Commentary

Star Wars Episode II: The Phantom Missile Defense

By Charles V. Peña
December 28, 2002
President Bush has announced that the United States will deploy a missile defense by 2004. But this is more rhetoric than reality and done largely to fulfill a campaign commitment. The plan calls for deploying 10 ground-based interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska in 2004 and another 10 in 2005 or 2006. Despite claims by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld that such a deployment could stop “a relatively small number of incoming ballistic missiles, which is better than nothing,” the truth is that this initial phase will be an operational test bed rather than a functional defense system providing any meaningful protection of the American public.

The ground-based mid-course system is still in a test-and-evaluation phase. Eight tests have been conducted, five of which have been considered successful by the military. So, even under the artificial conditions of the initial phase of testing, the system is only about 60 percent effective. More realistic tests (including against decoys and other countermeasures) need to be done before being able to make any conclusions about whether such a system is operationally effective and reliable against real missiles. Thus, this early deployment is putting the cart before the horse.

Responding to criticism that the Pentagon may be fielding a system prematurely, Rumsfeld argued that “most things don’t just arrive fully developed” and that “the way to think about the missile defense program is that … it will evolve over time.” He cited as an example the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle, which was deployed in Afghanistan although it was still in testing.

But comparing deployment of the Predator to missile defense is a stretch. If the Predator didn’t work in Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom would still have succeeded. If a prematurely deployed missile defense fails, the stakes are much higher. To be sure, the outcome would not be any different than the current situation of having no defense against ballistic missiles. But deploying a system before it has been fully tested and ready gives U.S. policymakers and the American public a false sense of security. Such a system would reinforce a misguided American strategy of empire by providing a perceived shield that would give the United States freedom of action to operate with relative impunity throughout the world. But if policymakers feel more secure, they may also feel more emboldened to engage in reckless overseas military adventures, which could actually undermine U.S. national security. Even with thorough testing before deployment, any missile shield will not be perfect in its intercepts of incoming nuclear warheads.

The problem of the overconfident use of missile defense as a shield for profligate U.S. intervention overseas becomes worse as defenses become more robust. The United States should avoid pursuing an exorbitantly expensive global system to defend U.S. friends and allies overseas that are wealthy enough to pay for their own missile defense. Those allies already spend too little on their own defense and already benefit from U.S. security guarantees.

To the extent that an operationally effective missile defense can be proven viable and affordable, a truly national limited land-based missile defense designed to protect the U.S. homeland is appropriate. But any defense expenditure — including spending on missile defense — must be commensurate to the threat. The potential rogue state threat is limited. Terrorists armed with ballistic missiles are an even more limited and more remote threat. Terrorists are highly unlikely to use ballistic missiles because they probably cannot master the technological hurdles and a missile launch provides an immediate and known “return address” for retaliation. So, only a limited ground-based missile defense system is needed. But the administration is rushing its system to deployment before it has been thoroughly tested.

In the final analysis, the initial missile defense deployment will consist of 10 holes in the ground in Alaska filled with what amount to prototype interceptors with dubious capability to protect the United States. As such, it’s the equivalent of a manufacturer selling an expensive car that they know doesn’t work, but telling the buyer not to worry and promising that they will fix all the problems later. In other words, there’s much less there than meets the eye and more form than function. Thus, it’s less star wars and more of a phantom missile defense.

Charles V. Peña is senior defense policy analyst at the Cato Institute.