Missile Defense Malfunction: Why the Proposed U.S. Missile Defenses in Europe Will Not Work *

By Coyle, Philip; Samson, Victoria | Ethics & International Affairs, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Missile Defense Malfunction: Why the Proposed U.S. Missile Defenses in Europe Will Not Work *


Coyle, Philip, Samson, Victoria, Ethics & International Affairs


The U.S. proposal to establish missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic has exacerbated relations with Russia to a degree not seen since the height of the Cold War, and has done so despite the fact that the system has no demonstrated capability to defend the United States, let alone Europe, under realistic operational conditions. Further, it is being built on the shoulders of a missile defense system that has not come close to proving itself in testing and is still missing major components. Indeed, even the branch of the Pentagon charged with developing missile defense, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), claims only to be able to address an "unsophisticated threat." As this paper will demonstrate, the proposed U.S. missile defense system in Europe creates much havoc and provides no security in return.

LIMITS AND CAPABILITIES

Since President Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" speech in 1983, the United States has spent over $110 billion on the elusive goal of establishing some sort of missile defense system for its territory, its troops abroad, and its allies, yet no effective system exists to date. What the United States has proposed for Europe is part of an overall ballistic missile defense system (BMDS) that would, it is claimed, eventually defend against all ranges of ballistic missiles during all stages of their flights. The primary missile defense system--the one most commonly associated with the subject--is the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system. In its development of the GMD system, the MDA has arbitrarily minimized the hypothetical threat against which it would defend to just one or at most two enemy intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Generally, the countries used as justification for this particular system are North Korea and Iran. As of the end of 2007 the GMD system had twenty-four ground-based interceptors deployed in Ft. Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. (1)

Despite a middling test record of seven intercepts out of thirteen attempts over the course of a decade, the GMD's three-stage interceptor is being used as the model for extending the system to Europe. What is particularly notable is that, because of the expense of the tests and the embarrassment associated with failure, all thirteen tests have been conducted with advance information about the mock attack, information that no real enemy would willingly provide. Nonetheless, tests have failed roughly half the time. This is not unusual for a system that is so early in its development process, but it does indicate that the GMD system has much progress to make before it can be depended upon to provide a defense against ICBMs. The proposed European deployment, also called the "third site" because it would be the third deployment after the interceptors in Alaska and California, would include a two-stage variant of the GMD interceptor, which is yet to be developed and is not scheduled to be tested until 2010. (2) The GMD system has run into many problems during testing. Starting in 1999 the system tests included a few simple balloons as decoys, but these proved exceedingly challenging. These countermeasures were later phased out of the testing program, but may begin to be incorporated into system tests in 2008 after a six-year hiatus. Until they are consistently a part of the testing process, however, one cannot say that the tests are operationally realistic, as any country that could make a long-range, multistage ballistic missile that could reach the United States or Europe could also add simple but effective decoys to the missile.

Decoys and countermeasures are the Achilles' heel of any missile defense, and the proposed system in Europe is no exception. To use a popular analogy, shooting down an enemy missile is like trying to hit a hole-in-one in golf when the hole is moving at 17,000 mph. And if an enemy uses decoys and countermeasures, missile defense is like trying to hit a hole-in-one when the hole is moving at 17,000 mph and the green is covered with black circles the same size as the hole. …

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