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Volume II, Number 5031 December 2002

Good Money After Bad

Tim Francis-Wright

American conservatives love to proclaim that government is wasting tax dollars by throwing money at supposedly intractable social problems. When those same conservatives are faced with a truly intractable military problem, however, guess what they do. They throw lots of money at the problem, money that turns into so much dross.

In 2000, the Brookings Institution calculated the overall cost to the United States of its nuclear weapons program. The cumulative cost of all missile defense programs to that point was some $122 billion, adjusted for inflation to 2000 prices. This figure includes a staggering $69 billion spent on the programs started by President Reagan in 1983, but it does not include the newly invigorated missile defense program of the Bush administration. This sums are staggering, even for the Pentagon, a building used to wasting money. Even one of the craziest military boondoggles ever, the nuclear-powered aircraft cost only $7 billion, adjusted for inflation.

Critics of the Reagan missile defense program dubbed it "Star Wars" after the overwrought series of movies. Indeed, in the 1980s the Pentagon dreamed up an array of futuristic weapons systems, from particle-beam weapons to X-ray lasers fueled by small nuclear explosions. These systems were supposed to be part of a flawless shield to protect the United States from an attack by the Soviet Union. The newest installment in the Pentagon's Star Wars saga lacks the particle beams, and the X-ray lasers, and the Soviet Union. The current thinking is that the system will protect the United States from the rogue nations like North Korea. While this episode of Star Wars lacks Jar Jar Binks, it is still a rotten idea.

The Bush administration has already abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 to start work on an installation at Fort Greely in Alaska. The site, with operations to start in 2004 or 2005, will have 5 interceptors designed to destroy enemy warheads before they enter the atmosphere. The cost of this limited a program will cost upwards of $8 billion per year for several years, because radar installations will need upgrading, and other sites will get similar installations.

Besides its insane cost of the system, there are only four real problems with the current missile defense system. The Bush administration thinks that these problems are not material enough to keep the program off the fast track. Even worse, these problems have not weighed heavily enough on potential opponents in Washington, whether fiscal conservatives who loathe overspending, liberals who rue cutbacks in social programs that get money to needy people, or anyone who worries about provoking other countries.

The system does not work now

The components of the current missile defense system have been through a series of tests to see if the ground radars can detect enemy missiles, if the interceptors can find their targets, and if the interceptors can hit their targets. The results so far have been spotty at best, and fraudulent at worst. In several cases, the ostensible success of a test masked that the target in question included a homing beacon for the interceptor. Few leaders of rogue nations are irrational enough to put a giant "hit me here" sign on their secret weapons.

Missile defense may never work

In the near-vacuum outside the Earth's atmosphere, nuclear warheads launched by missiles would glide in arcs that carry them near their intended targets. Their small size and lack of large, hot propulsion systems makes them difficult targets. Any country advanced enough to build and deploy nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles would have the technical ability to deploy countermeasures. A missile could release thousands of pieces of chaff designed to confuse the radars that help interceptors. It could carry several decoy warheads designed to look like real ones. Reflective balloons could encircle real warheads, dummy warheads, or even nothing. Electronic devices could blind or otherwise confuse the radars of the interceptors.

Any missile defense system with a limited number of interceptors has a built-in problem: it can only protect against an attack of a certain size, even if it works nearly perfectly. If the intent of a system is to prevent an attack from a country with limited access to weapons of mass destruction, then this flaw is a small one. But one of the reasons that the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to limit their missile defenses in the 1970s was that the systems then in use would easily be overwhelmed.

A missile defense that concentrated on attacking missiles in their "boost phase," when rockets lift them from the ground through the atmosphere has a number of supporters, including some of the most critical observer of the current scheme. During the boost phase, a warhead is in a bigger target, a missile that needs lots of volume to hold propellant. Missiles are easier to detect in the atmosphere than warheads are outside the atmosphere: missiles are burning large amounts of fuel, while warheads are mostly gliding through space.

But a defense system based on a boost phase would be difficult to implement. The boost phase does not last very long, and a system would need to tell very quickly which missile launches contained nuclear warheads and which were launching satellites. Unless a boost phase system relied on attacks from satellites, the range of a system would be limited because the Earth is curved. Not all rogue nations will be as small or as accessible as North Korea.

Any missile defense system, whether based on intercepting warheads in space or missiles in the atmosphere has a seamy underbelly. A rogue state intent on attacking the United States or its allies might feel no obligation to do so with a ballistic missile. The last group to mount a large- scale attack on the United States did so with commercial aircraft. Nuclear weapons are generally small enough to travel by aircraft or ship, and no missile defense system will work against ships at sea.

We might not want missile defenses to work

Most nuclear weapons states, like the United States and Russia, have nuclear weapons that are quite secure from attack. Secure weapons provide a very effective indirect defense because it makes a first-strike nuclear attack irrational: if a first strike can never allow an adversary to prevail militarily, then no rational adversary would try a first strike. The ability to punish an aggressor with a potential retaliatory strike is the basis of nuclear deterrence.

The price for a system of nuclear deterrence is that the countries involved have a surfeit of nuclear weapons, and all of the problems that go along with them. Producing nuclear weapons crates the most toxic compounds on earth. Deploying nuclear weapons, even secure ones, creates the possibility of a horrible accidental nuclear explosion, or even an accidental war. It is more than reasonable to try to find a better system than the system of deterrence. But any new system should not be appreciably riskier than the current system.

Deploying missile defenses engenders a host of problems. Potential adversaries would worry about the true use of missile defenses. Are they for defense only, or are they used in conjunction with a first-strike attack? Even a truly defensive system might precipitate a build-up of offensive weapons by adversaries, thus negating the original value of the system in the first place. Also, missiles are hard to hit, but satellites are comparatively easy targets, so any country with missile defenses has, in theory anti-satellite weapons. Protecting satellites, which serve myriad commercial and military uses, including verification of arms treaties, is in the interest of every advanced economy and military.

Because missile defenses are so problematic, and because they are hard to build well, the ABM Treaty of 1972 prevented the United States and Soviet Union from building more than token defenses. The Soviet system, around Moscow, and the American system, in North Dakota, both relied on nuclear weapons to destroy income warheads. In practice, the American system, Safeguard, was so ineffective that the Army dismantled it in 1975.

To see how missile defenses are categorically different from other weapons, imagine that some unpredictable country proves that it has nuclear weapons. Without a missile defense system, deterrence gives that country an incentive not to use nuclear weapons. As long as its nuclear weapons would not utterly destroy its adversaries, it would face might retribution if it used them. If our hypothetical country had a missile defense system that worked perfectly, it might use nuclear weapons without the fear of reprisal. The Bush administration is hoping for a world in which it can devise a perfect missile defense system, but none of its potential adversaries can.

If missile defenses worked, if they were likely to work in the future, and if they did not have huge problems for international security even if they did work, then spending hundreds of billions of dollars on them would be very expensive. In the real world, spending this kind of money makes no sense at all. We are throwing money at a problem that we have no real chance to solve when we have vastly better uses for it elsewhere.