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actors), time is of the essence and therefore the usual processes for defense research and acquisition must be superseded.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

9 thoughts on “Misplaced Urgency in U.S. Missile Defense

  1. I might be reading too much into this, but I feel that the Bush and Obama administration’s decision to push out and deploy missile defense systems which hadn’t been fully tried and tested might not be as logically inconsistent as it seems on the surface.

    It is possible that faced that with a missile threat from “rogue states” such as North Korea, the US felt pressured to develop a missile defense system as quickly as possible. By signaling to these rogue states that the US has a missile defense system in place (while concealing the fact that the missile defense system wasn’t fully functional), the US could more effectively deter any aggressive action on the part of these rogue states, while buying time for it to covertly work to improve the missile defense system. This is, of course, an extremely risky strategy as the US would be unable to effectively defend itself should a rogue state decide to call the US’ bluff, but not entirely illogical.

    If there was indeed such a strategy in place, I’m not sure if it would be better for the US to take a more cooperative or aggressive diplomatic stance. Taking a more aggressive stance would indeed risk provoking an attack, but at the same time, taking a more cooperative stance would compromise the illusion that the US has a functioning missile defense system. Nonetheless, it is relatively undisputable that it would be really dangerous and potentially devastating if people in nuclear decision-making and diplomatic circles weren’t fully cognizant of the strategy and were led into a false sense of confidence in the US’ missile defense systems.

  2. I think William Oon hit on an important point on the US Missile Defense Posture. I would rephrase and say there are two components to the decision of deploying missile defenses. One component is the “Engineering perspective” meaning the true results of testing and the effectiveness of weapons in a defense situation. The other component is related to MacKenzie reading, is the socio-political context in which these decisions are made.

    A contemporary example to look at is the current administration’s missile defense budget for 2019 onwards (https://missilethreat.csis.org/trumps-2019-missile-defense-budget-choosing-capacity-capability/). The true effectiveness of this posture from a results perspective, is much of the same as the Obama and Bush administrations with the noted difference in an increased focus on procurement. Another important difference is the installation of a Hawaii-based missile radar system to help midcourse tracking and a new anti-ICBM field in Alaska. These developments do not seem to directly help the issues of the current system’s practicality.

    The socio-political context of this decision supports the reasoning behind this decision better than the practicality or strategic value of the system. Trump’s platform of “tough guy” politics and promises of military expansion make this budget a natural choice for the administration for political touting and platform to “bully” smaller rogue states to achieve “the best deal.” The effectiveness of the system is well up for debate but the value to domestic and international “trump politics” is clear.

    A quick note on the longer-term futuristic weapons that the budget mentions in passing. The budget identified a need for a “lifetime tracking system” (meaning from launch to re-entry) by satellite based sensors. This system would greatly enhance US ability to identify and consequently track missiles. This could aid the effectiveness of the current system and with the dropping costs in the technology behind missiles and simulations, this may be a viable road to a semi-functioning missile defense. The question from this part is, Is there a responsibility to continually research an area of defense even if no short-term solutions are seen (conversely, responsibility of policy makers to defund until it is determined that missile defense systems look promising)?

  3. Hi Alan! I think you do a good job of highlighting the ludicrousness of using “urgency” as an excuse for spending huge amounts of money to deploy a weapons system that doesn’t work. There are two points you made that I think bear further exploration:

    One, the underlying logic of the accelerated time table is that the United States is (or was) facing “urgent threats.” Which country presented such an urgent threat at the time the GMD was given the accelerated green light in the early years of the Bush administration? North Korea didn’t successfully test their first nuclear weapon until late 2006 and even now, fourteen years after the Bush administration approved the rapid deployment of the GMD in 2002, there is still some uncertainty among experts that the North Koreans have the advanced missiles necessary to strike anywhere in the mainland United States. No other rouge state such as Iran, Libya, or Syria (or, as was then commonly believed, Iraq) had as advanced nuclear programs as the North Koreans, as evidenced by the fact that none of them have nuclear weapons today. Furthermore, it seems far-fetched that any existing nuclear power such as Russia or China constituted an “urgent” threat of thermonuclear war. Honestly, I just don’t buy the “urgent” threat part upon which the whole justification rests.

    Second, I don’t believe that having an entirely successful missile defense system really brings many benefits. Even if the United States is able to build a 100% effective missile defense system at a reasonable cost (which you rightly point out is a big “if”) I don’t see how the United States being able to nuke other countries without fear of retribution is a good thing. Sure, we’d all like to believe Reagan’s flower language that the United States doesn’t start fights but is that really true? Do we want to embolden are political leaders to believe that they can simply nuke their way out of problems with no fear of retaliation? Even if American cities are spared destruction, the United States using nuclear weapons will almost certainly result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands if not millions of innocent people. I just don’t see how that’s a win for the United States. Furthermore, if we are able to develop an effective missile defense system, that likely means that our adversaries are at most a few years behind. Us building an effective missile defense system will simply start another extremely costly arms race where our adversaries attempt to develop weapons capable of defeating our missile shield at which point we will have to react, simply leading to more and more wasted resources.

  4. Given the rate at which technology is advancing today, it would be unreasonable to discount the possibility that through focused, well-funded research, a fully functional ballistic missile defence system could be developed. While the technological constraints on detection and destruction of incoming warheads could be overcome in time, the political hurdles may be the determining factors on how soon this becomes possible.

    Declaring that its ballistic missile defence system is flawed would be geopolitically disadvantageous for the United States, as it would signal to allies who rely on US missile defence that they may not be as well protected as they were told they would be while simultaneously emboldening adversaries such as North Korea and causing a loss of face to other ICBM possessing powers. This would make it difficult to phase out the current system while lacking a more effective replacement, so the US will probably be forced to maintain and upgrade the presently active defensive arrays while at the same time conducting research and development of newer technologies, an unnecessary duplication of resources that is nevertheless politically necessary.

    The readings also covered the scripted nature of current ICBM tests, with important information that may be unknown in the event of an actual attack being readily available. The fact that the failure rate of the current system is so high, despite the fact that the tests were carried out under near-perfect conditions, could provide a political reason (in addition to the prohibitive cost) for the fact that the MDA is allowed to decide its own success thresholds and testing environments. With the current state of missile defence, it seems highly unlikely that it would be possible to intercept and destroy an actual ICBM being fired for testing purposes. Since a failed intercept would simply demonstrate the ineffectiveness of US defences, there is probably similar political reasoning behind why the MDA does not have to maintain the same rigorous standards which other departments must adhere to when recommending technologies for deployment.

  5. Hi Alan — I would actually argue that the Bush and Obama administrations were right in holding an urgency to develop a functioning BMD system when confronting states like North Korea.

    North Korea is moving towards a status where it can strike the US mainland with nuclear ICBMs. Granted, as Sam explained, there is still uncertainty over NK’s nuclear capabilities. Yet, with each nuclear test (the latest one in September 2017 at NK’s Punggye-ri test site), there is no doubt that NK is moving closer. I believe that developing a functioning BMD system has been “urgent” NOT because it can further deter NK from pursuing its nuclear program or launching an attack: rather, a successful BMD is urgent because it is the central (or even ONLY) means by which the US can protect lives against a possible North Korean nuclear first-strike.

    Indeed, I do not doubt that the US already has the capabilities to deter NK from launching a nuclear missile. The US has enormous second-strike capabilities that could easily wipe-out NK if it were to launch an ICBM at the American mainland, thereby making the cost of an NK first-strike extremely high. Yet, the crux here is that NK might STILL launch the first attack, for several reasons: (1) Even if the US has second-strike capabilities, the US still might not use them because doing so risks a nuclear response from China, a cost potentially greater than the benefits of a retaliatory second-strike attack. If NK thus calculates that the US would not find it “worth it” to launch second-strikes, NK could still be emboldened to attack the US (or at least threaten to do so). Even more likely, NK might decide to attack American allies in the Pacific, banking on the notion that America will not find it worth it to use second-strike capabilities and risk war with China, just to protect Japan or South Korea. (2) NK might still launch first-strikes, because deterrence hinges on Kim Jong Un being rational. Given his decisions thus far, the lack of democratic restraints on his power, and the domestic pressures to be belligerent, Kim might still decide IRRATIONALLY to launch a missile attack on the US.

    Given these two reasons, simply relying on deterrence to protect Americans or American allies against a NK first-strike is insufficient. To protect lives from a possible NK first-strike, the US must also build a defensive system that can actually prevent NK missiles from hurting the American populace. If it wants, the US can still launch second-strikes after a NK first attack, then negotiate with China, and so forth. But protecting lives is key, and deterrence cannot fully do the job. As NK inches closer to a ICBM that can strike the states, protecting lives through a BMD system is urgent.

  6. I think Kenan was right to point back to domestic politics by mentioning the “socio-political” context—I think it’s an often-underestimated determinant in int’l/military strategy. As it pertains to Trump’s own projected image, I’m not sure that missile defense aligns entirely with Trump’s tough-guy image, however. Trump certainly stressed building up U.S. military capabilities, but I think recent efforts (or promises to) modernize the U.S.’s more offensive nuclear capabilities are more indicative of a “tough” stance. I think it’s hard to project such an image—and even more so to coerce less-powerful nations—with inherently defensive advances. On that line of thinking, however, I think a couple of other domestic political considerations deserve to be considered.

    Firstly, I think it could be reasonably said that missile defense does less to project offensive power as it does to reassure domestic audiences of their own security—that, especially relevant given current tensions between the U.S. and the DPRK, there is room for Trump to capitalize on fears by bolstering programs that provide a hope for safety from enemy attacks, just as there was room for Reagan, Bush, Obama, etc. to put more money into projects that make the domestic public feel safer (even if said programs have low rates of military success).

    Secondly, bolstering nuclear defenses can offer the opportunity to both make ones constituents feel safer and disuade potential adversaries from launching their own attacks while simultaneously being a less controversial action internationally—that is to say improving defenses is almost always less questionable from an IR perspective than strengthening offensive capabilities that are more readily useable for interfering with and/or attacking other nations. This is not to say that building defenses is entirely non-confrontational; there are certainly a number of Cold War instances in which the Soviet Union had significant condemnations of and fears about U.S. defensive missile defenses (in Europe), citing the possibility that these defenses could be converted to offensive capabilities. That being said, I think building up missile defense nevertheless offers a less costly/risky/controversial option for improving the perceived safety and strength of a nation–one that incurs the least concern from the int’l community and thus proves politically appealing to Trump et al.

  7. I am inclined to agree with Alan’s view that the missile defense system is both a waste of money and poorly rationalized. The “urgency” argument used to rationalize the GMD system seems to be based on unfounded paranoia. Grego et al. write that in the post-9/11 environment, it was difficult to question the administration’s judgment on defense and security matters. Investing in the GMD system seemed to be a way to make people feel safer in the face of terrorism without doing anything that concretely improved national security (after all, 9/11 wasn’t carried out via ICBM).

    William and Sandun suggest that the ongoing investment in a missile defense system serves a geopolitical purpose by signaling that the U.S. could have the ability to intercept incoming missiles, thereby helping to deter hostile powers. But Russians and North Koreans have as much access to Grego’s report as we do – can the GMD system really deter enemies when it’s common knowledge that the system is extremely faulty?

    The Grego report concludes that the current issues with the GMD system indicate the need for greater oversight and more rigorous testing. However, I agree with Sam in that I doubt the need for the GMD system at all. Even if the U.S. did develop a working missile defense system, the debut of this technology on the global stage would inevitably cause other countries to scramble to develop their own working systems. Perhaps the ubiquity of missile defense systems would preserve peace by making it harder for states to carry out limited strikes. But it’s also possible that states would simply circumvent each other’s missile defense systems by deploying such a large number of missiles that it would be impossible for all of them to be intercepted. This seems to be a step towards escalation.

    I’d say that continued investment in the missile defense program is due not to strategic necessity, but to U.S. leadership’s unwillingness to recognize the program’s disappointing progress over the last 15 years. Given the uncertainty about whether a functioning missile defense program is possible or even advantageous for the U.S., maybe it’s time to abandon these sunk costs.

  8. On the surface, it may seem undesirable for either administration to allocate funding and support for the implementation of a missile system without proper testing due to “urgency.” However, aside from urgency, I think there are important geostrategic justifications for their seemingly premature or otherwise inadvisable actions.

    First, missile defense systems offer significant deterrence against adversaries, including, but not limited to, the “rogue states” of primary concern. I think for Alan to insist that “anything but complete success is essentially failure” is excessively absolute, for it is conceivable that having some sort of defense system is better than having none at all. Furthermore, in addition to their practical purposes, missile defense systems have symbolic, strategic significance, as well. Two particular cases reveal that even if US missile defense systems were not 100% effective, other countries (namely, Russia and China) still found them to be threatening. Although Russia and China were not necessarily the primary targets of US missile defense (in Europe, it was Iran and in Asia, it was North Korea), they saw US implementation as giving us another advantage. For example, when the United States moved to install its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), China responded with various sanctions against South Korea for agreeing to host the program. These sanctions included restrictions on commercial air travel and the introduction of sudden, strict regulations on the Lotte Group – the company on whose land the missile defense system was to be stationed (http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/02/28/economic-coercion-china-united-states-sanctions-asia/). Similarly, the possible implementation of a missile defense system in eastern Europe to guard against potential Iranian nuclear weapons was perceived as serious enough by the Russians to compel their cooperation on passing UN resolutions to sanction Iran. With that said, even if US missile defense systems are not completely refined, they may still be useful (at least symbolically) for deterrence against Russia and China, among others. Missile defense systems are neither without value, nor strategically insignificant.

    Second, and thus far neglected in the replies, missile defense systems also offer reassurance to our allies. The “hub-and-spokes” system of security alliances has underpinned US dominance in the Asia-Pacific throughout the post-war era. The United States, with its allies, has been able to maintain primacy in Asia. As a result of US military superiority, the Indo-Pacific region has remained “free and open” for commerce, navigation, etc., which has fostered relative peace and abundant prosperity for various countries therein. Through the capacity to be “forward-deployed” and protect long US logistical lines as the leading power in the Asia-Pacific, the United States has helped to uphold the liberal, rules-based international order.

    Even under ideal circumstances, a missile defense system would not be tested “often enough and under a broad enough range of conditions to develop a high degree of confidence in its effectiveness under operational conditions and against real-world threats, which may have unknown characteristics,” as Grego points out. To be sure, the US military cannot count on the GMD system to be 100% effective, but the hope is not to be forced to deploy it. Rather, its “accelerated deployment” under conditions of “reduced oversight” underscores, even in hurried circumstances, its strategic value for deterrence of US adversaries and reassurance of US allies.

  9. Hi Alan, thank you for your blogpost – I think it does a great job at picking up the shortcomings of the GMD missile defense system under the Bush and Obama administration and takes it further to prompt a discussion.

    Given that others have already pointed out the poor testing record and the reduced oversight in its deployment, I would like to take issue with the fundamental issue with defense missile systems. This is a concept discussed in the Lewis and Hippel reading, in which they lay out the destabilizing effect of implementing a missile defense system.

    In a hypothetical scenario in which the GMD missile defense system (or other systems) are successfully developed and can be expected to reliability intercept incoming missiles, that would fundamentally alter the premise of “mutually assured destruction”, simply because from the US’ adversary’s perspective – destruction is not mutually assured anymore. It is very curious to think about this, especially after the exercise in Tuesday’s class on simulating the vulnerability of Teams Blue and Red. How would an effective defense system change the game? Lewis and Hippel list the increase in Russian and Chinese offensive capabilities as a possible consequence, but I wonder if there are much broader ramifications in the entire deterrence scheme. One of the recommendations in the Golgo piece is also to “work with China and Russia to ensure that development of strategic missile defense system does not interfere with progress on strategic issues important to all three countries”. I wonder if ‘not interfering with China and Russia’s strategic issues’ incurs leaving some of the United States’ and its allies’ vulnerability to attacks from these countries to ensure the MAD structure is preserved. This paradoxical scheme in which leaving the United States more vulnerable may be more stable than the alternative is reminiscent of Guest Speaker’s Weiner’s idea of “irrational rationality” in using nuclear deterrence.

    In conclusion, the Golgo piece is an excellent source in identifying the issues with the existing program. However, I would love to have a discussion on the more far-reaching consequences of the United States actually successfully developing a Missile Defense System.

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