Missile Defense Takes a Beating

Missile defense has its proponents, otherwise we wouldn’t have spent $150 billion on it since 1983, with another $62.5 billion requested by the Pentagon over the next five years. Philip Coyle isn’t one of them.

Judging by his resume, Coyle’s the kind of guy you want keeping an eye on program R&D, which might explain why the Pentagon paid him to do just that for seven years. In addition to his gig as Asst. Secretary of Defense and Director of Operational Test and Evaluation during the Clinton Administration, Coyle also did two stints for a combined 32 years at Lawrence Livermore.

At Wednesday’s missile defense hearing held by the House Oversight Subcommittee on National Security, Coyle opened up a 38-page (.pdf) can of whoop-ass on the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) in general, and Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) in particular, that in all likelihood will earn him the honor of having his picture pasted on interceptor targets for the duration of the agency’s testing program. And at its current rate of progress, that could be a very long time.

To get an idea of how hard Coyle came out swinging, consider that this is his third sentence after a page-long introduction summarizing his credentials:

Quite simply, the public statements made by Pentagon officials and contractors are often at variance with all the facts at hand.

Coyle goes on to paint a picture of a rogue program that has managed to deploy a non-operational system due in part to misrepresenting its test results, but also thanks to the Bush administration’s devotion to the “theological” cause of missile defense.

Among Coyle’s most damning observations, he points out that the program has defined no criteria for operational success, making it difficult for the GAO and DoD to assess both its progress and strategic value. Instead, it is a “spiral development” program with no fixed-end goals. Worse yet, the system, as currently being deployed on a capabilities-based aquisition arrangement, fails to meet the criteria established by the Clinton administration, as well as those articulated by nuclear arms control deity Paul Nitze, which can only be described as basic common sense. Here are the Clinton criteria:

1. Whether the threat is materializing;
2. the status of the technology based on an initial series of rigorous flight tests, and the proposed system’s operational effectiveness;
3. whether the system is affordable; and
4. The implications that going forward with National Missile Defense (NMD) deployment would hold for the overall strategic environment and our arms control objectives.

Here are Nitze’s:

1. The system should be effective;
2. Be able to survive against direct attack; and
3. Be cost effective at the margin – that is, be less costly to increase your defense than it is for your opponent to increase their offense against it.

As Coyle points out, “new or different criteria for the system have not been established by the current administration,” leaving us with a defense strategy based largely on “ideological commitment.”

Missile defense research goes back sixty years, so it’s far from a product of the Bush administration. But perhaps no other administration has done as much to ignore its shortcomings and misrepresent its successes. On the one hand, the system is described as operational against “unsophisticated threats” that are defined based on its capabilities. On the other, the actual threat used to justify the expenditures have been exagerrated, “. . .and if it were real the proposed missile defense systems couldn’t deal with it anyway.”

The consequences in terms of broader strategic risks is significant:

By responding to the perceived “unsophisticated threat,” we are motivating new threats for which we do not have technical solutions.

Besides Russia’s highly vocal opposition, there’s the danger that China might feel the need to expand its limited strategic deterrent, setting off a regional arms race in South Asia as India and Pakistan try to keep pace.

What’s most striking is the degree to which the Bush administration has succeeded in framing the debate over whether and where to deploy a system that to date has not been successfully tested against realistic countermeasures, and which remains vulnerable to pre-emptive attack, both of the physical and software hack variety. Judging from Coyle’s testimony, not only is that debate not worth the collateral damage it’s causing, it’s also wildly premature.

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