Wanting it All: The Heritage Foundation’s Flawed Missile Defense Recommendations

The Heritage Foundation has released a new report [pdf] on President Obama’s missile defense strategy by Baker Spring.  Unfortunately, as with most of Heritage’s material on missile defense, Spring’s report has a fatal flaw that makes it unrealistic:  wanting it all.  The strategy proposed in the report goes far beyond what is necessary based on existing ballistic missile threats and is based on technologies that have proved neither reliable nor cost effective.  The report also goes beyond merely honest disagreements about strategic necessities.  It is riddled with factual errors and makes assertions about the Obama administration’s missile defense policy that are simply not backed up by reality.  The Obama administration’s missile defense plans are problematic enough, and it seems Spring has found numerous ways to make them worse.

Perhaps Spring’s most egregious factual error is paired with his call to resurrect the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS)—a trilateral air and missile defense system developed with Italy and Germany.  Even Heritage’s Defending Defense brethren at the American Enterprise have called for an end to MEADS.  A pretty good rule of thumb when deciding whether or not a weapon system—any weapon system, but particularly a big ticket item like MEADS—should be cut:  if Gary Schmitt thinks so, it’s probably a good idea.  MEADS is an unnecessary and redundant system that has been marred by technical problems while offering little to no added capability when compared to the Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3) or Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems.  The Heritage report disingenuously claims that the Obama administration cancelled MEADS to appease Russia and gain Moscow’s acquiescence to an unspecified arms control agreement.  It’s hard to know what arms control the report is referring to considering MEADS was cancelled well after the ratification of New START and as part of a series of program cancellations designed to free up money in the Pentagon’s budget for other priorities.  MEADS was also fairly inconsequential vis-à-vis the U.S.-Russian strategic relationship, so even if it was traded as quid pro quo for reductions in the Russian nuclear arsenal, it was a bargain.  The report also implies that the MEADS cancellation effectively ends U.S. missile defense cooperation with its European allies, but the cancellation came after Washington pushed to have missile defense included in NATO’s new strategic concept at the 2010 NATO Summit in Lisbon, and the Obama administration’s 2010 Ballistic Missile Defense Review report outlines the administration’s plan to shift away from bilateral and trilateral missile defense arrangements and to instead construct a multilateral, regional missile defense architecture through it’s Phased Adaptive Approach.  This plan is probably unnecessary, but it is flat wrong to imply that the cancellation of a single, ineffective program represents an end to cooperation with America’s European allies.

Spring also makes the claim that New START imposes “sweeping restrictions on U.S. missile defense options.”  Actually, New START imposes two specific, and limited, restrictions on U.S. missile defense options.  These restrictions prohibit the conversion of land-based missile silos and ballistic missile submarines into launchers for missile interceptors.  According to Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, head of the Missile Defense Agency, silo conversion is both unnecessary and costly, while conversion of ballistic missile submarines for missile defense has never been considered because command-and-control issues would make interceptions nearly impossible.  Of course, most critics of New START have pointed to language in the Treaty’s preamble [pdf] that refers to an interrelationship between strategic offensive and defensive systems as evidence that the Obama administration had traded American defense for Russian arms reductions.  The preamble language is non-binding and there is obviously ample evidence—in the form of the Ballistic Missile Defense Review, the NATO missile defense agreement, and the approximately $12 billion missile defense budget requested by the administration—to demonstrate that New START has done nothing to restrict U.S. missile defense plans.  The United States has long maintained that deploying strategic defenses will effect decisions about strategic offensive deployments—what Robert McNamara termed the “action-reaction cycle.”  Simply acknowledging that reality does not itself represent any type of legally binding restriction.

The type of action-reaction cycle McNamara referred to goes to the heart of some of the fundamental disagreements that have often characterized controversial missile defense deployments since the early days of the Cold War.  It is assumed that potential adversaries who are concerned about the ability of their nuclear arsenals to overcome a defensive system will merely expand the number of weapons they have.  Since offensive capabilities are often less expensive than defensive systems, it will then be easier to overcome missiles defenses than it will be to design systems effective enough to provide protection against ballistic missiles.  This is not true in all cases—it is unlikely that rogue states will have the resources to expand their arsenals to a sufficient number of ballistic missiles to overcome American defenses—but it is likely China and Russia would undertake steps to ensure they have enough missiles to overwhelm any number of ballistic missile interceptors the United States could deploy.  In fact, Russian President Dimitry Medvedev has explicitly threatened to expand Russia’s strategic forces if an arrangement for a joint NATO-Russian missile defense system in Europe is not reached, and it is speculated that a major factor driving China’s nuclear modernization effort is Beijing’s desire to ensure it can overcome possible U.S. defense deployments.

To overcome the action-reaction cycle, Heritage has advocated a “robust,” layered missile defense system since the days of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, and Heritage analysts propose dedicating between 2 and 3 percent of the total defense budget to missile defense development and deployment.  The strategy they advocate is meant to “defend against all ballistic missile threats”—Spring refers to this as a “defend and protect” strategy.  It’s obviously desirable to protect against potential ballistic missile threats, but this report does nothing to address what the threats are, to what extent the proposed missile defense strategy would protect against those threats, or whether the proposed cost is worthwhile.   Spring proposes a “layered” defense that includes boost phase, midcourse, and terminal interceptors, but interception at any stage is far from guaranteed even if all were employed.  A 2004 study by the American Physical Society found that the speed necessary for target acquisition and engagement in the boost phase, using current technology like the Airborne Laser (ABL) that Spring recommends, makes successful interception highly unlikely—if not impossible.  Secretary of Defense Robert Gates cancelled the ABL and other boost phase systems in September 2009 because they were “prohibitively costly” and had shown limited capability.  Midcourse interception—which is the primary means the Obama administration’s strategy relies on—has shown the most success in intercepting ICBMs, but even that capability has proven less-than-reassuring.  The Ground-Based Interceptors (GBIs) stationed in California and Alaska have only a 46% success rate in controlled tests undertaken since 2002, and the most recent test failure in December 2010 cost $100 million.  Spring bemoans the Obama administration’s cancellation of the “third site” of GBIs in Poland, but, given their spotty test record, canceling these interceptors was the best move the administration could have made.

The Obama administration has decided to focus on the Standard Missile 3 (SM-3) as the centerpiece of it’s missile defense policy, but Spring accuses the administration of failing to “exploit the full potential” of the SM-3 by not pursuing a more aggressive production schedule on versions of the SM-3 (the SM-3 Block IIA and Block IIB) that can intercept longer-range missiles.  While the SM-3 has shown greater capability in testing, those results have been challenged as well by MIT physicist Theodore Postol—who gained notoriety after the first Gulf War by challenging the Pentagon’s claims about the success of Patriot missile interceptors against Iraqi SCUD missiles.  Postol, along with George Lewis of Cornell University, found that the overwhelming majority of the ten SM-3 tests should have been deemed failures because the interceptor would only have hit the missile itself in most cases—allowing the warhead to continue on to its target.  There is no sense in attempting rush development on an untested long-range missile interceptor, when even the short-range interceptor has still only been tested under suspect conditions.

None of this is to say that ballistic missile defense is completely useless, but it is important to put its utility in perspective.  There are three, still very limited ways in which missile defense can be realistically used:  facilitating conventional military intervention against a rogue state with a limited number of ballistic missiles, protecting against limited retaliation following a counterforce nuclear strike, or protecting against an extremely limited first strike.  Legendary international relations theorist Ken Waltz referred to missile defense as “the shield that makes your sword usable.”  But even here the capability is limited.  To enable conventional intervention without fear, the type of potential retaliatory capability an adversary possessed would have to be extremely small for U.S. GBIs to be able to handle them.  For missile defense to effectively prevent retaliation from a counterforce strike, the first strike would have to eliminate the overwhelming majority of an adversary’s missile force.  This is made more difficult when decoys and hardened silos, road-mobile missile launchers, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles are employed.  As mentioned above, rogue states like Iran and North Korea are unlikely to have sufficient resources to simply overwhelm U.S. missile defenses the way Russia or China could, but, based on the technical difficulties mentioned above as well, even against rogue states missile defense would only provide a limited amount of protection—especially if decoys and chaff are employed so that radars are unable to locate the warhead among other objects. Fortunately, the threat from these states is limited and the United States still maintains the ability to essentially obliterate rogue regimes if they were to be foolish enough to launch an attack against U.S. territory.   Still, the most likely utility missile defense could provide is against a very small missile attack consisting of no more than a handful of ballistic missiles launched either accidentally or aggressively.   To accomplish that task, only a very limited missile defense is necessary, and employing the systems—and, more importantly, spending the amount of money—that Spring recommends is wholly unnecessary.  The Obama administration’s plans go far beyond the capability that is needed already; going further should not be even considered an option.


4 comments to Wanting it All: The Heritage Foundation’s Flawed Missile Defense Recommendations

  • An intriguing and well-argued article. I wonder, however, why you dismiss the possibility of rogue states having enough missiles to overcome an adversary’s defences (in this article, the US). Can a rogue state not quietly build up an arsenal over time that is sufficiently large to pose a threat? Pakistan makes an excellent case – even though the US does not consider it a rogue state but its “closest non-NATO ally,” Pakistan has steadfastly pursued the manufacturing of nuclear weapons and has recently built yet another reactor to augment its fissile material stockpile. It has acquired technology in rocket propulsion and guidance and incrementally improved its missile capability. Although Pakistan was hardly a threat in 1981, today, it is a major threat to stability in the region. There is no reason to assume that Pakistan will not continue to expand its capabilities to a point where it is a threat to the whole world or another state may not choose to follow Pakistan’s model elsewhere in the world.

  • Matt Fay

    That’s a very good point. It’s obviously not impossible for rogue states to improve their capabilities tremendously, but the difference between Pakistan and today’s rogues, like Iran and North Korea, is that Pakistan served as and eye-opener to the type of dangers proliferators pose. That’s why you see moves to strengthen the Missile Technology Control Regime. Pakistan also didn’t face the same type of sanctions that Pyongyang and Tehran have. And neither has the luxury of some sucker…er…I mean, benefactor, handing them a billion dollars in aid each year for the past decade. Anything is possible obviously, and the recent UN report that China blocked in the Security Council about Beijing aiding both Iran and North Korean ballistic missile programs is certainly worrisome, but, at this point, they still have a very limited capacity. I think that’s a good reason not to deploy costly interceptors now and to instead devote those resources to research and development of more effective systems that can combat any improved capability in the future.

  • What alternatives do you suggest instead of BMD? These technologies take time and years if not decades to develop. If we work on them right now, perhaps by the time a rogue state truly poses a threat there can be an effective defence. I do understand your point of costs, particularly spiralling costs and the nature of escalation, but what are the other options? Beyond diplomacy and sanctions, of course…

  • Matt Fay

    The alternative is not necessarily a satisfying one, but the best bet is still to pursue a deterrent strategy. One of the criticisms in the Heritage report is that the Obama administration relies on the “outdated” Cold War strategy of threatening massive retaliation. The idea is basically that rogue states are too irrational to be deterred. Deterrence threats need to be communicated in a different manner than they were in the Cold War, given the asymmetric relationships now, but that doesn’t mean they can’t still be effective. I worry less about the rationality of a rogue state than I do about their competency in preventing accidental missile launches. Scott Sagan has written on numerous occasions about the U.S. military’s own screw-ups with nuclear weapons. As much as I’m perpetually skeptical about my own government’s competency about anything, I’m fairly certain that its far more competent than the regimes in Tehran and Pyongyang. That’s why I absolutely support a limited missile defense deployment.

    But what alternatives are pursued also depends on what your goals are. If it’s merely protecting the CONUS from attack then a limited missile defense and robust deterrence strategy should be plenty. If we’re talking about extended deterrence, that’s a different story. Extended deterrence depends on what an enemy perceives you are willing to risk in retaliation for coming to an ally’s aid, and it also depends on what they perceive to be your threshold for intervention. Obviously, the U.S. wasn’t going to risk attacking Pyongyang for its attacks on the Chenoan or Yeongpyong Island, but a rocket attack on Seoul might be a different story. If the goal is also to halt proliferation, an ally must assume the U.S. is willing to accept a certain level of risk on their behalf. It is believed missile defense will help alleviate allies’ fears that the U.S. would be too risk averse to intervene on their behalf. That’s an awfully expensive proposition just to assure allies you might come to their defense.

    Of course, the Heritage position seems to be more worried about compellance than simply defending the U.S. or allies. They want an active response to provocations like the Yeongpyong and they ultimately want regime change, and they also want to back China away from its current cross-strait ambitions. That, of course, brings a whole mess of problems. Missile defense would do little other than to clean up after a counterforce strike against China, but seeing as Beijing is going to be deploying SLBMs and the new DF-31 is going to be road-mobile, a successful counterforce attack will probably be unlikely very soon.