Patriot missile
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On a bright day this June in Sunnyvale, Calif., Republican presidential aspirant Bob Dole explained the nature of the dark storm cloud threatening America’s national security: “[A] rogues’ gallery of terrorist and aggressive anti-American regimes, I believe, in effect are being encouraged by the administration’s attitude, and they are developing or acquiring nuclear and missile technology…. Mr. Clinton’s opposition to a missile defense is one of the most negligent, short-sighted, irresponsible, and potentially catastrophic policies in history.”

Okay, so this isn’t the first time a Republican has accused a Democrat of being weak on defense. And ballistic missiles certainly lend themselves to alarming rhetoric. Newt Gingrich displayed this most eloquently at a Stanford symposium last year, when he denounced the Clinton administration’s missile defense policy: “The world is dangerous…. Some people are willing to let you die or let you be totally blackmailed. Which team do you want to be on?”

Last March, Dole and Gingrich pushed missile defense even further into the spotlight when they introduced the Defend America Act of 1996. An updated version of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, Defend America mandates the deployment of a national missile defense system by 2003. The “highly effective” system—priced somewhere between $31 and $60 billion—would include radar, interceptor missiles, and satellite tracking systems.

The conservative media followed the GOP’s lead. New York Times columnist William Satire said the issue “defines the two parties,” and a Wall Street Journal roundtable called missile defense “one of the defining issues between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole.”

There’s only one problem: When the defining issue is defined, the candidates’ differences are about as substantive as an episode of “Seinfeld.” The Clinton folks want their missile defense system, too, and the president is quick to tell the public how much he’s already spending to get it ($3 billion in FY 1996 alone). Unable to upstage the president on this call to arms, Dole has abandoned the issue as a campaign centerpiece, and the Defend America Act has been temporarily tabled.

The “three-plus-three” strategy supported by President Clinton promises a “test-ready” ballistic missile defense system by 1999. At that point, if—and only if—the system is deemed necessary, the three-year deployment phase would begin. Emphasizing that “three-plus-three” could have a system in place within the same time frame as the Defend America Act, Clinton is trumpeting his program as the rational alternative. In an address last May at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, Clinton criticized the Dole-Gingrich plan for requiring an immediate commitment to deployment by 2003. Such a plan, he said, “would force us to choose now a costly missile defense system that could be obsolete tomorrow.”

Responding to Clinton’s criticism, GOP leaders in the House drafted a letter strongly accusing the President of downplaying the threat of missile attack. “We strongly encourage you in the future to be absolutely candid with the American people on this vital security issue,” they wrote. Candid with the American public? Fine. Perhaps the discussion should begin with a look at the less-than-illustrious history and current status of the missile defense programs everyone is so eager to bring to the American people.

Insanity Defense

The precursor to ballistic missile defense, the Army’s Nike antiaircraft system, emerged during the late 1950s. This system was eventually abandoned as incapable of intercepting any type of air threat. But missile defense development continued through the ’60s and ’70s. Finally, the Ford administration established the first U.S. anti-ballistic missile system at Grand Forks, N.D. It was maintained for six months, then shut down as cost-ineffective.

In 1983, the granddaddy of all missile defense plans emerged: Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”), which sought to establish a space-based laser defense that would, in theory, erect an impenetrable “peace shield” around the United States. Since the plan’s introduction, the United States has spent close to $40 billion trying to bring some variation of SDI to fruition. The fact that, after 13 years, the Pentagon does not have so much as one laser interceptor to show for its efforts hasn’t dampened enthusiasm for what has been updated (it’s now all about interceptor rockets) and renamed National Missile Defense.

But NMD accounts for only a fraction of total ballistic missile defense expenditures. Since 1994, the bulk of funding has gone toward Theater Missile Defense. TMD’s purpose is to defend relatively small areas from short- and intermediate-range missiles—perfect for use in regional skirmishes. The main selling point of TMD is its apparent effectiveness. Much of America witnessed short-range theater defense at work thanks to CNN’s Gulf War coverage. The footage of U.S. Patriot interceptors exploding in the night sky over Baghdad seemed a vindication of the $100 billion spent on missile defense over the last 30 years. Supplementing the visual display were initial reports of the Patriot’s overwhelming “kill rates.”

The Patriot’s apparent success put missile defense boosters on the offensive; many former Star Warriors now insist that America’s failure to develop an effective program stems from a lack of will rather than ability. Henry F. Cooper, director of the SDI program during the Bush administration, told The Wall Street Journal in June, “Defending against [ballistic missile attack] has been possible for years, but the necessary political will has been missing.” In an interview last May with The Christian Science Monitor, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) was even more direct: “We have a clear threat to our security that we have the technology to defend against but, so far, not the will.”

But the Gulf War displayed all too clearly that the United States does not have the technology. At the April 7, 1992, oversight hearings on the Patriot’s Gulf War performance, an analyst from the Congressional Research Service revealed that, based on the CRS’s evaluation of Army methodology and analysis, it was possible that the 158 Patriots launched had succeeded in downing a grand total of one Iraqi Scud missile. And an independent study by MIT researchers Ted Postol and George Lewis concluded that the Patriot had almost certainly failed to destroy any at all.

But what about all those lovely explosions on CNN? Well, because the Patriot isn’t an explode-on-impact missile, it puts on the light shows whether or not it destroys a target. What’s more, at least 45 percent of the Patriots used in the Gulf War were launched against debris or false targets.

These figures are a far cry from Army estimates, which first placed the Patriot’s kill rate at nearly 100 percent, then around 52 percent, with a “high confidence” of 25 percent. Par for the course, the Army’s evaluation team included several representatives from the Raytheon Corp., the primary defense contractor of the Patriot systems. For its role in analyzing the Patriot’s performance, Raytheon received more than $520,000.

Even more perplexing are the adamant assertions that the United States has surmounted the technological barriers to missile defense. “The single biggest myth in this debate is that the technology exists,” says Joseph Cirincione, chair of the Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers. “The Defend America Act explicitly states that the Congress finds that the technology exists for missile defense. Wrong. If we had it, we’d deploy. Everything that’s been conceived of has been tried and has fallen short.”

Far from being discouraged by the shortcomings of lower-tier systems like the Patriot, the race is on to develop an Forget North Korea. upper-tier, or “theater-wide,” sys- We’re talking about tern for defending larger areas from intermediate-range missiles big issues here, (up to 3,500 kilometers). The Army’s Theater High Altitude Area Defense has received the and employment most attention (and money) thus far. To date, THAAD has flown two trials in which it attempted to intercept an incoming target. It failed both. Similarly, the Navy’s Theater Wide system has failed its two intercept attempts.

Compounding the problem, all of these systems are designed to deal with missiles carrying a single warhead. As a countermeasure, incoming missiles could easily be equipped either with multiple decoys or with submunitions (bomblets that disperse soon after launch). While not feasible for nuclear warheads, submunitions are ideal for chemical or biological agents because they provide for greater dispersal. (The chemical warheads developed by the United States consist of hundreds of bomblets.)

Armed and Dangerous

What exactly are the global dangers driving our dubious search for a viable missile defense system? An accidental or unauthorized launch by a politically unstable Russia is frequently mentioned, as is a limited assault by China. But, without question, the current poster child for ballistic missile defense is the dreaded “rogue state.”

At present, there are five nations—Syria, Libya, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea—that are hostile toward the United States and could conceivably pose a ballistic missile threat in the future. Currently, these states possess only weapons with an outside range of 600 kilometers (350 miles)—well below the 5,000 to 10,000 kilometer mark they would need to reach the United States. Nor does a significant threat loom on the horizon. Military intelligence estimates that none of the five nations will have the ability to threaten the continental United States for the next 15 years. (North Korea is reportedly in the early stages of developing an intermediate-range missile that could potentially reach western Hawaii and Alaska. The CIA estimates the outside range of the weapon to be around 5,500 kilometers with a warhead of a few hundred kilograms—far too light for a nuclear device.) Furthermore, were any of these states to embark on a long-range-missile program, its actions would quickly become evident, since the flight testing necessary for such development is visible to satellites.

Many people dismiss the 15-year estimate, asserting that technology or equipment purchased from another nation could drastically compress this time frame. But all six nations that currently possess ICBMs are committed to international nonproliferation, and all belong to the Missile Technology Control Regime. (Yes, even China.) Founded in 1987, the 28-member organization tightly controls the transfer of all ballistic missile systems and prohibits the transfer of production capabilities for ICBMs. Though a voluntary organization, the MTCR has proven extremely effective. The United States is the only country ever to have sold an ICBM to another nation (we once sold Polaris and Trident II missiles to Britain).

The threat of economic sanctions also serves as a strong deterrent to both potential buyers and sellers. This is particularly important in the case of China, which has in the past made noises about the benefits of nuclear proliferation, and the former Soviet states, which are in desperate need of cash. The sale of an ICBM to a rogue nation or terrorist group would result in international censure far outweighing any immediate financial gains. And while it’s frequently suggested that rogue states are not as clear-headed about deterrence as the average superpower, it bears mentioning that Iraq did not deploy any of its chemical or biological warheads during the Gulf War, ostensibly out of fear of U.S. and Israeli retaliation. A covert ICBM sale is even less feasible.Transferring an ICBM is about as discreet a process as developing one. The missiles are more than large enough to be tracked by satellite

As for concerns that a terrorist group will obtain weapons of mass destruction, it’s important to recognize that ballistic missiles are the least reliable and most expensive method of delivering a nuclear, chemical, or biological assault. Far more likely would be an attack via boat, civilian airplane, or truck bomb (no massive capital investment; no early warning test flights; no obvious target for retaliation). Oklahoma City, the U.S. barracks in Saudi Arabia, the Atlanta Olympic games—every newscast drives home how many cheaper, easier alternatives are available to a determined terrorist.

Still, many argue that, if the slightest possibility exists that Hawaii or Alaska could be threatened by North Korea, or China could even conceivably hold San Francisco hostage, we should spend what it takes to develop a missile defense. After all, how can you put a price tag on American lives?

These arguments sound compelling, and they make for unbeatable election-year rhetoric. The problem is that an aggressive missile defense program may prove not only costly and ineffective, but also dangerous. For the last quarter century, the United States and Russia have adhered to strict guidelines set forth in the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972. On the assumption that a nation that felt safe from retaliation would be more inclined to launch a first strike, the ABM Treaty prohibits missile defense systems that could undermine the opposition’s retaliatory capabilities. ABM guidelines thus allow Russia and the United States to reduce their nuclear arsenals, yet remain confident in their counterstrike ability. Under the auspices of ABM, the two nations have cooperated on arms reduction efforts such as the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and START I, resulting in the destruction of hundreds of warheads. Another 60 to 70 percent reduction in Russia’s arsenal is expected once START II is ratified.

The establishment of a missile defense would be in clear violation of the ABM Treaty. Russia’s likely reaction would be to halt arms reduction efforts and undo the 1994 U.S.–Russia agreement to “de-target” one another. Russian officials have repeatedly linked ratification of START II with ABM adherence. China, too, would likely expand its nuclear program if U.S. missile defense plans threatened to render its small arsenal obsolete.

Going Ballistic

What all the strong missile defense rhetoric obscures is the fact that we are not faced with a choice between erecting a missile defense system and doing nothing at all. We currently have several programs working to protect the United States from nuclear attack. But they have more to do with dismantling weapons systems than building them.

Any effort to strengthen U.S. security must focus on reducing the size and increasing the security of existing nuclear arsenals. As the former Soviet Union’s military infrastructure deteriorates, the chances increase that a systems malfunction will cause an accidental launch, or that a renegade officer will launch without authorization. Programs such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and START I reduce this risk by slashing nuclear stockpiles in the former Soviet states and putting the remaining warheads under Russian command.

Efforts to aid in the disposal of fissile material and chemical and biological weapons are also under way. Two major U.S.–Russian programs are the Department of Energy’s “Lab-to-Lab,” which aims to tighten the security of research facilities, and the Cooperative Threat Reduction plan sponsored by Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar. Nunn-Lugar provides broad-based assistance, ranging from the disassembling of weapons systems to the conversion of manufacturing facilities for civilian use. Also important are the site inspections conducted by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Proposals for future risk reduction efforts include easing the alert level of remaining missiles. Russian ICBMs are currently on a high alert, ready to launch at the first hint of a strike (which could include a false hint such as a solar storm). To ease this quick-draw situation, warheads could be removed and stored separately. This “zero alert” environment would require periodic monitoring and could be maintained only through the cooperation of all of the declared nuclear nations.

Until recently, such cooperative efforts were attacked as wasteful foreign aid by Republicans, who preferred that funding go toward missile defense systems. Now these conflicts are being circumvented by increasing the defense budget. “But you can’t keep playing that game,” says Cirincione. “The economic imperatives eventually catch up with you.” When the time comes again for tough choices, history suggests that missile defense programs won’t be the victims of downsizing.

With all the problems plaguing ballistic missile defense, what about it continues to enthrall military strategists and politicians? A purely cynical response would be: money. Defense contractors have deep pockets and generous donation habits. In the first six months of 1995, four members of the House National Security Appropriations Subcommittee got more than $10,000 apiece from PACs associated with missile defense contractors (as did Newt Gingrich, who, you will recall, is a cosponsor of the Defend America Act). In all, the top missile contractors’ PACs gave $832,450 to House members in the first half of 1995.

No less intense is the military’s financial stake in the debate. Much criticism has been leveled at the redundancy of separate Army, Navy, and Air Force programs. But with no Cold War, the armed services are facing major budget cuts, and no one wants to relinquish a piece of a pie as rich and glamorous as missile defense. “This debate is being driven largely by interservice bureaucratic rivalries, institutional self-images, and personal career trajectories,” says John Pike, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Space Policy Project. “Forget North Korea. We’re talking about big issues here, like promotions and funding share and employment opportunities.”

To its credit, the military maintains a sharp distinction between its quest for effective theater missile defense and the national defense systems politicians are clamoring for. The Pentagon openly opposed the Defend America Act, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has warned Congress against jeopardizing arms reductions with violations of the ABM Treaty. But, in apparent concern that the professional military’s judgment has been clouded by partisanship, the congressional true believers are taking charge. House Republicans have vowed to make Defend America more cost-attractive, and the Senate has plans to revisit the various missile defense proposals later this year.

For now, both national and theater ballistic missile defense have again dropped from the headlines. But, as always, the programs have far from disappeared. The Clinton administration plans to spend $16.5 billion on research and development over the next five years. With that kind of support, military scientists can afford to toil away in peaceful anonymity—until the next time some politician decides to dust off the issue and try it on for size.

Michelle Cottle

Follow Michelle on Twitter @mcottle. Michelle Cottle is a member of the New York Times editorial board and the Washington Monthly's Board of Directors. She was an editor for the Monthly from 1996 to 1998.