As North Korea demonstrates America’s vulnerability to ballistic missiles, and as President Trump pledges “many billions of dollars” for “the anti-missile,” establishment Republicans are poised to use missile defense talk today in the same way they did in the wake of Ronald Reagan’s commitment to it: profit politically from rhetoric, funnel money to the best-connected contractors, and accomplish nothing.
Since Reagan restored missile defense to the nation’s agenda 34 years ago, Republicans have led the spending of some 80 billion dollars on its behalf. But they have acquiesced as the U.S government has crafted each and every program according to one overarching policy: to put no barrier to missiles from China or Russia reaching Americans.
Accordingly, our so-called National Missile Defense is but a hamstrung token. Using the same logic with respect to technology, we are depriving the equipment we build for defense against threats such as North Korea and Iran from all capacity defend against China and Russia. In practice, this means that it is less capable of doing anything. Today, malnourished North Korea is on the cusp of overwhelming every defense we’ve got, in Alaska and California, as well as in the Western Pacific.
Republicans banked votes, contractors banked the money, and America’s vulnerabilities deepened. Unless President Trump changes basic policy, the cycle repeats.
A $30 Billion Boondoggle
The Establishment Republicans’ intellectual guide, the Wall Street Journal, has just pointed the way. In an obituary (September 2-3) and an editorial (September 6), it celebrated George A. Keyworth, the White House science adviser from 1981 until 1984, as “the Godfather of Missile defense.” In fact, no one was more responsible than Keyworth for turning President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative into a research program that produced zero anti-missile weapons—by design. The so-called Fletcher Panel that he created defined SDI by precluding building defensive devices, restricting its mandate to long-term research. He staffed it exclusively with delegates from the national labs and their contractors. They divvied up some $30 billion to fund their favorite hobby horses.
Some—Edward Teller’s and Lowell Wood’s X-ray laser and free-electron laser—were patent scientific frauds that discredited the initiative. But steering programs to the right people got Keyworth a seat on Hewlett-Packard’s board of directors. Hence from the very first, SDI was a typical U.S-government program: soaring rhetoric that covered a feeding trough for well-connected interest groups. One of its former directors, asked what SDI had produced, waved a report titled, “What We Got for $30 Billion.” An expensive missile-swatter.
The Journal also says, “to the extent that the North Korean nuclear threat is at all containable,” it is because SDI “eventually gave us systems like THAAD.” Thus does the Journal show the Republican Establishment’s nonchalant ignorance. The combination of interceptor missile and radar called Theater High Altitude Defense was a U.S. Army program. All it owes to SDI and its Missile Defense Agency successor are limitations, such as depriving the interceptor of a warhead and requiring it to crash directly onto the oncoming warhead. This added layers of technical complexity—e.g. exquisite reductions in vibrations—and added to the cost of nearly $1 billion per battery. Expense, and hence scarcity, is one reason why even North Korea can overwhelm it quantitatively.
THAAD’s effective range is set by how soon after the offensive missile takes off the interceptor may be launched. The reason why the interceptor, whose physical range is just over 500 miles, has an effective range of only 120 miles is the policy (in the spirit of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty) that requires our interceptors to be programmed and launched only by radar/fire control systems co-located with the interceptor. The THAAD warning radar is not equipped to program and fire interceptors. (Just now, Navy Aegis ships networked with one another are being given a partial exemption).
Blinded By Partisanship
More fundamentally, all U.S interceptors continue to be hampered by their radars’ inability to look over the earth’s curvature to see missiles being launched by China and Russia (or Iran, or North Korea’s interior). Already a generation ago a network of infrared satellites was being designed that would have made it possible see all such launches as they happened and to launch interceptors with plenty of time to stop them at maximum range. But the SDI office and its successor canceled that. It would have displeased Russia and China. Thanks, SDI!
Partisanship with regard to missile defense is the last thing America needs. That is why it was so disheartening to read former George W. Bush speechwriter Marc A. Thiessen last week in the Washington Post: “If we had continued the Bush program over the past eight years, we would now have a robust array of defenses against any North Korean ICBM.”
Evidently, Thiessen’s partisan concerns overcame his duty to know what he is talking about. “We would be able to target a North Korean missile in the boost phase.” In fact, trying to intercept North Korea’s missiles in boost phase from nearby ships was nuts. Simple algebra showed that our interceptors would be engaged in tail chases that they would lose.
Thiessen continues: “we would have 44 ground-based interceptors [GBIs] armed with hundreds of warheads that could be fired to take it out in midcourse.” Baloney! Since these GBIs (as well as THAAD) are required to crash directly onto the oncoming warhead, their guidance system is on such an edge that two interceptors, each with its own exquisite kill vehicle, are needed for reasonable assurance of stopping one warhead. The only “robustness”is in the pretense.
A true establishment Republican, Thiessen joins The Wall Street Journal in urging more money for missile defense and in chiding Trump for being too slow to offer it. But money to do what, precisely? Neither Thiessen, the Wall Street Journal, nor any other prominent Republican is asking Trump to reverse the fundamental decision to remain vulnerable to Chinese and Russian missiles. Only the president of the United States can do that.
Only Trump can prevent the “many billions of dollars” for missile defense that he will propose and that will surely be allocated from being wasted on current programs, and on hobby horse research that substitutes for building weapons that protect us against the really serious Chinese and Russian threats.
The Latest Quest for ‘Unobtanium’
The Missile Defense Agency’s hottest idea nowadays is to equip drones with laser weapons capable of destroying missiles deep in North Korea while hovering over international waters “for the cost of a gallon of gas per shot.” But neither the batteries to generate high levels of power nor the lasers with wavelengths short enough to compensate for low power exist. Something like that also requires perfect compensation for atmospheric turbulence, existing and induced. Attempts to achieve this have already been made at the cost of over $100 million. Were such technical difficulties surmounted, defending these drones on station 24 hours-a-day, seven days-a-week, 365 days-a-year would be beyond our capacity. In short, the laser drone project is about inventing a host of things, the main attraction of which is that they do not exist. In the trade, these are called “unobtanium” and are sure-fire excuses for follow-on contracts.
Here is hoping that Donald Trump, a practical man, sees the foolishness of much of what we have been doing for the past 34 years; that he will reverse the ban on defending against China and Russia, and that he will use our money to build things that actually destroy missiles of all kinds no matter whence they come.
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