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Trump’s missile defense plans: More theology on unproven technology

Trump’s missile defense plans: More theology on unproven technology

The Trump Administration’s new missile defense plan could require taxpayers to foot the bill for a new nuclear arms race.

It has been the dream of national security hawks for decades: build an elaborate national missile defense architecture to, in theory, intercept nuclear missiles before they reach the United States. In 1983, President Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative, bringing the fringe idea to the forefront of American politics. The plan was overly ambitious, expensive, and technically infeasible. Ultimately, it was rightly abandoned.

But the Trump Administration is proving that some dreams never die. In its recently released Missile Defense Review (MDR), the Administration contends that missile advancements in Russia and China justify a new era of missile defense investment, inspired by the Reagan-era vision.

Most of the investments they propose, however, will do little to actually protect the United States and will instead compromise our national security. Overwhelming evidence suggests that expanding the national missile defense architecture will ultimately prove unsuccessful and come at enormous financial and strategic costs to taxpayers.

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At a total projected cost of nearly $70 billion (a figure likely to increase), the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) program is the only existing program designed to intercept long-range missiles. While the MDR mentions GMD on numerous occasions, it fails to acknowledge the worst kept secret in Washington: This program boasts an embarrassing test record. In highly scripted, unrealistic testing conditions, GMD has failed to fully destroy the target 50 percent of the time. That includes three misses in the last five tries. 

Yet instead of focusing on improving GMD, the Trump Administration is doubling down on a bad bet. The MDR lays the groundwork for potentially expanding the number of GMD interceptors from 44 to 100 or more at an unknown but immensely high cost — without requiring proof they actually work. This would only exacerbate the technical challenges facing the program, which would mean even higher costs to fix inevitable anomalies on a larger scale.

Worse, the document also mandates a six-month study of the efficacy of deploying laser or kinetic interceptors in space — the true revival of the old hawkish vision. Laser technology is nowhere near advanced enough to shoot down a missile, and even if it were, a study by the American Physical Society concluded that any space-based program “would require a fleet of a thousand or more orbiting satellites just to intercept a single missile.” Even then, the chances of success are low. Conducting a study on such technology may seem innocuous, but in Washington terms it is the first step to actually building and deploying a system in the future.

Russia and China will almost certainly see this build-up as a threat. Their likely response would be to build more missiles to counteract the defenses. We would respond by building further defenses, which would prompt them to build more missiles — a wasteful, dangerous, and endless cycle. Offensive systems always have the advantage in this type of arms race, because missiles can be produced at a much faster and cheaper rate than defensive interceptors.

We would spend exorbitant amounts of money to be less safe.

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At its core, the Trump Administration’s Missile Defense Review posits that new threats require archaic solutions. Nearly five decades of investment has failed to change a continuing reality: Even if we could create more reliable technology, deploying numerous defenses will only invite more enemy offensive deployments. And investing mass sums of taxpayer money into expanding a failing missile defense system, or developing new systems with dubious prospects, is not a solution to the threats we face.

In the end, the funding of any program relies upon Congress. Instead of supporting a blind expansion of national missile defenses, consequences be damned, my former colleagues should allocate resources to the diplomatic and military programs that have been proven to keep this country safe.

John F. Tierney is the executive director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. As a Democratic representative from Massachusetts, he was chair of the National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee of the Government Oversight and Reform Committee from 2006 to 2010.