‘Star Wars’: Pie in the Sky

William M. Arkin is a military affairs analyst who writes regularly for Opinion. E-mail:

This year, more than two decades after President Reagan delivered his “Star Wars” speech and initiated a crusade to protect America against missile attacks, the United States will finally deploy the first component of a national missile defense.

If ever there was a case of wasted defense spending, missile defense is it.

The idea of making the United States impervious to missile attack got its start in the years just before the Soviet Union began to totter. The end of the Cold War might have killed the idea but for an influential band of ideological true believers who kept it alive by reorienting the program toward the potential threat posed by such “rogue states” as North Korea, Iraq and Iran.


The events of Sept. 11, 2001, dealt what also could have been a mortal blow to the missile defense dream. Al Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington led President Bush to change the fundamental paradigm of national security. No longer would the United States wait for terrorists or others to strike. Instead, it would act preemptively whenever a threat began to develop.

The United States would develop offensive capabilities to strike anywhere on the globe to counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. And the frontline of this active defense would be far “forward,” meaning overseas. In other words, under the Bush Doctrine, the U.S. would intervene militarily long before any potentially hostile regime could develop missiles or other weapons capable of reaching American soil.

So it might seem a little strange that -- on July 22 -- the first 55-foot-long antimissile missile was placed in an underground silo in the foothills of an Alaskan range 107 miles southeast of Fairbanks. Seemingly stranger still, the Bush administration acted as if the U.S. had deployed something that was as workable, innocuous, consistent with its policy and necessary as air bags on automobiles.

Army Maj. Gen. John W. Holly, director of the Alaska missile defense program office, said the new interceptor “marks the end of an era where we have not been able to defend our country against long-range ballistic missile attacks.” The president declared that “we will deploy the technologies necessary to protect our people,” lauding missile defenses as he signed a $417-billion defense bill.

Unfortunately, the Alaska missiles cannot defend America. And that’s the least of their shortcomings.

The technical feasibility of missile defenses has always been questioned, given the uncertainties of a real attack and the availability of cheap, effective countermeasures and deception techniques. In a May report, the Union of Concerned Scientists called the administration’s claims for the Alaska system “irresponsible exaggerations.”

Also, missile defense may focus on the wrong threat. The December 2001 National Intelligence Estimate on ballistic missile threats, which advocates of the new system cite as their justification, predicted that several countries could use ships off the U.S. coast to launch missiles -- cruise missiles, that is -- that would sneak under the currently planned antimissile network. In fact, any homeland security expert will agree that U.S. ports and maritime approaches are the most vulnerable.

More serious -- if wasting more than $1 trillion and the efforts of a lot of very talented people doesn’t bother you -- is the fact that pushing ahead with an antimissile system undermines the credibility of Bush’s new policy of preemption and reduces any deterrent effect it may have.

The antimissile program also risks destabilizing U.S. relations with Russia and China, both of which are gradually clawing their way back toward major-power status.

What is even loonier is that the military understands the problems but keeps supporting the program anyway. The Army, which is in charge of the Alaska deployments, readily admits that its new interceptors are not capable of defeating a concerted attack, certainly not one of any significance. In fact, it calls its July achievement an “emergency defensive operations capability.”

Missile defense advocates argue that the U.S. is vulnerable and the Alaska system (to be joined by a California system in 2005) is not intended to be the final answer. The grand design is an elaborate worldwide land-, air- and sea-based multilayer missile defense that military insiders whisper will be capable of protecting the U.S. not just from North Korea and Iran but eventually China and Russia as well.

It is here, however, that missile defense becomes a serious menace to American security.

First, in the cases of North Korea and Iran, rather than focus on carrots and sticks to eliminate their missile threats, an antimissile system is likely to provoke them into increasing their capabilities so as to improve their chances of penetrating U.S. defenses. After all, from their perspective, in the age of U.S. preemption the ability to strike the United States and its interests is their deterrent against becoming another Iraq.

Second, in the case of China and Russia, a more capable missile defense -- augmented by airborne and space-based lasers, high-powered microwave and optical weapons, cyber warfare and new hypersonic precision conventional weapons -- will ultimately undermine the balance of terror that still governs the large nuclear arsenals.

This is particularly true of Russia. Moscow may be a grudging friend today, but at Strategic Command in Omaha, the accumulation of 21st century technologies presses war planners increasingly toward a coveted first-strike capability, the ultimate missile defense.

Despite lingering questions over whether missile defenses will work or will ultimately undermine strategic stability with Russia and China, advocates argue that some kind of defense is essential, given the increasing number of countries working to acquire nuclear weapons. But here the boosters are wrong as well.

With Iraq eliminated as a threat and neither Syria nor Libya ever likely to threaten the continental United States, Iran and North Korea constitute the only real threats. That is, unless you consider China, in which case the puny Alaska and California systems are completely ineffective.

Here is the kind of fantasy reasoning that drives the ideologues pushing missile defense: During last year’s “Total Defender 03” war game, held to practice an integrated missile defense of the United States, the scenario used by the military posited a frightening Iranian ballistic missile threat in the year 2017.

“The postulated adversary had some limited number of intercontinental and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, as well as a robust force of medium- and short-range ballistic missiles,” says a briefing on the exercise. “The adversary was also assumed to have some limited number of nuclear warheads for this ballistic missile force.”

It’s 2017, and proponents of antimissile systems ask us to believe that, in the post-Sept. 11 era with an avowed policy of preemption, Washington has stood by for more than a decade as Iran developed an intercontinental missile capability and deliverable nuclear weapons. I don’t think so.

The truth is that missile defense has become another case of fighting the last war instead of focusing our talent and resources on the next threat.

In the short term, the $10 billion we spend now on the antimissile program is an awful lot of money just for symbolism. In the long term, the investment rises to the level of near insanity when the end result is both neglected vulnerabilities and greater instability.