Missile defence 30 years after "Star Wars"

March 23rd marked the 30th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s infamous “Star Wars” speech, which launched the United States on a new round of the long effort to build a unilateral technological defence against the threat posed by nuclear weapons. Thirty years and some $200 billion later, that dream remains just as unrealistic now as it was then. A Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system is nominally operational in the United States, but the hope for a technological solution to nuclear vulnerability remains as illusory as ever.

Efforts to create defences against nuclear-armed missiles have been launched numerous times since the beginning of the nuclear age. (The pyramid in the image above is the remains of the earlier “Safeguard” anti-ballistic missile system, which was shut down in 1976. The site was finally sold off in 2012.)

But such efforts always foundered on the twin realities that 1) interception of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) is an exceptionally difficult task and 2) in the absence of an agreement to eliminate nuclear weapons, any system that appears likely to make real progress on the technological problem will simply spur efforts by other countries to make the interception task even more difficult (through “countermeasures”), or to overwhelm the defences (by increasing the number of attacking weapons), or to develop additional or alternative methods of delivering the bombs. Worse, the overall effect of these responses may well be to make everybody less secure than they were in the beginning. (See Yousaf Butt, “Re-examining the conceptual basis of strategic missile defense,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists web edition, 3 December 2010 for further discussion of these issues.)

The Safeguard system, which long pre-dated Reagan’s speech, began in the late 1960s as Sentinel, a limited system that was supposed to protect the United States against a small nuclear attack by China (which had recently acquired the Bomb but did not have an actual ICBM). Safeguard, which Sentinel quickly evolved into, sought only to protect a small number of U.S. missile silos from a Soviet first strike. The initial goal of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative was to build a system that would make the entire Soviet nuclear arsenal “impotent and obsolete”. The formal goal of SDI and its successors grew less and less ambitious as time went on, but many missile defence proponents still call for the development and deployment of a system to protect the U.S. against all nuclear weapons, an objective that remains as distant (and, in the absence of global nuclear disarmament, as problematic) as ever.

Like Sentinel, today’s system has a far more limited role ascribed to it. Its official purpose is to protect the United States against North Korea (which recently acquired the Bomb and has not yet tested an ICBM but does seem to be working on one) and Iran (which has neither the Bomb nor an ICBM).

Yet, as David Wright explains, even for the comparatively simple job of intercepting one or more future North Korean missiles, the U.S. is a long way from fielding a missile defence that can safely be said to “work” (“The Enduring Illusion of Missile Defense—30 Years Later,” All Things Nuclear blog, 22 March 2013):

There have been a number of official statements—most recently by White House spokesman Jay Carney last week and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in December—expressing confidence that U.S. missile defenses could stop a North Korean missile attack.

Such statements are nonsense since there simply is no test data that sheds light on how well the defense would work against a real-world missile attack. Moreover, no one knows what North Korea might equip its missiles with to surprise and fool the defense. …

People frequently downplay the countermeasures issue, in part because it makes the problem so difficult. But unfortunately it is real. …

The administration may view its rosy claims about its confidence in missile defense as part of deterring a North Korean launch. But political leaders may also come to believe that they have capabilities they in fact do not, and make bad decisions based on that. They should heed the words of Nobel laureate physicist Richard Feynman, who served on the presidential commission studying the 1986 explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger and wrote:

“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

Even if the GMD system or some successor can be made to “work” in theory, part two of the missile defence problem will still remain. Efforts to improve the system’s effectiveness, such as the administration’s recent decision to increase the number of deployed Ground-Based Interceptors or the calls from other quarters to replace the whole boondoggle with a bigger, more capable, entirely different system, are likely to produce unwanted responses — and not just by North Korea.

The Pentagon already assesses that “the new generation of mobile missiles [being developed in China] is intended to ensure the viability of China’s strategic deterrent in the face of continued missile defense advances in the United States and, to a lesser extent, Russia.” (Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2012, U.S. Department of Defense, May 2012). Russia also has expressed continuing concern about developments in U.S. missile defences.

Thirty years after the “Star Wars” speech, the program that Ronald Reagan once hoped would make nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete” is more likely to discourage further nuclear reductions and drive additional nuclear modernization than it is to protect people from the dangers of nuclear weapons.

Photo credit: U.S. General Services Administration

Tags: China, Ground-based Midcourse Defense, Iran, Missile defence, North Korea, Nuclear disarmament, Nuclear weapons, Ronald Reagan, Russia, Safeguard, Sentinel, Star Wars, Strategic Defense Initiative, United States