Misplaced Urgency in U.S. Missile Defense

The Grego reading points out a major logical inconsistency in the approach taken to missile defense by the Bush and Obama administrations, and reveals the serious costs of this faulty policy. Both presidents allowed the Missile Defense Authority (MDA) to research and implement Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) systems without the usual levels of supervision or budgetary restraint. For example, rather than outside evaluations, the main body responsible for oversight of the program has been the MDA itself. Furthermore, the MDA has been allowed to use research and development funds for most MDA expenses, including creating the interceptors themselves, which are less restricted and supervised that the procurement funds that these expenditure would usually come from. As a result of this loose, unrestricted approach, the MDA has followed a very different timeline than most development processes for new defense technology. Rather than first testing the defense systems and then implementing them, Grego and her co-authors point out that “nearly all of the interceptors of the GMD system were fielded before a single interceptor of their type had been successfully tested”.

The reasoning behind this approach is that due to the nature of the threat (nuclear attacks from rogue states or non-state actors), time is of the essence and therefore the usual processes for defense research and acquisition must be superseded. However, this logic doesn’t really hold. In order for these missile defense systems to be an urgent need, they must first be effective. To use a preposterous example, no President or military official would argue that the United States should construct huge mirrors to reflect the missiles that could be launched against the country, as the effectiveness of these mirrors would be highly questionable and therefore putting them in place would do nothing to help the current security of the country. While this example is clearly absurd (as mirrors would never be an effective missile defense system, while interceptors may be in the future), the general point is the same. As long as these interceptors aren’t truly effective, they aren’t urgent, as they won’t actually help with present day security. Urgency is a good argument for a large research budget, but it is no reason to eschew the usual testing process and oversight that is usually required before implementation. In fact, this is especially true in a field like nuclear defense, where anything but complete success is essentially failure. If the new technology were, for instance, a new gun, that wasn’t yet as accurate as hoped, it could still be useful. However, in nuclear defense, a single failure to shoot down an incoming missile, resulting in a nuclear strike on the U.S., would be disastrous. Therefore, if anything, the testing requirements before implementation with missile defense should be stricter than for other technologies, rather than cast aside.

Beyond just the obvious financial costs of this approach, namely spending taxpayer dollars on a program which has not proven to be effective, Grego and her co-authors point out that this policy has serious, broader costs as well. With a missile defense system having been implemented, foreign policy figures in the United States may feel a false sense of security and act more aggressively in their dealings with nuclear countries, despite the fact that the system doesn’t truly work. Furthermore, this may also lead other states with nuclear weapons to build up and further develop their arsenals, in response to what they see as a shift in the balance of power with regard to deterrence.

Of course, as the authors discuss, none of this means missile defense isn’t worth pursuing at all. Given the extraordinary benefits of an entirely successful missile defense system (complete security from nuclear attack for the whole country), this system is surely worth developing. However, implementing one under little supervision or budget leads to serious costs, both financially and in terms of its effects on policy, as it potentially leads to false confidence in our diplomats and military leaders as well as increased weapons development on behalf of our foes.

Do you agree that the approaches of the Bush and Obama administrations, justified by ‘urgency’, are logically inconsistent? Do you think a better approach which began implementation only after proper testing could solve the concerns raised above, or do you believe they are inherent in developing a missile defense system no matter what course is taken? — Alan