A report by the Pentagon's own Defense Science Board (DSB) has poured cold water on U.S. missile-defense plans. It basically backs up what independent scientists and engineers have been saying for decades: a dedicated adversary easily could defeat the planned system by using simple decoy warheads and other countermeasures. So while missile defense will create incentives for U.S. adversaries and competitors to up their ballistic-missile stockpiles, it won't provide any combat capability to counteract these enlarged arsenals.
The simplest countermeasures to the planned missile defense are cheap inflatable balloons. Because the missile-defense interceptors try to strike ICBM warheads in the vacuum of space, any such balloons and the warhead would travel together, making it impossible to tell the decoys from the real thing. An enemy bent on delivering a nuclear payload to the United States could inflate many such balloons nearby the warhead and overwhelm the defense system by swamping it with fake signals.
The DSB report says that “the importance of achieving reliable . . . discrimination [between the warhead and decoys] cannot be overemphasized.” It underlined that missile defense is “predicated on the ability to discriminate” real warheads from other targets, “such as rocket bodies, miscellaneous hardware, and intentional countermeasures.” One way around this challenge is to attempt to intercept the missile before it releases the warhead and decoys. But intercepting missiles in their boost phase, while the rocket booster is still firing, is “currently not feasible,” according to the DSB.
There is a short interval between the time the missile stops burning and when the payload is released, assumed to be about one hundred seconds by the DSB. But, again, intercepting the missile in this window “requires Herculean effort and is not realistically achievable, even under the most optimistic set of deployment, sensor capability, and missile technology assumptions.” The main problem the DSB found is that missile-defense interceptors would not be able to reach the target quickly enough: “in most cases 100 seconds is too late” to prevent the release of decoys. And if “the defense should find itself in a situation where it is shooting at missile junk or decoys, the impact on the regional interceptor inventory would be dramatic and devastating.” In short, the interceptor inventory would be exhausted in chasing decoy warheads.
The latest tests of both the ground-based and sea-based missile-defense systems have failed—and these are rigged tests, where the intercept team knows the timing and trajectory of the incoming missile, and the missile has no decoys. There are no such luxuries in the real world, where adversaries launch surprise attacks and use countermeasures and decoys. And on the very few occasions that the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has tested countermeasures, even these carefully rigged tests have never succeeded. The sea-based missile-defense system also has never been tested in really rough sea conditions and is known to be unreliable.
How did such an untested and unworkable technology make it so far in the DoD procurement process? Another recent government report, this one from the GAO, explains that instead of flying before buying, the MDA has been doing the exact opposite. Its cart-before-the-horse methodology has resulted in “unexpected cost increases, schedule delays, test problems, and performance shortfalls.”
All told, the missile-defense program has cost more than the entire Apollo program without providing any credible combat capability against enemy ballistic missiles hosting simple countermeasures.
If missile defense is so dysfunctional and so simple to outfox, why do U.S. adversaries appear to be so concerned? The answer is simple: 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.