What Will It Take to Get Serious About Missile Defense?

North Korea’s possession of mobile-launched missiles that can deliver nukes anywhere in the United States shows that, nowadays, anybody can make lots of pinpoint-accurate missiles of any range. Since America’s ICBMs, submarines, and bombers are fewer, concentrated in fewer places than ever, even North Korea can carry out the kind of disarming attack that Americans feared the Soviet Union might have mounted in the 1980s. Kim Jong-un is showing the world that the missile defense programs into which the U.S. government has poured some $80 billion in recent years are no barrier to destroying most U.S. strategic forces and holding the American people hostage.

The officials who crafted these programs, ideologically focused as they have been on not hindering Russia’s or China’s capacity to devastate America, built token defenses to suffice against unsophisticated, unserious opponents. But North Koreans, semi-starved and serious, grasped better than highly credentialed Americans how this focus makes U.S. defenses inherently vulnerable. Yet, because U.S. policy continues to be one of not having missile defense—the public’s support for it notwithstanding—the government’s response to its programs’ failure is to pour more money into them.

The Technology is Not Lacking
Since the 1960s, the government and elite opinion have obfuscated that policy by pretending that technology is lacking. Hence, support for missile defense has meant spending endlessly on expensive tokens and endless “research.” Yet, as ballistic missiles have evolved since the 1950s, America has never lacked the technical means of defending seriously against them. As Professor Joseph Constance’s magisterial work showed, Republicans and Democrats have avoided responsibility for critical choices on these matters by framing them in pseudo-technical terms, none too subtly telling the public that they are beyond ordinary people’s understanding. Nonsense.

What follows summarizes how current programs are irremediably inadequate to defend against any serious missile attack from anywhere, and what a missile defense worthy of the name requires.

The current “National Missile Defense” (NMD) system consists of a single radar/fire control system plus a maximum of 44 interceptors based mostly in Alaska that purports, or rather pretends, to defend U.S territory. This arrangement so increases the distance that the interceptors must travel and so shortens the time in which the interceptors must do it that the interceptors have to be huge. Moreover, because the system’s designers chose to require that the interceptors collide with the incoming warhead directly—without the aid of any warhead—the guidance system must be exquisite and fragile. Such requirements make these interceptors hugely expensive and doubtful of success. Current “employment doctrine” calls for devoting two interceptors to each incoming warhead. In short, this system is un-expandable.

Nobody would design a missile defense system this way if defending America were the intention. In fact, the system’s mission is to destroy at most a handful of warheads from “rogue “ states or unauthorized launches by Russia and China, while posing no obstacle to serious attacks by anyone. Not incidentally, this token counters charges that the government is unable to stop “even a single missile.” But the accomplishment of these missions has made it possible for poor North Korea to render it and our National Missile Defense irrelevant, merely by running its missile production line. The lesson is not lost on anyone, except perhaps in Washington.

The focus on not defending against Chinese or Russian missiles led the U.S government to structure all its missile defense programs, including so-called “Theater Missile Defense” systems intended to defend U.S troops overseas and allies, in the least efficient manner.

Understanding this requires keeping in mind that time-distance problems such as we learned in Algebra 1 are the basic calculus of missile defense by surface-based interceptors. The objective is to cause the interceptor to meet the incoming missile at as great a distance away as possible. Two factors work against the objective: the curvature of the earth, which determines when the incoming missile becomes visible (and hence when the interceptor may be launched from the target area), and the speed of the oncoming missile (longer range missiles come in faster than shorter range ones).

Orbital Systems Needed
There are two ways of increasing that distance. Increasing the interceptors’ speed—at the cost of making them bigger, more complex, expensive and rare—helps a little. Increasing the time available for the interceptors to travel increases the distance at which they meet the incoming missile, helps a lot, and makes it possible to use less sophisticated, cheaper interceptors. But increasing the time available requires launching interceptors on the basis of information from systems remote from the target and forward of the earth’s curvature. U.S. government policy, however, has been contrary to this logic.

From the very beginning, U.S. government policy conceived of missile defense in terms of “sites” containing interceptors and the radar/fire control systems that operate them, and prohibited the launch of interceptors from any “site” on the basis of information forward from that “site.” Refusing to pursue “remote launch,” imprisoned U.S interceptors within earth curvature short horizon and forced us to make them, fast, big, sophisticated, expensive, rare, and relatively impotent. So long as U.S. surface-based interceptors must rely on for fire control co-located sources of information, the speed of incoming targets must load the interceptors with heavy burdens and degrade their performance.

The alternative, the obvious path to efficient surface-based missile defense, was and remains to launch interceptors on the basis of infra-red systems based in orbit. But the U.S. government chose to enshrine in the 1972 ABM treaty that no orbital systems may “substitute for” radars. In the 1980s, the United States was developing such an SBIRS-low network of satellites. It was canceled when U.S. Arms Controllers pointed out, correctly, that such a network would have enabled relatively easy interception of Russian and Chinese missiles as well as of North Korean and Iranian ones. Today, even though the ABM treaty is no longer in force, the U.S. government has no intention of launching interceptors on the basis of information from orbit and is barely edging toward very limited “launch on remote.”

The U.S. government remains committed even more firmly to the ABM treaty’s prohibition of orbit-based weapons based on “other physical principles”—that is, lasers. These would strike down missiles as they are launched, and confer control of space on whoever owns them. A generation ago, such a missile killing prototype was ready for trials. On December 4, 1994, the New York Times’ science section devoted a page, complete with drawings to a story titled “Space-based laser nearly ready to fly.” The U.S. government canceled it because it would have been very useful against missiles rising from anywhere on the globe. A scaled-down, land-based version shot down Katyusha rockets over Israel.

Washington’s response to North Korea’s missiles has been typical: throw words and money at the problem. Everybody, it seems, has nice words for missile defense. But because few know or bother to learn the details, interest group logic ensures that the same people who have kept America vulnerable are continuing to do so.

The technologies of missile defense, like the technologies of intercontinental missiles, have ceased to be exotic. The U.S government’s refusal to be serious about missile warfare and missile defense empowers foreigners who are more serious.

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About Angelo Codevilla

Angelo M. Codevilla was a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness. He was professor of international relations at Boston University and the author of several books including To Make And Keep Peace (Hoover Institution Press, 2014).