Thursday, September 30, 2004

Defensive Lapse

Former co-blogger Greg Ihrie has tipped me off that our new missile defense system is ready to be deployed. Now, by that statement, you might think that it would stand some chance of, I don't know...working? But you'd be wrong!
The paucity of realistic test data has caused the Pentagon's chief weapons evaluator to conclude that he cannot offer a confident judgment about the system's viability. He estimated its likely effectiveness to be as low as 20 percent.

"A system is being deployed that doesn't have any credible capability," said retired Gen. Eugene Habiger, who headed the U.S. Strategic Command in the mid-1990s. "I cannot recall any military system being deployed in such a manner." (Washington Post, 9/29/04)

At least we have a 20% chance of being protected from...the USSR? Russia. Or whoever it is that has ICBMs these days.

Oh right, North Korea! The Bush administration says that this system is necessary to counter the North Korean nuclear missile threat, which is admittedly a serious concern. But as Michael Levi points out, a missile defense system isn't going to fix the problem.

Against a quickly evolving threat, though, isn't some defense better than none? If such a threat existed, perhaps; but it's not clear that the threat the new missile defense is designed to meet is anywhere close to existence. Near-term worries center around nuclear-armed rogue states, especially North Korea. Jane's Defense Week caused a big stir last week when it reported that North Korea was in the advanced stages of developing two new long-range missiles, based on obsolete but still useful Soviet motors. The first missile, a land-based rocket, could not have reached the United States. The more worrying scenario involves engines for old Soviet submarine-based missiles used to build a new submarine-based rockets. Mated with several first-generation Soviet submarines that North Korea has purchased, those missiles could, theoretically, carry nuclear warheads and be used to attack the continental United States.

If the reports are true, they mean that North Korea is on its way to assured targeting for the American homeland. Doesn't that justify the Alaska deployment? Well, no, since the defense, even if it worked according to plan, wouldn't be able to protect against these missiles. The Alaska defense is optimized against North Korean missiles fired from North Korea, not all missiles North Korea happens to control. In contrast, the new missiles reported by Jane's would be carried away from North Korea on submarines and be fired from considerably closer to the United States. Most likely, the Alaska system would be ill-placed to intercept them. (TNR 8/11/04)

Levi doesn't think that the placement in Alaska will necessarily HARM the US, just that it won't actually do us any good and is a giant waste of money. This is partially true, but what it neglects is the further antagonization the shield will have on an already antsy North Korea. I doubt that they'll do anything extreme like attack us while our system is still vulnerable, but it could spur them to research countermeasures against such a system, which only makes the US less safe. Furthermore, by sending the message that the US will continue to focus solely on nuclear weapons, rather than the situation holistically, what we're really telling North Korea is that Nukes are still a bartering chip. After all, if we're willing to plunk down $100 billion on shoddy technology, it has to mean something to us right?

A program that wastes money in order to make the US less safe while not actually fixing the problem it's targeted at. It would be the worst form of liberal excess. Except, as is so often the case these days, it's President Bush who's doing it.

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