Missile defence delusion

Last week marked the two-year anniversary of President Barack Obama’s announcement of what was to be a radical new approach to missile defence – the Phased Adaptive Approach. According to this plan, the United States, working with NATO, would ramp up the deployment of a mix of increasingly sophisticated sea and land-based missile interceptors around Europe in an attempt to guard against future Iranian missiles.

By Yousaf Butt

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Published: Thu 22 Sep 2011, 8:43 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 9:56 AM

If there’s one issue that still enjoys bipartisan support in the US Congress these days, it’s that cooperating with Russia on this defensive system would be a swell idea. Contain Iran and strengthen ties with Russia: surely a win-win. Unfortunately, missile defence will neither contain Iran nor strengthen ties with Russia. To the contrary, it will lead to more nuclear weapons and a more dangerous world.

The main problem is that the type of missile defence the United States and NATO are planning is particularly easy to defeat. The simplest countermeasures are cheap inflatable balloon decoys. Because the missile defence interceptors try to strike the missile warheads in the vacuum of space, these balloons and any warheads would travel together, making it impossible to tell them apart. An enemy bent on delivering a nuclear payload to the United States could inflate many such balloons near the warhead and overwhelm the defence system by swamping it with fake signals.

The missile defence system depends on radio-frequency and infrared sensors. The simple scientific reason the system will never be able to reliably function in real combat conditions is because the infrared emissions and reflected radio waves from targets can be modified by an attacker to disguise, remove, deny, or simply overwhelm critical information needed by the defence to find attacking warheads.

The latest tests of both the ground-based and sea-based missile defence systems have failed – and these were essentially rigged tests, where the intercept team knew the precise timing and trajectory of the incoming missile.

We Americans would have no such luxury in the real world, where our adversaries will surely also use countermeasures and decoys. And on the few occasions that the Missile Defence Agency has actually tested countermeasures, even these carefully rigged tests have never succeeded. Neither has the sea-based missile-defence system been tested in really rough sea conditions, and it is known to be unreliable beyond a certain sea state. We could always pray for pleasant weather if and when we are attacked, but should we pin our national security on that?

If missile defence is so simple to outfox, why are our competitors and adversaries so concerned? The answer is simple: Their military planners are properly hyper-cautious, just like the Pentagon, and they must assume a worst-case scenario in which the system is effective, even when it isn’t.

Missile defence strengthens the hands of over-cautious, misinformed, opportunistic or hawkish elements within the Iranian and North Korean – as well as Russian and Chinese – political and military establishments. The interplay between unknowable future circumstances and pressures from internal constituencies demanding a reaction to NATO missile defences will create pressures on their leaderships to increase deployed nuclear stockpiles and military expenditures.

Since the link between strategic defence and strategic offense is explicitly recogniced in the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) between the United States and Russia, it is highly improbable that Russia will ever accept NATO missile defence. Russia is more concerned with capabilities than with intentions. Any system that could raise uncertainties about the strict balance of arms agreed upon in New START would be a natural concern to both parties.

So the central conundrum of midcourse missile defence remains that while it creates incentives for adversaries and competitors of the United States to increase their missile stockpiles, it offers no credible combat capability to protect the United States or its allies from this – increased – weaponry.

Even if we finally got the Russians to agree to it, China’s concerns surely would not evaporate. Indeed, the bipartisan Strategic Posture Commission has pointed out that “China may already be increasing the size of its ICBM force in response to its assessment of the US missile defence programme.” Such stockpile increases will compel India, and, in turn, Pakistan to also ramp up their nuclear weapon numbers. It may also prod Iran to restart its nuclear weapons work, which it halted in 2003.

Chinese concerns about US missile defence systems are a source of great uncertainty, reducing Chinese support for promoting negotiations on the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT). China’s leaders may wish to maintain the option of future military plutonium production in response to US missile defence plans.

It makes no sense to cooperate with Russia on something so counterproductive to our security just for the sake of cooperation. People who say we need cooperation on missile defence to improve ties with Russia have the logic exactly backward: In large part, the renewed tension between Russia and the United States is about missile defence. Were we to abandon this flawed and expensive idea, our ties with Russia – and China – would naturally improve.

Yousaf Butt, a nuclear physicist, serves as a scientific consultant to the Federation of American Scientists

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