Missile defense is a boondoggle

This is why we need the Office of Technology Assessment (and listen to it), Bush is trying to bring back SDI, big time.

President Bush said yesterday that a missile defense system is urgently needed in Europe to guard against a possible attack on U.S. allies by Iran, while Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates suggested that the United States could delay activating such a system until there is "definitive proof" of such a threat.

The seemingly contrasting messages came as the Bush administration grappled with continuing Russian protests over Washington's plan to deploy elements of a missile defense system in Eastern Europe. The Kremlin considers the program a potential threat to its own nuclear deterrent and has sought to play down any threat from Iran.

Both Bush and Gates affirmed that they want to proceed with deployment of the system, including 10 antimissile interceptors in Poland and a radar-tracking facility in the Czech Republic projected for completion in 2012. Bush cited Iran's development of ballistic missiles that could strike Israel and Turkey, and said Tehran is also developing missiles that could strike NATO countries.

This cold-war boondoggle was shown to be worthless and fundamentally flawed as a political concept and as a feasible technology over 20 years ago (PDF) by the OTA, and I think their basic findings remain unchallenged. These systems have failed every test so far except for what, one? The last test I remember cost 87 million dollars and the missile didn't even leave the silo! In general missile defense, even Patriot Missile defense against the relatively unsophisticated Scud missile, has been shown to only be an effective psychological weapon and physically ineffective in actually destroying missiles. In fact, even in the first Iraq War the Patriot countermeasures against Scud missiles, when retrospectively analyzed showed success in only a tiny minority of intercepts (possibly zero) - not to mention all the friendly-fire incidents and planes they shot down (not surprising since the system was designed to attack planes).

Missile defense is flawed as a concept too, as it could be overwhelmed easily by simultaneous launch of dummy missiles, other decoys deployed in flight, and other countermeasures to prevent the rather rare event of two bullets successfully colliding in midair. It is politically treacherous, as it angers the Russians, and merely escalates arms races. If the enemy knows and is prepared for their deployment, clearly other methods such as bombers, smuggling of bombs into enemy territory, or short range technology would be used to attack easier targets.

Finally, I am unimpressed that a nuclear Iran actually represents such an extreme threat to America or our allies. Even with ICBM technology Iran would never have the capability to challenge real nuclear powers such as Israel, or the US without certain annihilation. MAD worked as a strategy against a far more powerful and threatening enemy for 50 years, and while not ideal, was effective. Missile defense has only shown itself to be tremendously expensive, politically unfeasible, and, after 25 years of R&D completely unproven as a defensive technology. It's all in the OTA report, maybe after all this time and money we should consider listening to what the science says about this endeavor, and abandon it. If we'd done that in the first place the savings would have been in the hundreds of billions.


More like this

Missiles are a problem if you're fighting a modern war. You can get out of the way or you can hide behind something, but that's about it. Now anti-missile technology has had some success dealing with mid-range missiles. The Patriot system whose success was limited during the Gulf War has since…
I know this is tiresome, but I find it interesting to play "what if..." I'll get back to all science soon. No point in dynamic web logs if they don't respond dynamically to changing issues... eh? So, what if the US wanted to launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran, ASAP, either 'cause someone thinks…
I think the investigative power the Democrats currently wield--and the threat of subpoena--is starting to get to Secretary of State Condoleeza "Ferragamos" Rice. At a press conference today, Rice misidentified Russia (emphasis mine): "The idea that somehow 10 interceptors and a few radars in…
Prof Foland of nuclear mangos forward an interesting pointer. The US Navy's TACAMO ("Take Charge And Move Out") went active this week, with a little flurry of messages (scroll down to comment #71 if you want to see more detail). This is the old Very Low Frequency communication system, from E-6s…

The only time I've seen antimissiles work reliably is on giant robots and the Outlaw Star. I haven't even had the opportunity to test SDI out in Civilization.

In the real world, all of those problems most certainly apply.

Is there a card for strawmen? I don't think anyone's arguing we need missile defense against the Russians [who, yes, have the resources to use other methods and modalities]. It's one-off, "hail Mary", rogues who to first order will not have these countermeasures that the system is meant for, no?

You may very well be right about the ineffectiveness here, but let's keep the debate on target.

That wasn't the suggestion, SDI is now being developed under the excuse that it will protect us from Iran.

The countermeasures are no more sophisticated than ICBM technology. If they have the ability to make a rocket to carry a warhead, they have the ability to make 10, or they will when they realize that is what they must do to actually have a threatening weapon. But that's only if there were a substantial risk of the system working, which I believe is unlikely.

Basically, it's saying, even if it did work, the technology to render it useless would be very simple.

If you need even further demonstration of how useless Star Wars is as a countermeasure against "rogue states" and "non state actors", read this

"a Maginot Line in the sky"

...and they *know* it's useless, the US Navy was involved in developing the Laima.

What? Bush and company actually pay attention to the science? Don't hold your breath.

"It's one-off, "hail Mary", rogues who to first order will not have these countermeasures that the system is meant for, no?"

Maybe not right away, but they're not hard to add in later. The fundamental flaw of SDI is that it just extends the arms race, rather than ending it (even given effective technology)--one side introduces counter-measures, the missile defense tries to counter those counter measures, new counter-measures are devised to counter that, and so on.

To be fair, when talking about missile defense you have two camps, the Bush types, who think you can knock out one missile with another and it won't occur to anyone to throw up a lot of dummies to mess with the system, and a number of alternate systems in the works, including improved laser systems, which do work fairly well. The sad thing is, if we had effective versions of the later the idiot would probably still insist on putting it in space, where it would be useless for 90% of all attacks. lol

But seriously, it isn't possible "now". Twenty years ago it wouldn't have been possible at all, and 20 years from now it might be no just plausible, people might be arrested for building one in their garage, to, as a joke, shoot down people's model rockets. Half the shit we have today no one believed possible 20 years ago, and half the stuff they did think we where going to manage has proven ridiculously difficult, impractical, expensive or just impossible with any technology we have managed to come up with. The problem if every idiot in the SDI debacle isn't that they are trying to do something that won't work, its that they think spending billions of dollars on something that requires 90 different advances will make all 90 of them appear over night, instead of maybe just 30-40 of them (and that is being generous).

Progress has been made, but most of it has been indirect, and not a result of the efforts, for the most part, of the bozos that are trying to build the damn things, and not in the area of Patriot style systems, which rely too much on, as you say, trying to hit one bullet with another one. But, guess which system is the one the morons will most likely fund and deploy? Yep, the stupid one(s).

Mind you, one of the faults in Patriot was not in the concept, but in the software. Its internal clock was defective (probably the same stupid company that sold me the DVR and the DVD player I have, one of which keeps gaining seconds, the other of which keeps losing them...). This means that 90% of the time the tracking software that was supposed to determine "where" a target was, right up to impact, was often a few degrees, or even **miles** out of sync with where its intended target was located. The eventually "fixed" it in the field by telling people to shut down and reset the system often, but being dipshits, didn't specify what "often" actually was... This meant that while it was no longer miles out of sync, usually, it was almost always far enough out of sync that it missed almost all of the time. Its pretty damn hard to evaluate how well something works when its software is so fracking screwed up that it only **does** work properly within the first 10-15 minutes after you plug it in and fire it at the first inbound. lol

The other examples of *failure* are also all pretty much a rehash of tests done 5-10 years ago on the newer systems, so its not real clear how fracked they are either. Its not like they have news crews on site to film every successful test (which is probably what they would end up doing, even if it didn't work 90% of the time), and every failure (Nah.. It would probably be Faux News on scene, so those wouldn't ever make it to air). Still, point is, we know what people said 20 year ago, when we didn't have half the shit we do now to try to build such a thing, especially computing power, genetic algorithms and tracking systems for ships that can maintain a list of 1,000 aircraft at one time, etc. We know about the failures made in the past, when someone leaked things out. We know that Bush is a delusional half wit, who believes it all already works well enough to deploy some place. We don't know with any real certainty just how well/poorly the current generation of the technology works, because we are ***not allowed*** to know that.

All we can say for certain is that, unless they make a similar mistake to what they did with the original Patriot systems, its got to work better than those, if for no other reason than that buggy systems with **major** defects tend to work less well than ones that don't have those defects. The only real question imho, is if we have something that works now, or if its going to take even greater improvements in computing power and software logic to make it work as intended. I.e., is it viable now, even on a limited scale, or is it going to take 50 years of other people inventing shit that fixes its problems, for them to have all the pieces to make it work? None of us here are likely in a position to say, half the detractors are people who have some connection to the military, but are themselves no more in the loop on it than we are, and we can be reasonably sure, from past experience, that its at least possible, if not probable, that some of the people on some of the projects are lying their asses off to the people feeding them the money. The later of which only applies to *some* of a dozen different projects, half of which where never envisioned 20 years ago, never mind 10, or even 5 years ago.

In principle, the idea of hitting one missile with another is still a bit far fetched, at least in that it **seems** intuitively ridiculous. But half the shit we do in science is stuff that people call "counter intuitive", and some times scientists can be just as short sighted and stupid about what is possible as everyone else, especially if its something they just don't like to contemplate the problems involved with, or where they really don't have a clear grasp, no matter what comity they belong to, of the state of either what *is* possible, or even more to the point, what *will be* in the near future. Seriously, do you honestly think the OTA, as good as its people may have been, where any better at predicting what could happen than when you get together a group of scientists for some "futurist" think tank, and they invariably miss *huge* numbers of things, and get the others completely wrong? Twenty years is a long damn time to hold to a position in a world where technology, especially computer technology, which drives about 90% of what is needed to make a system like this work, becomes outdated roughly every six months. My cell phone has more processing power than what someone 20 years ago would have been using to run the software needed to determine "if" the calculations to track a target where possible.

Yeah, Bush is still as much of a delusional fool as the first fool that insisted on building it, but only because, imho, he thinks he can go out and buy a 100% working model from a 7-11, not because the people who thought up the idea where trying the impossible.

You're right, but it also keeps lots of high priced engineers and Air Force officers employed. Think about all the money and time if could be doing if the government thought they could be doing something useful.

By natural cynic (not verified) on 24 Oct 2007 #permalink

I watched Frontline yesterday, and saw "Showdown with Iran", where Deputy Secy of State Armitage claimed that Iran had hegemonic tendencies.

Whether SDI works or not is not important. Because if it doesn't, it's all the more reason to invest in it to make it work. If the Democrats decided to pull the troops back out of Iraq/Iran, would they also pull the plug on SDI initiatives? Firstoff I doubt that they'd pull the troopies from Iran/Iraq, but if they did, they'd need to throw some other screen up there that makes up for it and encourages economic growth at home.

The operative fundamental here is that what WE have is special and justifies keeping THEM outsiders away at whatever cost. And that involves telling us how nasty, dirty, evil, the rest of the world is. Because they've taken it upon themselves to hate our goodness and insist on spitting on us for no good reason.

What's the best way to deal with geopolitical threats? To spend the equivalent of everyone else on the planet on defense, to guard us from the unwashed? Or to elevate the others so that they become more human in our eyes, and maybe coincidentally, we become more human in theirs.

For all the money that we've pissed away since 2001, we could have treated the developing world to medicine and hospitals, to clean water, to books and education. But instead we sent them shrapnel extra fast. And at home, we traded our civil liberties by embracing a war-without-end and validating this approach where poor brown people the world over scare the sh*t out of us.

SDI and it's ilk will get done because it brings good paying jobs to congressional districts, Republican and Democrat. Democrats wouldn't necessarily change much because they have a serious case of penis envy and would go for all this tripe given the chance as long as the local toughs (Will, Kristol, Krauthammer, Gerecht, et al.) point and laugh.

What you need is a broad realization by the public that you become safe when your neighbor is safe, because status quo is attractive if prosperity is shared. But that's along shot; I don't care if my neighbor is prosperous -- I care about being the top 1% of the top 5% on the planet.

When you look at individuals that sow good will across the world [1], that alternate vision can happen. But, as long as fearmongers and business interests make us cower, SDI and its ilk has a future. Wasn't the OTA in effect during the first versions of SDI?

John Wood was two days into an 18-day trek along Nepal's Annapurna Circuit when he stopped for tea. At the teahouse he met a teacher who invited him to visit his village school. What shocked Wood was the library. "Where are the books?" he asked.

The dummies are technologically simpler than the real ones, honestly.

And while they're justifying this project with the example of Iran, I do have to wonder whether the neocons have started missing the Cold War so much that they're prepared to start it again... Because seriously, Russia is not going to be happy about this.

Many space program missiles "didn't make it out of the silo" either. (OK, it was an oboveground launch pad, but you get the point.) Much of what we get out of these things is not just the end result but the technology we develop along the way. How much did we actually learn by putting a man on the moon? How did having a few space rocks help the United States? But how has the technology (everything from rockets to computers to VELCRO)developed and improved along the way helped us? Scientists are so much more productive when they have a goal to work for, even if the goal is irrelevant.

Uggh, that's a terrible argument. There are a lot better goals to strive for to fund basic research that wouldn't alienate other powers, create arms races, etc. How about an effective alternative to hydrocarbon? If we researched that, rather than SDI, Iran would become irrelevant (as would Russia for that matter as they have become increasing dependent on revenue from petrochemicals).

Our economy is already headed toward the dumpster. There are many programs that need money that can't get it (can you say SCHIP?). And now Bush & Co. want to spend 100's of billions more on a system that won't work.

Brilliant. [/sarcasm]

If I were a dictator with a nuke and a desire to use it on America, I wouldn't bother with a missile at all. I would put it in a shipping container, and send it to New York. Timed or GPS detonation. Its *much* easier than building a missile, and once it goes off I would still have a slim chance at escape:

Iran: North Korea did it!
North Korea: Iran did it!
America: Im gonna bomb y'all!

Mark H,

Your argument as far as I can tell is that

a.) It can't be done.


b.) Even if we could do it we shouldn't because it would upset the Russians.

Do you really think that whacking one moving object with another is beyond technical feasibility? If so you have a fairly low opinion of the engineering and scientific capabilities of the US. The fact that counter measures could be employed is hardly a reason to not develop weapon systems. Since the first guy threw a stone and it was blocked with a crude wooden shield humans have been essentially doing just what you claim is impossible.

By this faulty logic we never should have spent the money to develop RADAR or a host of other technologies that have inspired counter-measures.

As to pissing off the Russians, they seem intent on regaining the adversarial position that they had during their glory years of the USSR. Appeasing them by suspending defense initiatives hardly seems prudent.

Perhaps you think that friendly talks with Iran, Hezbollah, Syria, Sudan, Al Quieda, N. Korea, the PRC and Russia will result in the dawning of a new era of peace and cooperation, ushering in the Age of Aquarius.

Talk about "denialism".

Lance, you're wrong on a number of points.

1. While this is "denialism blog" this specific topic was not being used as an example of the phenomenon. I write about more than just denialism.
2. Denialism is a specific thing, it doesn't mean "disagreement" which is the typical troll attitude who doesn't bother to do the basic research into what we're talking about, and would likely agree with what our definition actually is.
3. Missile defense is far more complicated than blocking a rock with a shield. In the original OTA report scientists said it was unlikely to be accomplished, and could be easily defeated by simple countermeasures.
4. Implementation of similar systems like the patriot on the slow-moving, non-ICBM scuds was a total failure. The missiles missed, possibly every time.
5. In 25 years and after tens of billions of dollars we have not deployed a successful system. We got to the moon faster and on 1960s technology. This is not a simple problem like you suggest.

What we're talking about is having an intelligent guided missile system designed to attack and destroy a target moving at blistering speed through the upper atmosphere or space. It would need to acquire a target, no larger than a few meters, traveling many times faster than the speed of sound, progressively narrow its trajectory to match and explode within a space smaller than a half a football field in order to have an effect (and that's generous).

There is a reason this has been difficult to accomplish, it's a near-impossible task. Not totally impossible, but I think there are better uses of money, I'm sure. Especially considering how easily such a system could be countered by dummies or other techniques, and how ineffective similar technologies have been against less-sophistaced, slower-moving missiles.

There was a missile defense back in the 1960's that actually worked. It was effective, except it could be overwhelmed pretty easily and then instead of being hit by one warhead you get hit by dozens. The big "problem" was that it used nuclear tipped interceptors with enhanced radiation warheads. That was what the neutron bomb was developed for. The neutron flux would cause fission in the near critical plutonium assembly and render the warhead non-viable.

The "problem" with nuclear explosions going off in space or in the very high atmosphere is that it generates very large volumes of ionized gas, which is completely opaque to radar. The sky over radar installations could easily be made opaque. A handful of warheads going off in space would make the sky opaque and ground based radars completely useless.

In vacuum, all the energy of a nuclear explosion comes out as ionizing radiation which travels line of sight until it is absorbed by the atmosphere, creating ion pairs. It is easy to calculate where an explosion would have to be to render any particular patch of sky completely opaque.

The technology to produce nuclear weapons is a lot simpler than that to make ICBMs. The technologies to defeat conventional missile defense is a lot simpler than making ICBMs. The leader of a "rogue" state would have to be as stupid as Bush to do what Bush thinks he will do.

You guys are MISSING the simple but remarkable point.

Why do you think the US is rushing to post these failed missile batteries in Europe, in Japan, etc? The Patriot PAC-3 has been confirmed as a failure. It doesn�t work. The system is not yet ready � and because of technology not yet rising to the complex problem, may not be ready for years, or decades. But that doesn�t mean we can�t build what we�ve got and deploy it??! What the Pentagon wants � morbidly � is to see it operate anyway � and FAIL in-theater, despite its known problems. Yes folks, that�s how weapons are tested. In-theater. Live-fire exercises. The Pentagon/missile engineers need to see the missile batteries perform against incoming real warheads atop sophisticated reentry vehicles � not the slow-jobs we use for testing. But most importantly, have that live-fire testing targetting not the US, but our allies soil. And, of course, when we�re dealing with a failed system, we have to morbidly � �figure out what went wrong� when the incoming missiles were not shot down, so we can improve upon the systems that will be eventually deployed in the US.

Certainly, we wouldn�t allow automobiles that are judged to be unsafe and undriveable to be sold to our citizens. Morally we can�t let these deathtraps drive on our expressways, right? But this is exactly what we�re doing with our Patriot PAC-3 defensive missile systems. We�re hyping them �bigtime� as guaranteed missile umbrellas as we send them to our allies to try out.

And they thought we were their friends. Ha.

By DentedMissile (not verified) on 11 Jul 2008 #permalink