Why is America still stuck with token missile defense?

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The covers of silos housing ground-based interceptor missiles at the Fort Greely missile defense complex in Fort Greely, Alaska, on April 26, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Mark Meyer

The short answer: the anti-defense mentality of late 1960s politicians and academics, embodied in the spirit and main provisions of the 1972 US-Soviet anti-ballistic defense missile treaty, remains embedded in the US bureaucracy, our military and defense industry.

That spirit is the heart of official US policy: we must do nothing, develop or research anything, that poses obstacles to missiles from Russia or China striking America.

Although the 1972 treaty expired in 2002, the US government, the military and its contractors remain committed to its key provisions:

  1. Defense against “strategic missiles,” (which we define as of intercontinental range) must be limited to a single “site;” and that interceptors launched from that “site” be programmed from that “site.”
  2. That no orbit-based optical information systems may “substitute for” ground-based radars.
  3. That no air defense systems be tested “in an ABM mode.”
  4. That anti-(strategic)missile systems based on “other physical principles” (read, lasers) are banned unless specifically allowed by future agreements.

Continued adherence to these strictures, unpacked below, is why President Trump’s addition of $400 million to the missile defense budget, and the Missile Defense Agency’s (MDA) requested increase of $2 billion for fiscal year 2019, are virtually certain to be spent on more of the same programs that are leaving the US vulnerable to missiles even from semi-starved North Korea.

We will stay with what has failed. This, despite the fact that the fiscal year 2018 Defense Authorization Act mandates the MDA to begin research on space-based interceptors for boost phase defense, and to “demonstrate” other technologies for that purpose. Why? Because of bureaucratic inertia plus interest group power.

This is all too normal. After President Reagan committed to the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), the lobbies for current programs redefined it as treaty-compliant R&D. Hence, they spent some $30 billion while making sure that nothing they did would inconvenience the Soviets or the Chinese. Their hare-brained schemes discredited missile defense.

Now as well, the MDA has made clear the additional money will be focused on North Korea, and Michael Griffith, the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, stated that “airborne missile defense” will be a major focus. The latter means non-existent drones, with devices based on non-existent technology, to hover over or near North Korea, undisturbed, 24/7/365. For patent nuttiness, this rivals any of the schemes by which the R&D community bilked taxpayers under SDI. But for sure, once again, the US government will steer clear of defending against Russia and China.

Refusal to defend against the major threats is the heart of the problem – also because this refusal is the technical source of the problems that plague US missile defense regarding such places as North Korea. That is because, by technical necessity, devices built to make sure that they can’t protect against Russia and China also turn out to be of scarce potency with regard to anything else. This is not widely understood. But it is crucial.

Item 1

Restricting surface-based missile defense to “sites” whose interceptors must be launched on the basis of information from the sites’ own radars is dysfunctional – this relies on the logic of interceptors and of information systems, regardless of the range of the missiles to be defended against.

Concentrating our National Missile Defense interceptors at one site in Alaska, with a handful in California – and then equipping them with the exquisite accuracy for hit-to-kill makes them big, fast, expensive, few and demands that they travel thousands of miles before reaching their targets. Perhaps in time, perhaps not.

For efficiency, interceptors should be spread out among and close to the many places they defend. Thus deployed, they need to be big and fast only enough to destroy the incoming warheads at a safe distance. Modern guidance technology – and warheads such as those of Israel’s Arrow, can make them cheap and plentiful.

Adhering to the “site” concept is most dysfunctional because of what it does to information systems. The Earth’s curvature limits radars, regardless of sophistication. To require interceptors to be launched by their site’s radar and fire control system is a self-denying ordinance that the launch must be delayed until the offensive warhead comes over the radar horizon.

To maximize the efficiency of radars for missile defense, they should be located close to the places whence offensive missiles are launched, and far away from the places to be defended. This forward-located radar and fire control systems should launch the rear-located interceptors. This would give the interceptors time to make the intercept at a safe distance.

But the geographic location of the United States and of its allies makes it impossible to place radars close to where Russian, Chinese, North Korean and Iranian missiles might be launched. And in any case, US policy has been to stick to “sites.” Until most recently, we have gone out of our way not to build the technical capacity to “launch on remote” information. That is why item 2 is so important.

Item 2

Already a half-century ago it was obvious that the key to effective ground-based missile defense – especially for the United States, given its geographic location – was to use orbit-based optical information systems and fire control instead of ground-based radars. That is why the ABM Treaty banned “substituting” such systems for radars. To this day, although we have satellites that cue our ground-based radars, the government canceled the SBIRS-LOW program that would have effected such a substitution.

Nothing would so enhance the efficiency of surface-based US missile defense like the rapid renewal and completion of such a program. Such information would enable the THAAD system that now offers Guam marginal protection against North Korean missiles, and sub-marginal protection against Chinese ones, the capacity to defend anywhere from any missiles from anywhere. Such a system would give similar capacity to our numerous Aegis and even our Patriot systems.

Today, THAAD, Aegis and Patriot, however, struggle to fulfill the role of “Theater Defense” for which they were intended.

The distinction between “theater” and “national” or “strategic” missile defense is a creature of US policy, not a reflection of technical reality. The reality of surface-based missile defense is a seamless set of problems – mainly speed and visibility – posed by ballistic targets at the point at which they come into the information systems’ view, of the distance between that point and the place to be defended, and of the time available for the interceptor to cover a distance sufficient for a safe intercept.

US policy created that distinction in an attempt to adhere to the ABM treaty as an absolute self-denying ordinance regarding the defense of America, while at the same time enabling itself to protect America’s allies. But for reasons both technical and geographic, abiding by items No. 1 and No. 2 diminished “theater defense” almost as much as it did “national defense.”

That is most evident by examining the effects of Item 3.

Item 3

Already a half-century ago, it was obvious that the differences between anti-aircraft defense and anti-missile defense are merely quantitative and that, because improvements in information technology were eliminating these differences, treaty restrictions on missile defense would be meaningless unless a bright line was drawn between the two. Except that drawing such a line was already impossible technically. The result was the prohibition against “testing in an ABM mode,” which each side could interpret as it wished. The US side interpreted it prohibitively, the Soviet side permissively.

The Soviet Union from the outset, and now Russia, connected, with fire control, first its primitive SA-5 long-range air defense rocket, subsequently the SA-12, and now the formidable S-400, first to the primitive Hen House network of early warning, then to the advanced Tallin network, and now to Russia’s advanced Voronezh class radars.

Given Russia’s geography, these connections make for good defense because of the distance between the peripheral radar and fire control systems and the widespread S-400s, soon to be 500s. These serve for air defense and for defense against all manner of missiles.

By contrast, US arms controllers limited the effectiveness of our otherwise advanced air defense systems, above all by limiting their connectivity. This is especially important because the geographic location of the US and its allies in relation to missile threats prevents their co-located radar and fire control systems from giving adequate time for their interceptors – marginal for shorter-range missiles, no margin at all for longer range ones.

That is because the quality, and above all the timing, of the information on the basis of which the interceptor is launched is the principal factor affecting whether and how well it can perform against targets.

For example, the S-400 is effective for missile defense only in Russia, when connected to remote warning and fire control. When it is in Syria or elsewhere, though dominant for air defense, it may well be inferior to Aegis for any kind of missile defense. In short, connectivity or lack thereof is the principal factor that makes or prevents long-range interceptors from functioning “in an ABM mode.” The US has chosen poorly.

But defense by land or sea-based interceptors against missile warheads is far less efficient than defending against the missiles themselves as they arc into space. This can be done only from orbit, and most effectively by laser weapons. Hence, item No. 4.

Item 4

The ABM Treaty’s prohibition of missile defense by weapons based on “other physical principles” was inserted not because of a technical consensus that boost-phase defense by lasers was infeasible. On the contrary. The technical paths to space laser weapons’ development were already clear.

By 1976, the US Navy had developed a near-infrared laser scaleable to several megawatts. It had intended it for the defense of ships against cruise missiles, but discovered that lasers don’t propagate well or even reliably within the atmosphere – a lesson that the US government would have to re-learn again and again.

Not a few noted, however, that it would be lethal if deployed in orbit. That same year, the KH-11 intelligence satellite went into service. Its pointing-tracking system, accurate to tenths of a nano-radian, and its huge mirror, were the space laser weapon’s main missing ingredients. By 1979, a low-level effort to combine them began. Fifteen years later, The New York Times reported that the prototype was “nearly ready to fly.” It was canceled precisely because it would have defended against Russian and Chinese missiles. That was, and remains US policy.

Beginning in 1996, Grumman/TRW adapted the space laser’s technology for the ground-based defense of Israeli urban areas against artillery rockets. This was far more difficult technically than deploying the system in space – that is, providing the negative pressure for the laser’s hypersonic nozzles and shooting at targets with high angular velocities.

In short, the weapon that destroyed artillery rockets and mortar shells in Israel up to 2007 is a more complex device than what would have been deployed in space. This means that, technically, space-based lasers are as lively an option as ever for defending against missiles.

All of the above returns us to our original question’s short answer: The public’s demand for missile defense and technology’s availability notwithstanding, we have and odds are we will keep, a token missile defense because inertia and interests unintentionally support a policy based on arguments for arms control once publicly potent, but that now are expressed in their 1960s purity only in yesteryear’s venues. In the late 1960s, American and Soviet scientists came to believe that a defense against long-range missiles would never be effective.

GMD remains the sole system designed to counter intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The United States is developing a ship-based interceptor that in theory could intercept strategic missiles and plans to field hundreds of them in the coming years.

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