attacked the decision as a betrayal of Europe, even though the system was designed to protect the U.S. and the decision to kill it was fully backed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “The Republicans would have [Obama] pursue every single missile defense program that is theoretically possible, even if the new system is faster and more flexible and has a better test record,” says Daryl Kimball, director of the Arms Control Association in D.C.

Obama replaced the Bush system with the “Adaptive Approach” system being celebrated this weekend in Chicago. Intended to address the technological and geopolitical shortcomings of what came before, it has done neither. Despite the word “European” in the name and the NATO seal of approval, Obama’s system is essentially an extension of U.S. missile defense, paid for by American taxpayers. “The U.S. never really asked NATO permission, but told them what they were doing and said they could contribute if they wanted,” says Pavel Podvig, the Geneva-based analyst. “Europe joined, but for them it’s more about managing relationships among Russia, the U.S., Old and New Europe. Nobody in Europe really cares about missile defense. They just don’t want to make it confrontational or destabilizing.”

It sure is a nice thing to want. But unfortunately for the 900 million people represented by NATO countries, European missile defense without meaningful Russian participation is inherently confrontational and destabilizing. It’s also a very costly antonym for “Smart Defence.” A good number of the allied presidents and ministers arriving today at O’Hare know this. Their willingness to say so during tomorrow’s meetings and working dinners may determine much.

By Alexander Zaitchik

Alexander Zaitchik is a journalist living in New Orleans.

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