The mystery of missile defence

After the latest failed missile defence tests, critics wonder why the US has spent $100bn on the system.

Russia expressed concern over the US missile defence programme, stoking fears of a new arms race [GALLO/GETTY]

The cold war ended two decades ago, but dreams of an impenetrable missile shield from Ronald Reagan – who once called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” – are firmly back on the US national security agenda.

Late on Wednesday, the US tested its newest round of interceptors, spending $100m to blast a missile from the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean towards California.

The anti-ballistic missile system failed, as the kill vehicle designed to blow the projectile out of the sky missed its target, adding to a long-list of unsuccessful tests for the expensive weaponisation scheme.

Since the end of the cold war the US has spent “approximately $100bn” on missile defence systems, Richard Lehner, a spokesman for the Missile Defence Agency, told Al Jazeera.

Wednesday’s failed long-range test was important because it involved an attempt to intercept a dummy warhead, rather than the usual testing scheme of just maneuvering the missile to a particular point in space, said Ian Anthony, the research coordinator for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a think-tank in Sweden.

Big bucks

Despite constant technological problems with the system, the White House has requested $9.9bn for missile defence programmes for the next fiscal year (2011), Anthony told Al Jazeera.

Those vast sums of money concern Theodore Postol, a professor of science and international security at MIT and a former scientific adviser to the head of US naval operations. The weapons expert, hardly a liberal dove, just doesn’t believe missile defence can work technologically.

View Mapping the missiles in a larger map

“If you look at it as an engineering and defence enterprise, it makes no sense,” Postol told Al Jazeera.

Technological failures and massive financial costs aside, if Barack Obama, the US president, is serious about reducing the possibility of nuclear war, then it seems developing new missile systems isn’t the best way to inspire international trust.

“The US will always say that missile defence is a defensive system,” said Tom Sauer, a professor of international relations at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. “The problem is that the Russians or Chinese may perceive it as threatening or offensive. When it comes to missile defence, perspective is everything.”

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister and a former KGB agent who is well versed in cold war history, called US plans for a missile shield in Eastern Europe “very similar” to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war.

“The Bush administration planned to have a radar station in the Czech Republic and interceptors in Poland,” Dr. Sauer said. Obama has not ended the missile programme in Eastern Europe, he has just amended it slightly.

“[Current] plans call for deployment of land-based SM-3 interceptors [a modified surface to air missile] in Poland and Romania to defend Europe against short to medium range ballistic missiles,” said Missile Defense Agency spokesman Lehner.

Washington hard-liners

But even though the US and its NATO partners plan on erecting shields in former Soviet bloc countries, defence hawks in Washington are not happy.

“The Obama administration is pursuing this reset policy with Russia. As far as I can tell, it has been completely one sided with Russia pocketing all of the gains,” said Baker Spring, a security expert with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank.

The US and Russia have negotiated a new nuclear arms reduction treaty refered to as START, limiting the former cold war rivals to 1,550 warheads and 700 launchers each, enough to destroy the world several times over.

Some Republicans Senators including John Barrasso (R., Wyo.) have said arms reduction could limit US missile defence plans and plan to vote against it.

But blaming weaponisation programmes on Republican hawks would not be historically accurate. The Democratic administration of former US president Bill Clinton pursued a plan to launch 1000 missile interceptors into space, under its Strategic Defence Initiative, which critics call “star-wars”.

“We think the [Obama] administration’s programme should include that,” the Heritage Foundation’s Spring told Al Jazeera.

Postol laughs when asked about the Heritage Foundation, calling them “ideologues” who don’t understand the science behind the military programmes that they support.

‘Disappointed in Obama’

But, like the Heritage Foundation, the MIT professor and former naval adviser is also critical of Obama.

“The Obama administration is making false claims about the technical capabilities of missile defence, like the Bush administration before it. As someone who supported Obama, I find this very disappointing,” Postol said. 

Unsurprisingly, Lehner from the Missile Defense Agency thinks the programme is technically sound, despite Wednesday’s failed tests.

“In total, we have had 46 successful intercepts in 58 tests since the integration of the BMDS [a ballistic missile defence system contracted to Boeing] in 2001,” he said.

But Postol says the tests themselves are “basically rigged” with “minimal standards applied to the contractors of what constitutes success”. 
There are different kinds of systems designed to deal with short, medium or long range attacks. A basic premise behind missile defence is the idea of hitting a bullet with a bullet, either near the earth’s surface – like the patriot missile defences used in the 1991 Gulf War – or other systems designed to hit missiles high in the atmosphere, or outer-space, where intercontinental ballistic missiles fly.

“The fact that these systems try to operate at these high altitudes makes them vulnerable to simple countermeasures,” Postol said, citing ballons or decoy projectiles which are cheap, simple and effective ways to trick missile defences. “Nobody has been able to come up with an explanation of why the concerns I have raised are not true.”

‘Military-industrial complex’

North Korea and Iran, states cited by the US as justification for missile defence, can easily deploy counter-measures rendering the advanced technology useless, said Sauer, the international relations professor.

So, if the technology doesn’t work, what is driving the programme?

Postol chalks it up to domestic politics in the US, coupled with a desire to appease America from Europe. Republicans support the technology, even though they don’t understand how it works, he says, while democrats don’t want to be called wimps on national security.

NATO, which has been dangling without a clear raison d’etre since the end of the cold war, incorporated missile defence as a new mission at its most recent summit in Lisbon, Portugul.

Sauer agrees that partisan politics in the US play a role, but says the costly scheme speaks to something more profound than bickering between Democrats and their Republican counterparts. After all, the Clinton administration resurrected the programme which could have disappeared after the cold war.

Boeing, a primary contractor for missile defence systems, maintains operations in all fifty US States. Thus, if an unsuccessful weapons programme is cancelled, local politicans will rally to protect it, for fear of losing local jobs and votes, Sauer said.

“Many representatives in Congress would like to see more money for these programmes, they are part of the military industrial complex,” Sauer said.

“It is basically a job creation programme in the US.” 

Follow Chris Arsenault On Twitter: @AJEchris

Source: Al Jazeera


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