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.

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).

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14 responses to “What Will It Take to Get Serious About Missile Defense?”

  1. Quietly let the chicoms and the ruskies know, if that little fat uck ever launches a nuke every city in china and russia gets vaporized.

    Inside of two weeks he would be dead.

    • That will show them, after the fat man explodes a nuclear device over Kansas producing an EMP that sends the US back to the stone age.

      • Yeah, and sodomy works as a form of birth control. Still, it is not a good idea.

      • Yeah, you’re right. Do you think we could get them to take out sfo first ? Then do that pulse near where you live.

  2. With our current Congress, would an actual nuclear blast in the US wiping out a major city cause a change in policy? Or, would the Congress defer action on that to give time to consider Al Franken and how to get rid of the newly elected Alabama Senator?

  3. I submit that WE offer up both Hawaii & Washington D.C., withe possibility of Los Angeles as sacrificial goats to N. Korea…

    THAT should do it!

    • I live on Maui and can assure you that there is absolutely nothing here that any self respecting country would want. (other than climate). Most military assets are in the far east or over in Guam. The politicians are at least as stupid as those who elect them, and the general population has an average IQ of about 65.

      In fact if you did offer up this socialist state to any other country, it would probably be considered an unprovoked attack on their nation.

    • It’s ironic that those who undermine our defense at every turn, and embolden our enemies by being the “useful idiots” that they are, don’t seem to understand that their constituents in liberal cities are the first in the line of fire. The West Coast would go FIRST. All the big cities in California, Oregon and Washington state would be the first targets. Yet they seem cavalier about defense. What does that tell you about them and their ilk?

  4. It’s hard to see getting serious about anything of importance to our country while half of it is continually trying to tear everything apart so it can create a perfect, more just society that primarily benefits itself. Our properly elected President is under attack for matters far less consequential than what Obama and Clinton perpetrated, including that disgusting Comey piece of crap, during the election, while at the same time a major crisis is brewing in N Korea. All this talk of Russian collusion is absolute BS in comparison to connections between the Clinton’s and her cronies with Russia. Where the f is Mueller’s prosecutorial discretion? Is this investigation of benefit to the country or to him personally? Does he have a lick of common sense in his entire body? Get the dam$ charges out there and get this stupid crap behind us so the country can get on with dealing with its real problems. I’m absolutely fed up with this whole stinking game.

  5. Missile defense is an appealing thought.

    But as an experimental physicist (lasers and optics, specifically), I think that’s all it is. Because I know how hard it is to get “simple” things working in the lab, with nobody shooting at me. Codevilla is a smart guy, but I doubt he has any conception of this basic point, so he’s vulnerable to techno-optimists and their vaporware claims.

    The Israeli Iron Dome missile-defense system is impressive, but they confront a much less challenging problem than intercontinental missiles carrying multiple warheads and traveling at much higher speeds than the Katyusha rockets the Palestinian ragheads employ.

    And even if you build a system that’s claimed to be competent to protect against ICBMs …

    a) You can’t be sure, since you’ll never be able to test it under realistic conditions.

    b) It can be evaded by smuggling nuclear weapons in on low-tech carriers (think trucks from Mexico).

    Codevilla does lots of useful analysis of America’s political troubles under the ministrations of our feckless “elites,” but he’s in over his head on this subject.

    • Within another 20 years the number of nuclear armed countries will double and the most probable target is the US. A nuclear weapon exploding over the US in the next 50 years is very likely to say the least. Do we do nothing and just wait for the bomb to drop?

      20 years ago the Israeli Iron Dome was impossible. It became possible because of Reagan’s Star Wars program as did the THAAD program. If we expend the effort it is possible.

  6. Mutually assured destruction has worked quite well in deterring a first strike. The United States would love to have the ability to shoot down any incoming missiles. That would allow the U.S. to threaten other countries with a first strike. Much better to stick with the mutually assured destruction so that the warmongering monsters in Washington D.C. are kept in check. Out of courtesy to John McCain, Nikki Haley and others I have not named any of the warmongering monsters.

  7. In reply to those who believe NoKo wouldn’t launch a strike, once is all it takes to change the world, an order of magnitude greater than 9/11.

    What’s more, even just the EMP from an air burst over Hawai’i would make the power grid in Puerto Rico seem robust.