Missile shield is all hype

A strange sense of complacency has settled over the nation after the Defense secretary boosted U.S. missile defense resources and the U.S. commander in the Pacific expressed confidence that U.S. forces could intercept a North Korean missile.

But according to a leading physicist who knows more about missile defense than most Americans, the reality is somewhat different.

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Theodore Postol, a former scientific adviser to the chief of naval operations who is now an MIT professor, says that if North Korea or Iran fired a nuclear-capable, long-range missile toward America, the chances of intercepting it “would almost certainly be zero.” Postol has form: He was the scientist who debunked the claimed success rate of U.S. Patriot missiles in the first Gulf war.

After decades spent developing a missile defense shield — costing more than $200 billion since the 1980s — missile defense simply doesn’t work. The technology has not caught up with the policy, despite confident statements by Pentagon officials and the military, including by Adm. Samuel Locklear at last week’s congressional hearing.

Postol says that the intercept tests carried out so far have been highly choreographed. The problem, according to security experts, is the high failure rate of the tests, which have not involved realistic scenarios. It comes down to counter-measures: Any incoming enemy missile would be expected to be accompanied by decoys, and according to the information available, the interceptor can’t discriminate between the live missile and the decoys. This fundamental challenge was singled out in a report for the National Academy of Sciences last year.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced last month that in the light of the North Korean threat, an additional 14 ground-based interceptors would be based in Alaska by 2017. Yet according to arms control expert Kingston Reif, at least 10 of the 30 ground-based interceptors already deployed in Alaska and California “have never gone through successful tests.” 

Postol and Reif, the director of nuclear non-proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, spoke on a panel last Friday debating missile defense. On the other side of the argument were Rebecca Heinrich of the Heritage Foundation and James Woolsey, a former Central Intelligence Agency director. 

Heinrich pointed to the example of Israel’s much-trumpeted Iron Dome as a model for the U.S. missile defense shield. But the Israeli program — also funded by Washington to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars — is designed to intercept short-range missiles fired by Hamas militants from Gaza and Hezbollah rockets from Lebanon, not a long-range missile from Iran. Their targets are primitive and slow-moving — a far cry from a long-range missile from North Korea or Iran. It should also be said that Israel’s claimed 80 percent rate of successful intercepts has been questioned by arms control experts.

Missile defense still has its advocates, of course. The American public is largely supportive of the program, which boasts vocal supporters in Congress on both sides of the aisle. But people need to be aware that this is a system that still has some serious technological flaws.

At least the North Korea crisis has resulted in the beginnings of a public debate. I salute Ralph Nader for organizing last week’s discussion of the topic in Washington. Until now, Americans had been lulled into a false sense of security by political elites who have vaunted the benefits of missile defense. But they need to know that, as it stands, America’s missile defense program can’t save it from North Korea.

Penketh is a long-term foreign correspondent who writes on security issues from Paris. She is a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog.