Goldilocks Missile Defense
The current trajectory of U.S. missile defense will not make the nation safer. In fact, it may waste money on flawed technology while promoting further escalation.
A long-awaited report recently released by the National Research Council (NRC) is highly critical of the current strategy for missile defense. It suggests that efforts by the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) “have spawned an almost 'hobby-shop' approach, with many false starts on poorly analyzed concepts.” At the same time, the report proposes only minor changes to the system and even goes on to advocate for more of the same—proposing a completely new missile-defense base on the East Coast. But building a new system with many of the same deficiencies as the old one hardly makes any sense, either economically or from a national-security perspective.
Decoy warheads are the Achilles' heel of both the existing system and the slightly tweaked one that the NRC report proposes. The simplest such decoys or “countermeasures” to missile defense are cheap inflatable balloons such as the shiny ones at children's birthday parties. Because the missile-defense interceptors try to strike the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) warheads in the vacuum of space, such balloons and the warhead travel together, making it impossible to tell apart the decoys from the real thing.
An enemy bent on delivering a nuclear payload to the United States could inflate many such balloons near the warhead and overwhelm the defense system by swamping it with fake signals.
The NRC committee's suggested solution—just like the current system—would work against only a perfect “Goldilocks” enemy: one smart enough to make complicated ICBMs but, ironically, too dumb to make technologically simple decoy balloons to fool the defense.
Thus, the success of the NRC's proposed system is pinned on the hope that our enemy will not be able make simple decoys. Such a perfect enemy is unlikely to exist; any dedicated adversary capable of making complex missiles can also make simple decoys and countermeasures to fool the defense. In fact, a National Intelligence Estimate from more than a decade ago attested to this fact. It is inconceivable that the NRC would green-light a national-security initiative based on a hope and prayer.
The MDA has been unable to solve the problem of discriminating between a warhead and a decoy for decades—and there is a simple scientific reason for that: the optical and infrared emissions, as well as reﬂected radio waves, from targets can be modiﬁed by an attacker to disguise, remove, deny or simply overwhelm (via decoys and other countermeasures) critical information needed by the defense to find the attacking warheads. This is a physics-based limitation that cannot be overcome with improved technology.
Although some significant tweaks to the existing system are suggested in the NRC report—such as better “synergy” between optical and radio sensors—such band-aid solutions amount to little more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Because an East Coast missile-defense base would have a theoretical ability to engage Russian warheads, it may well worsen relations with Russia, which are already strained over the existing NATO missile-defense plans.
Even if the Russians agree to it, China’s concerns with missile defense certainly will not evaporate. Indeed, the bipartisan Strategic Posture Commission has pointed out that “China may already be increasing the size of its ICBM force in response to its assessment of the U.S. missile defense program.” Such stockpile increases will compel India and, in turn, Pakistan to also ramp up their nuclear weapon numbers.
To its credit, the NRC committee explicitly admits that it did not “consider the many important policy issues presented by missile defense, including [its] effect on deterrence, strategic stability, arms control, alliance relations, the appropriate level of funding for missile defense relative to other priorities, and relations with Russia and China.” Consequently, their purely technical conclusions and prescriptions carry little weight in the practical world. Consideration of additional missile-defense bases, or further expensive tweaking of a flawed system, is impossible to carry out divorced from larger policy and geopolitical ramifications.
In fact, it behooves the National Academy of Sciences to carry out a study examining the conceptual basis of strategic missile defense and its geopolitical and national-security implications—even without any explicit congressional tasking for such a study.
The central problem of missile defense remains that while it creates incentives for adversaries and competitors of the United States to increase their missile stockpiles, it offers no credible combat capability to protect the United States or its allies from this increasing weaponry.
While missile defense—either the current incarnation or the slightly modified one proposed in the NRC report—will give us a false sense of security, it will give Russia and China a false sense of insecurity, likely causing them to undertake retaliatory measures and poisoning prospects for further arms control.
Ultimately, if we are really afraid of possible future Iranian and North Korean missiles—enough to spend hundreds of billions on a missile-defense system—shouldn't we be researching a system that could work against the decoys they will use? Instead, the new NRC report continues the MDA’s plan of hoping for the best and proposes throwing more good money after bad.
Yousaf Butt, a nuclear physicist, is professor and scientist in residence at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. The views expressed are his own.