05.23.10 Missile Defense: Dreams, Lies & Nightmares

The New York Times reported on Tuesday that the Pentagon is up to its old tricks: embellishing (aka “lying about”) the the prospects for effective defense against nuclear missiles.  More specifically, DoD had claimed that its SM-3 anti-ballistic missile had knocked off 84% its targets in tests.  Monday’s news was a study by academics Theodore A. Postol of MIT and George N. Lewis of Cornell showing that the actual kill rate was more like 10-20%.  DoD then admitted that 40% of its tests were not even against true prototypes of the incoming missiles of that would have to be countered.  Lies and deceit from the masters of the game.

While I certainly admire the Postol’s and Lewis’s work — for years they have been showing the lie in the Pentagon’s anti-missile boosterism — their study is beyond the central point:  nuclear missile defense has to be 100% effective 100% of the time to be worthwhile.

If you’re fending off conventional bombs, succeeding 84% of the time means 84% less damage on the ground.  With nuclear missiles, though, only one needs to get through to cause catastrophic damage.  What do you call a system that fails to prevent catastrophic damage?  “Worthless.”

Actually, missile defense is far worse than worthless.  For one thing, taxpayers have been sinking billions of dollars annually into fudged tests, outright failures, and dead-end technologies since Ronald Reagan announced his “Star Wars” initiative in 1984.  Never mind the schools and public transit that could have been built for that money; just think how much more effective our military would be with that money going for body armor and helicopters.

And the nightmare doesn’t stop there.  Missile defense is inherently destabilizing internationally.  Knowing that such systems are imperfect, potential foes are incented to try to overwhelm then with shear quantities of offensive weapons.  They read the US’s so-called “defense” as highly aggressive, making them more resistant to arms control of any kind and leading to expensive and dangerous arms races.  (Reaganauts claim that the arms race resulting from Star Wars ended up bankrupting the Soviets.  It may have hastened the USSR’s demise somewhat but can hardly be credited as the primary cause.)

Right-wingers have been gaga over missile defense since Reagan’s time.  For them, it is as theological as opposition to gay marriage.  It matters not the least that it doesn’t work in theory or practice.  And, they’ve played their game brilliantly, by spreading Star Wars spending to most of 435 congressional districts nationwide.

We could have hoped, though, that Obama — if not inclined to cancel these programs outright — would have at least been rational and nonideological about them.  As the Times reports, during the campaign,  “Mr. Obama repeatedly criticized what he called President George W. Bush’s haste to deploy unproven antimissile arms. He vowed that as president, he would assure that any defensive shield would meet rigorous standards of testing and effectiveness.”

Yet, as has happened in instance after instance, Obama has moved from rational, progressive policymaking, to appeasing the right (see his judicial appointments!) and, sure enough, he’s been a big cheerleader for the SM-3 program.

The nightmare continues.

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