TCS Daily

Ballistic Missile Defense: All or Nothing?

By Charlie Rainbolt - February 19, 2004 12:00 AM

Earlier this month, the Council for a Livable World , an organization dedicated to the promotion of arms control, posted on its website an article written by two MIT professors. Entitled Missile Defense: the Dangers and Lack of Realism, the article is a scathing indictment of President Bush's decision to begin deployment of the National Missile Defense (NMD) system in the early fall of 2004. While the article makes some valid points about the challenges facing the fledgling NMD program, its analysis suffers in its refusal to consider the potential benefits of an even partially-effective system.

Before grappling with the arguments put forth in the article, it helps to have some background on the NMD program. The proposed NMD system consists of multiple batteries of ground-based interceptors (GBIs) which, with the help of an array of satellites and radar systems still in development, boost into low earth orbit and collide with incoming ICBMs. The initial, two-base GBI deployment occurring later this year will consist of ten interceptors: six at Fort Greely, Alaska; and four at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The Federal Government plans to purchase and deploy a total of 250 interceptors over the next 6-10 years.

A Work in Progress

Opponents of the NMD program often criticize its Missile v. Missile design. Many have claimed that the technology required to "hit a bullet with a bullet" simply does not exist. Thus far, the GBI's performance against mock ICBMs would indicate otherwise. Of the eight intercept tests to date, five have ended with the successful destruction of the target ICBM.

The initial deployment of ten NMD interceptors this year would offer only minimal protection in the event of a credible ICBM strike. The NMD program has three stages of deployment called capability architectures. The first of these stages, known as "C1," entails the deployment of 20 GBIs by 2005. These GBIs must be able to satisfy the program requirement of defeating an attack consisting of "five single-warhead missiles with unsophisticated decoys." So far, the NMD deployment seems to be on schedule, with 10 GBIs set to deploy in the summer of 2004, followed by 10 more in early 2005. Whether the system will be capable of defeating 5 incoming ICBMs with decoy accompaniment is unknown. Considering the program's steady progress thus far, such a capability certainly appears attainable.

Of course, the fact that the NMD program remains on pace to achieve its deployment capability goal means little to the Council article authors: "We doubt that the problem of discriminating between warheads and decoys in the mid-part of their trajectories can be effectively solved in the near future, if ever."

It is worth noting, however, that the NMD program has made substantial progress to date. And with the latest successful flight test of the newly-designed boost vehicle (OBV), the program can go forward with its next integrated flight test later this spring. If successful, it will demonstrate the integrated operational readiness of the two components which comprise the GBI. Having accomplished this, the focus of the program will shift towards the difficult task of tracking and targeting ICBMs. There is a formidable suite of radar systems and satellite networks under development to aid the GBI in addressing this challenge.

Partial Credit

The authors of the Council article are operating under the assumption that a NMD system that is not 100% effective will not be worth the cost and effort to field. But is this true?

A hypothetical situation will help us determine if it is. Imagine North Korea launches a barrage of 10 ICBMs at 10 major U.S. cities. Even if the missile shield proves to be only 20% effective, the fact remains that the NMD system has likely saved millions of American lives. The lesson here is that, when dealing with weapons that have the potential to kill massive quantities of people each, stopping even one or two of them can be a worthwhile endeavor.

The article's authors do not seem to share this view. According to the article, when determining the criteria upon which to judge the NMD system, one must consider:

"First, whether the resources required [for a NMD system] might be more wisely used on homeland security and to meet other objectives, both military and civil. Second, whether, with the deployment [of the NMD system], the leaders and the public of the United States would feel more secure about its involvement in crises in northeast Asia... An affirmative answer to this last question depends on whether any deployed defense might be essentially 100% effective."

So they believe the two big considerations regarding the NMD program are: 1) could the resources spent on this program be better spent elsewhere? And 2) Will the deployment of this system make Americans "feel more secure" about their country's involvement in overseas crises?

Regarding the first consideration, yes, the NMD program is expensive. Its allotted budget for the fiscal year 2004 is nearly 4.3 billion dollars. However, this should be viewed in terms of a nation whose annual GDP averages around 10 trillion dollars. The cost of the national missile defense program amounts to only 0.19% of the 2004 Federal Budget. Given that the program could save the lives of millions of Americans were ICBMs deployed against the United States, such a price would hardly seem unreasonable.

With regards to the second question, how the American people "feel" is not an accurate indicator of a missile shield's effectiveness. The intrinsic value of the NMD program does not lie in its ability to make the American people feel good. Rather, it lies in the simple fact that an American people with an X% effective missile shield are X% safer from a barrage of ICBMs than an American people who have no missile shield all.

The author is a freelance writer living in Virginia.


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