Latest News

House Panel Begins Mulling Whether Missile Defense Is Worthwhile

By | March 10, 2008

      Witnesses Agree Rogue Nations Gain Nuclear/Missile Capabilities, But Differ On Whether Threat Of Strike On U.S. Justifies BMD Program

      While U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) programs have scored multiple successes in shooting down target weapons, staying mostly on schedule and keeping within recent budget estimates, lawmakers last week began raising existential questions about whether BMD is worth it.

      This transpired during a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee national security and foreign affairs subcommittee.

      $120 Billion: Worth It?

      Rep. John F. Tierney (D-Mass.), the subcommittee chairman, kicked things off by stating that the federal government has laid out $120 billion on missile defense, adding that it is time to ask whether all that money is worth it.

      "The subcommittee wanted to take this opportunity to take a step back, to ask what have we achieved over these past 25 years and over $120 billion in investment — as conservatively estimated by the Congressional Research Service — and more importantly, where we should be going in the future," Tierney said.

      He said it is time for the panel to launch "a robust and concerted investigation into the rationale for missile defense; its costs, benefits and technical obstacles; and the accountability, transparency and testing regime of the Missile Defense Agency," or MDA.

      Tierney said the starting point should be an assessment of the threat of a missile attack on a U.S. city, saying that existing threat assessments date from the 1990s, which he finds suspect.

      "Unfortunately, what we largely have to date is … a series of intelligence estimates from the 1990s that have been tossed around like political footballs," he said. Congress therefore should open a "robust and open dialogue … about the threats were face," he asserted.

      BMD programs cost $10 billion a year, he said, and now might be a good time to reevaluate such programs.

      One question, he said, is whether it is time to review earlier threat assessments and update them.

      "Do we need an updated National Intelligence Estimate, and how can we achieve one that is free of political pressure or interference?" Tierney asked. He didn’t specify a deadline for a new NIE, such as whether that assessment should be performed now, promptly, by the Bush administration that has supported BMD programs, or next spring or later, after the November election of someone to succeed Bush in the White House.

      Also, Tierney asked whether an assessment of the BMD threat should "differentiate between short- and medium-range [enemy] missiles versus intercontinental missiles?" or ICBMs.

      Short Range, Long Range

      Generally, BMD systems to down short- and medium-range missiles have been developed and are available, without a huge added infusion of funds, while some systems that would down ICBMs may still be in an expensive development phase.

      For example, the Airborne Laser (ABL) is still in development, a high-tech platform on a jumbo jet airplane that aims a laser beam to incinerate an enemy missile and fry its electronics while the missile is in its most vulnerable phase, just after launch, before it has an opportunity to spew forth multiple warheads, decoys or confusing chaff.

      The ABL will require substantial funds to complete development, including a planned target missile shoot-down next year, and to purchase several of the planes loaded with laser equipment and beam control/fire control systems. After that, however, the ABL would provide a low cost per enemy missile destroyed, compared to using interceptor missiles as other BMD systems do.

      Missiles Versus Smuggling

      Then Tierney raised an anti-BMD argument that has been voiced for years by missile defense critics: if terrorists can smuggle a nuclear bomb or other weapon of mass destruction (WMD) into the United States, they can detonate it to incinerate a city or other target, without using a missile to deliver the weapon. Thus, the critics argue, isn’t it a waste to develop BMD systems?

      The answer delivered by BMD supporters is that if smuggling is all that is required, then why are rogue nations spending vast amounts of their national treasure in developing ever-longer-range missiles? Also, the anti-BMD critics state that a smuggled WMD, once detonated, can’t be traced back to its country of origin, whereas a ballistic missile can be traced back to its launch point, eliciting a devastating counter-strike by U.S. ICBMs. (That assumes, of course, that a rogue nation or terrorist organization won’t launch a WMD- tipped missile from a submarine or land area outside the responsible enemy country.)

      Tierney quoted a National Intelligence Council report eight years ago that made the smuggling argument.

      "Other means to deliver WMD against the United States will emerge, some cheaper and more reliable and accurate than early-generation ICBMs. The likelihood of an attack by these means is greater than that of a WMD attack with an ICBM." That finding, of course, doesn’t say that there is no threat of a missile attack facing the United States.

      So, Tierney continued, one must ask, if smuggling WMD into the United States is cheaper, more reliable, more accurate and untraceable-anonymous, then "is it likely that our highest priority threat against which we must protect ourselves will come from a country that wanted to cause us harm by focusing their limited resources and expertise on the very difficult process of building, testing and deploying an [ICBM] with a miniaturized [WMD] as its payload?"

      If the answer is that it is unlikely an enemy nation would employ a ballistic missile as the delivery system for a WMD attack, then one should ask what else the government might purchase if it doesn’t spend $10 billion annually on BMD programs, instead deciding to cancel them? Tierney asked.

      That $10 large is equivalent to "a third of the total budget for the Department of Homeland Security and is roughly equal to the total appropriation for the Department of State," Tierney observed.

      "To break it down further, we are annually spending billions more on missile defense than the entire budget for" the Federal Emergency Management Agency, "20 times more than for public diplomacy and 30 times more than for the Peace Corps."

      His panel invited several experts to testify on these issues.

      Joseph Cirincione, newly installed president of the Ploughshares Fund, an anti-nukes think tank in San Francisco, termed BMD programs "the longest-running scam in the history of the Department of Defense."

      ‘Exaggerated Threat’

      He charged that Pentagon leaders are pressing ahead with BMD development programs "based on exaggerated threat estimates and optimistic expectations, [which] wastes valuable defense resources needed for other pressing military needs."

      While many experts say the United States faces a growing threat of missile attacks, Cirincione asserted that "there are far fewer missiles in the world today than there were 20 years ago, fewer states with missile programs, and fewer histile missiles aimed at the United States. Countries still pursuing long-range missile programs are fewer in number and less technically advanced than 20 years ago."

      However, BMD backers note that in the past five years alone, North Korea has built and detonated a nuclear bomb, and has pushed ahead in developing an ICBM. Iran is testing missiles of steadily longer range, and has fired a missile from a submerged submarine.

      Meanwhile, Iran continues producing nuclear materials in defiance of global condemnation, while its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, says Israel should be wiped from the map. And China has deployed 1,300-plus missiles pointed across the waters toward Taiwan, and has developed a road-mobile ICBM that can be launched from Chinese territory and strike targets throughout the United States. China now also has submarines that can run submerged in the Pacific Ocean and strike targets on the East Coast of the United States.

      He said a key threat now is rogue nations striking the United States with weapons of mass destruction delivered to targets by "unconventional, terrorist-style deliver means," rather than by missile.

      However, even Cirincione didn’t say the United States faces no threat of attack by enemy ballistic missiles.

      Rather, he downplayed the gravity of such an attack by observing that instead of Americans facing annihilation by 5,000 Soviet Union warheads raining down, now it would be far fewer nukes with much lower yields.

      Nukes Threaten Nation

      "Today, we fear that a few missiles carrying warheads of some 10 to 40 kilotons might destroy part of a city or at least impact somewhere in Europe or the United States," Cirincione said.

      "Though still a catastrophe, this is less of a threat by several orders of magnitude" than that posed by the Soviets, he said. "In no way can one say that the threat today is worse than that of the Cold War years."

      In the end, however, Cirincione acknowledges that by many measures, the United States now faces a growing threat of attack by missiles.

      "There is a widespread capability to launch short-range missiles," he noted. And, "there is a slowly growing, but still limited, capability to launch medium-range missiles."

      Because the United States and Russia are reducing the number of ICBMs, "there are a decreasing number of long-range missiles from the levels of the Cold War," with further reductions in store.

      To be sure, Cirincione concedes that there is "some possibility that one or two new nations could acquire a limited capability to launch long-range missiles over the next two decades," though he added that he thinks the likelihood of "any nation attacking the United States or Europe with a ballistic missile is exceptionally low."

      Cirincione concludes that missile threats can be handled by talking to the enemy nations, using "diplomacy, deterrence and measured military preparedness." But even he doesn’t assert that BMD systems are useless.

      Importantly, Cirincione concludes if BMD systems work, "they can be an important part of these efforts."

      He urges, though, that they shouldn’t dominate policy discussions.

      Rebutting him was Baker Spring, research fellow with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.

      Spring noted that in the Cold War, the United States stood nakedly vulnerable to attack by Soviet ICBMs, but the Soviets stood vulnerable to retaliation by U.S. ICBMs, resulting in a balance-of-fear standoff called mutual assured destruction, or MAD.

      That worked when there was one superpower enemy with tough, ruthless but intelligent leaders. But Spring asks whether MAD can be depended upon as a workable protective strategy when ever-more nations possess nukes, especially smaller and less-stable countries.

      According to Spring, "multilateralizing MAD would be profoundly destabilizing," and the United States instead to using BMD systems as a shield to limit damage from any enemy missile strike.

      "Damage-limitation strategy is the preferred option for maintaining peace and stability in a multi-polar world," he stated.

      Spring noted the advances in missile and nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, adding that the United States remains vulnerable to this rising threat.

      Therefore, "this is no time for the [United States] to slow the pace of developing and deploying effective defenses against ballistic missiles," he warned. "Indeed, the Bush administration and Congress need to accelerate the effort by focusing on developing and deploying the systems that offer the greatest capability."

      Space-based and sea-based BMD systems would be the most effective in providing a shield against enemy ballistic missiles, Spring stated.

      BMD programs should be provided robust financial support, including funds for construction of a space test bed, Spring advised. As well, the United States should emplace sea- based defenses to protect U.S. coastal areas against short-range ballistic missiles launched from ships, he recommended.

      Military analysts have cautioned that terrorists could spirit a nuclear weapon or two with missiles into a cargo container going onto a commercial ship, and then fire those missiles into a U.S. city, before the ship ever arrived in port.

      He also recommended ensuring that the military has the option of placing developmental BMD programs on operational alert, and favored shifting the sea-based BMD systems from MDA to the Navy.

      Spring as well proposes ditching a current regulation, so that Navy ship commanders could launch BMD interceptors against enemy missiles before their rocket motors stopped firing. In other words, Navy commanders could launch sea-based BMD interceptors while enemy missiles still were in their boost phase.

      Generally, Spring recommended that Congress avoid any moves that would weaken missile defense programs; support those programs financially; propose putting missile interceptors in space; and reject allegations that such systems would constitute weaponization of space, by noting that space long ago was weaponized by the first ballistic missile, since such a weapon in part of its trajectory travels though space.

      Stephen E. Flynn, a senior fellow in national security studies with the Council on Foreign Relations, said the United States must counter both the threat of attack by ballistic missiles, while also thwarting terrorists or rogue states attempting to smuggle WMD into the country.

      He also called for a unified, coordinated effort to combat both of those threats, instead of having them addressed separately by the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security.

      The texts of the witnesses’ testimony my be viewed in full by going to and calling up the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Web site, and clicking on subcommittees, National Security and Foreign Affairs, and clicking on "Oversight of Ballistic Missile Defense (Part 1): Threats, Realities, and Tradeoffs."

      Separately, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) today said Democrats aren’t supporting BMD programs, adding that Sen. John McCain, a fellow Arizonan and the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, would staunchly support missile defense if voters elect him to enter the White House.

      Kyl spoke before a missile defense forum of the American Foreign Policy Council, sponsored in part by The Boeing Co. [BA], at the Hart Senate Office Building, deriding Democrats for comparing spending on missile defense with spending on the Peace Corps.

      Kyl also is urging stronger sanctions on Iran for its obstinate continuation of a nuclear materials production program that was condemned in a new United Nations economic sanctions resolution and by Western nations, including the United States. They fear Iran will use the materials to build nuclear weapons to mount atop longer-range missiles that the Middle Eastern nation is acquiring.

      Also speaking at the forum was Peter Brookes, senior fellow with the Heritage Foundation, who outlined why some European nations oppose the U.S. plan to install a ballistic missile defense system to protect Europe from Iranian missiles.

      One answer: money.

      According to him, aside from the United Kingdom, many European nations don’t fear they will be the targets of Iranian missiles. (But that is puzzling, since, he noted, Iran plans to be able to orbit a satellite next year, and that same technology would place not only Europe but the United States within range of Iranian missiles. Iran would "be able to reach out and touch the United States," he said.)

      Further, corporations in many European nations have extensive business dealings in Iran, he said, with "a tremendous amount of investment" there that "they don’t want to upset" by irritating Iran.

      Also, some Europeans don’t wish to upset Russian leaders, who have exploded in blistering rage at the U.S. plan to install the missile defense system, saying it really would be targeted at Russian ICBMs.

      That Russian ire, he said, is because of "emotional issues" where Russia sees he United States barging in on "its old stomping grounds" — referring to the fact that Poland once was part of the Soviet-ruled Iron Curtain nations.

      "The French want a positive relationship with Russia," he said, adding that French President Nicolas Sarkozy has reached out to Russian leaders. And Russia is concerned that the radar for the GMD system might be used to spy on Russian military movements.

      Further, many European leaders see short- and medium-range missiles as the chief threat from Iran, which already has such weapons. NATO is developing its own missile defense system to deal with the short-medium threat, while the U.S. system would deal with longer-range enemy missiles aimed at Europe.

      That system would involve creating a third site for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, a BMD asset led by Boeing, that would include a radar installation in the Czech Republic and missile interceptors installed in silos in Poland. (The other two GMD sites are in Alaska and California.)

      Today, Bush announced that a deal has been reached for the GMD system to be installed in Poland, after meeting with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk. (Please see full story in this issue.)

      Leave a Reply