Trump Notwithstanding, U.S. Deploys Only Words Against Missiles

Official Washington has refused to defend America against ballistic missiles, especially from Russia and China, while spending some $300 billion pretending to be trying. For a half century, it has dissembled its intention with techno-speak. On January 17, however, President Trump released the Pentagon’s long internally disputed Missile Defense Review (MDR) with words that might be summed up as, “This time, for sure!”

Said Trump: “First, we will prioritize the defense of the American people above all else.” Wow. Goodbye Robert McNamara and Henry Kissinger. Strike one.

And then: “The United States cannot simply build more of the same, or make only incremental improvements.” Strike two.

Finally: “My upcoming budget will invest in a space-based missile defense layer . . . Regardless of the missile type or the geographic origins of the attack, we will ensure that enemy missiles find no sanctuary on Earth or in the skies above.” Home run!

Most media accounts, and Democrats, took Trump at his word. But whoever fights his way through the MDR’s 8,000 words of bureaucratese, written by people who failed freshman composition, will find no fundamental changes in current policy. It’s a fair bet Trump did not read it.

Tinkering With a Horse-and-Buggy System
The most fundamental of questions—the one that McNamara and Kissinger “settled” with the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty before most people reading this were born—is that the U.S government should not even try to defend America against Russian and Chinese missiles, but it may try defending against “theater” threats. The Trump MDR reaffirms their settlement: “While the United States relies on deterrence to protect against large and technically sophisticated Russian and Chinese intercontinental ballistic missile threats to the U.S. homeland, U.S. active missile defense can and must outpace existing and potential rogue state offensive missile capabilities.” Color that no change.

In practice, this long-standing posture has meant the U.S government has not built anything that, even in the pursuit of safety against such regimes as North Korea, would stop significant numbers of missiles from Russia and China. Trump said we would not “build more of the same or make only incremental improvements.” But the MDR mentions only one actual homeland defense measure: an additional 20 ground-based interceptors located exclusively next to the other 40 at Fort Greely in Alaska. They would be improved, and have access to improved warning sensors.

But the basic approach is unchanged from the 1950s. Trump’s words notwithstanding, the only real novelty is that this horse-and-buggy system will be given a genetically modified horse on steroids and carbon-fiber buggy wheels.

It’s not as if those in charge of U.S missile defense don’t know what makes the biggest difference between horse-and-buggy interceptors and effective ones. All of them know that it’s whether you can launch the interceptor before the target comes into view of surface-based radars. The MDR mentions in passing that “Russia maintains and modernizes its longstanding strategic missile defense system deployed around Moscow, including 68 nuclear-armed interceptors [meaning launchers that are loaded and reloaded from underground], and has fielded multiple types of shorter-range, mobile missile defense systems throughout Russia.”

Distant Early Warnings
Why ever do the Russians—whose students outrank ours in math and science—think that these masses of interceptors, which are not nearly as sophisticated and expensive as ours in Alaska, can protect against intercontinental missiles? Because their less-than-ideal interceptors are targeted by the faraway radar systems that also provide early warning. And the interceptors are located close to the places to be defended.

Unifying warning and targeting is the key. Putting nukes on the interceptors also helps, because it relieves the exquisite, failure prone, and prohibitively expensive hit-to-kill technical requirements that we have imposed on ourselves.

Since America is mostly surrounded by oceans, and the missiles coming at us would be coming from places inland in Eurasia, the only way for us to unify early warning and targeting in a forward location is to do so in orbit. And it isn’t as if we don’t know how to do it. A program to do just that (SBIRS-low) was canceled in the 1980s when arms controllers pointed out that it contradicts the 1972 ABM Treaty’s provision against “substituting” for surface-based radars. But oh, look! The 2019 MDR states that research is ongoing into systems that, someday, might let us do that. Don’t hold your breath. The deep state does not want that, including the defense contractors who, naturally, don’t want to jeopardize current programs.

Vulnerability Remains Policy
Because the deep state rules, all proposals for novelty get translated into putting fancier lipstick on the same pigs. Missile defense advocates have ever touted “boost-phase defense”—shooting down missiles just after they are launched, and “space-based missile defense,” by which they usually mean the same thing. The MDR embraces boost phase, even saying some of it will be done by lasers! And Trump trumpeted the latter—almost certainly sincerely. But read the fine print.

The MDR wants to do research into lasers small and light enough to be carried on stealth drones and, with a power supply sufficient to ensure missile kills at a distance greater than 100 miles thanks also to sophisticated systems for countering atmospheric distortion.

Leave aside the absurdity of permanently stationing drones over the territory of a non-idiot enemy. Fact is, this is the third time (first was the Edward Teller’s Free Electron Laser, second was the Air Force’s Airborne Laser lab) that the taxpayer’s pocket has been picked to the tune of some $3 billion for countering high-power lasers’ atmospheric distortion by ex post facto mirror adjustments. No technology can make that possible.

Even crazier, the MDR proposes hovering F-35 fighters near enemy launch sites to shoot down the missiles. Even if they could survive in areas defended by Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles, how many planes and what infrastructure would be required to keep one plane in the air 24/7 for more than a couple of days?

As for the MDR’s promise of research into space-based interceptors, note first that this is research rather than building anything. Second, one may ask what the research is meant to uncover, since space-based interceptors have been feasible in one form or another since the late 1960s. Third and most revealing, the MDR specifies that, were space-based interceptors deployed, they would be used strictly to counter threats from such as North Korea and Iran.

Vulnerability to Russia and China remains U.S. policy, notwithstanding the words of Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump. Someday, some president will take his own words seriously. Meanwhile, don’t attempt to kick that football!

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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).