Iron Dome Does Not Vindicate SDI

Sure, Max Boot makes terrible historical analogies, but I’ve always just assumed that the disagreements I have with him are based on honest differences and not utter ignorance. After today, I’m no longer sure that’s the case. Writing at Commentary Magazine’s Contentions blog, Boot argues,

The latest Gaza war is only a few days old, but already one conclusion can be drawn: missile defense works. This is only the latest vindication for the vision of Ronald Reagan… who made missile defense a major priority for the U.S. and our allies.

Boot is referring to the Iron Dome system co-developed by Israel and the United States. Iron Dome is designed to defend against unsophisticated sub-Scud rockets—specifically with a range less than forty-five miles—used by terrorist groups like Hamas. The system is showing some impressive results according to most reports. Boot himself cites statistics released by the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC showing a ninety percent interception rate against rockets aimed at inhabited areas in Israel. However successful Iron Dome may be, linking it to Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative—an idea envisioned to defend against nuclear tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs)—is absurd in the extreme. This afternoon, University of Kentucky political scientist and Lawyers, Guns, and Money blogger Robert Farley went on an epic Twitter rant in response to this nonsense. It’s a good rebuttal even in one hundred and forty character spurts, but I want to look at two specific assertions and then the larger comparison of Iron Dome to SDI.

In his post, Boot claims:

But now the U.S. West Coast is actually protected by a limited ballistic-missile defense system based primarily around satellites, sea-based Aegis and X-band radars, and Standard Missile-3 interceptors.

This is just completely and utterly factually incorrect. The continental United States is protected by a national missile defense system deployed on the West Coast—specifically in Alaska and California—but it does not use either Aegis or Standard Missile (SM-3) interceptors. The system consists of thirty ground-based interceptors (GBI) stationed at Fort Greely, AK and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California as part of a Ground-based Midcourse Defense. Aegis-equipped ships do provide tracking data for homeland defense, but SM-3 missiles are part of a European missile defense system that will deploy an SM-3 variant at some point later in the decade believed to provide some capability for homeland defense.

This initial factually challenged assertion leads to an even more dubious statement:

We don’t know how the system would work in combat but it has been vindicated in testing.

This one takes a little more explanation as to why it’s wrong. First, we don’t know whether Boot is asserting testing has vindicated GBI or SM-3 interceptors. In either case the record is far too uncertain to pretend anything close to vindication has occurred. GBIs have failed fifty percent of their tests since 1999. SM-3s have a much better record but even that presents problems. Theodore Postol of MIT and George Lewis of Cornell University have pushed back against Missile Defense Agency (MDA) claims about successful SM-3 tests, stating that in most tests the interceptor either missed the missile completely, or struck the missile body rather than the warhead—which would either allow the warhead to continue on to its target or cause it shortfall, possibly onto other inhabited areas. Not to mention, the SM-3 variant meant to protect the continental United States is still in development and has yet to be tested. The SM-3 Block IIB won’t be deployed until 2020, has not been tested, and its effectiveness at intercepting ICBMs has been called into question (pdf). There are also problems with the testing program in general. Interceptor tests are generally scheduled on days with favorable weather and with foreknowledge of when the attacking missile will be launched. Response time is a key aspect to intercepting ballistic missiles. In realistic conditions the time of an attack will be unknown and how sea-based interceptors respond in bad weather and rough seas is still in question. Also, any aggressive attack is likely to involve multi-missile salvos. GBI and SM-3 tests have only involved single missile attacks. In other words, it is impossible to say current missile defense capabilities have been “vindicated” by testing.

As far as the larger comparison of Iron Dome to SDI, the two could not be more different. SDI was envisioned to defend against intercontinental-range ballistic missiles, of which the Soviets had thousands. Even today’s high tech interceptors would not meet the futuristic vision Reagan laid out of lasers in space that could destroy enemy ICBMs in their boost phase—a vision commonly derided as Star Wars. The type of rockets fired by Hamas are nowhere near as sophisticated as the type of missiles GBI and the SM-3 interceptors are meant to defend against today. Iron Dome is designed to defend against sub-Scud rockets that do not leave the atmosphere. GBIs and SM-3s have the much harder task of achieving exoatmospheric interception—hitting a missile in the vacuum of space where it more difficult to discern warheads from decoys or chaff

Besides, as Farley pointed out on Twitter, even if a national missile defense system achieved the type of ninety percent interception record Boot claims Iron Dome has, it is irrelevant if that remaining ten percent consisted of ICBMs with nuclear warheads. There are generally two counterarguments posed when this is pointed out. The first rejoinder consistently revolves around the idea that missile defense need not be one hundred percent effective; it only needs to complicate an adversary’s strategic calculations—that it will reduce their confidence that they could successfully execute an attack. While this is one possibility, it might also provide them an incentive to expand their arsenal to ensure they could overcome U.S. defenses or not leave themselves vulnerable to an American first strike. There is some evidence that this dynamic is partly driving current growth in China’s strategic arsenal.

The other counterargument concedes that missile defense would not work against larger, sophisticated missile arsenals like those of Russia or China but would be useful against smaller, rogue states like Iran or North Korea—which provide justification for current missile defense efforts. This may be true to a certain extent, but it eschews anything resembling a cost-benefit analysis. The United States has spent (pdf) $150 billion just on those missile defense systems developed and procured by the Missile Defense Agency since 1985. On the other hand, Iran still has neither nuclear weapons nor delivery systems capable of reaching the United States and North Korea’s most recent missile test once again failed miserably. It is understandable to seek a defense against even limited threats from regimes such as those in Tehran and Pyongyang, but it should come with some cognizance of the costs involved. Under any circumstances, comparing efforts at defending against Iran and North Korea to Reagan’s vision of making the Soviet strategic arsenal “impotent and obsolete” is ridiculous. An even more ridiculous assertion is the one that conflates Iron Dome with SDI.


7 comments to Iron Dome Does Not Vindicate SDI

  • Video footage of Iron Dome appears to indicate that they involve high explosive (HE) rounds, versus the kinetic warheads that are popular in US anti-missile systems. See:

    There are videos of lab tests of kinetic warheads that demonstrate that kinetic warheads are capable of delicate maneuvers that would be necessary “to hit a bullet with a bullet.” However, uninformed viewers might still harbor doubts as to real-world probabilities of the success of kinetics versus HE.

    Another observation from the above video of Iron Dome is that their missiles appear slower than the missiles they are targeting and perhaps not much more maneuverable, unlike, for example, Hawks, which were so maneuverable that they were capable of turning around and destroying their launch sites if they were unable to locate a suitable target in flight.

    The US defense budget involves sticker shock with systems such as the JSF and ICBM modernization. Anti-missile defense is hard and often unrewarding, and appears to have suffered from a lack of emphasis in comparison to other priorities.

    One of the lessons from Kargil is that delicate deterrence theories developed symbiotically over several decades of the Cold War can be ignored by modern leaders with nuclear arsenals at their disposal. In the period since that conflict, those same leaders have continued to treat “Western” deterrence models as a foreign ideology with little relevance to their regional strategic considerations. Absent the limits on escalation that traditional deterrence theories provide, an increased focus on the development of better missile defense systems would appear both necessary and prudent.

  • Craig Burley

    I couldn’t disagree more with your bizarre interpretations of what we have learned post-Kargil. The stability-instability paradox remains alive and well between India and Pakistan, and both sides have a highly nuanced theory of deterrence that incorporates it. It’s true that India are highly dissatisfied with this state of affairs (a locked-in deterrence standoff with a robust stability-instability paradox accompanying it) because they are the ones that pay the vast majority of the associated costs.

    No non-”western” nuclear power is either ignoring deterrence or dispensing with it.

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