Missile Defense - Wrong Answer, Wrong Question

John Pike - 30 April 1998

Fifteen years after President Reagan announced his Star Wars plan, we are no closer to realizing his vision, though have spent more than fifty billion dollars pursuing the dream. Unfortunately some would rather continue this futile and irrelevant quest for defense against missiles, rather than grappling with the more immediate need for better defenses against terrorists.

It is actually rather stunning to contemplate, but there is simply no precedent in the annals of Pentagon waste for a program consuming over fifty billion dollars over fifteen years and producing not a single workable weapon. At least the forty billion dollars spent on the Stealth bomber produced 21 planes, and aircraft carriers are selling for a measly four billion.

All this missile defense money has produced a grand total of fourteen actual attempts to intercept strategic missile targets since 1982, of which only two have actually succeeded, with the most recent nine tests failing. These experimental results closely match the actual combat experience of Patriot in Desert Storm -- which was impressive on television but was later determined to have missed far more often than it hit. Clearly, we are no where close to having a reliable shield against missiles aimed at American cities, though not for want of trying.

Over the past several years the Congress has heaped unsought billions on the missile defense program, and mandated the rapid development and deployment of a variety of new systems. Citing the consistent inability of anti-missile interceptors to actually hit their targets a high-level Defense Department panel recently concluded that the politicians rush to develop and deploy a national missile defense was merely a "rush to failure."

Fortunately, the end of the Cold War has largely eliminated concerns about such a missile attack on the American homeland. Today we confront a handful of regional adversaries -- Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, none of which possesses missiles capable of reaching America. With Iraq under the thumb of international inspectors, Iran moderating its former militancy, and North Korea slowly collapsing, there is little prospect that any of these impoverished countries will develop such long range missiles any time soon, if ever.

But the main problem is not that national missile defense is an expensive, unworkable response to a non-existent threat, though surely one would hope that the Congress would take these facts into consideration. No, the main problem is that national missile defense is responding to the wrong problem, and distracting time, money and attention from the real problems posed by terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction.

The April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was a foretaste of the destruction that can be wrought by a few individuals. The March 1995 poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult indicates the potentially greater danger of organized groups. And the ongoing confrontation with Saddam Hussein is impelled by the threat of such individuals and groups acting with clandestine state sponsorship.

If Saddam wished to strike America with chemical or biological weapons, he would not do so with missiles. The few remaining Iraqi missiles cannot reach America, and in any event such an attack would surely prompt a devastating American retaliation.

But the hand of Saddam might be difficult if not impossible to detect in the wake of a chemical or biological weapon terrorist attack. Indeed, given the relative ease with which chemical weapons can be manufactured by individuals, no such state sponsorship would be required. And with the turn of the millennium approaching, home-grown doomsday cultists will not be in short supply, even without Saddam's prompting.

The Oklahoma City and Tokyo attacks were without precedent in the annals of terrorism. In response, the Defense Department initiated a program of training local law enforcement and safety agencies to cope with terrorist attacks with chemical and biological weapons. But this program is moving slowly, is aimed at only the largest American cities, and is providing military-style training that is poorly suited for a civilian environment. A nation-wide program, under civilian leadership, with increased funding are clearly in order.

Rather than spending billions on a poorly conceived missile defense, we need to be spending millions on a well-conceived program to defend our neighborhoods against terrorists armed with chemical or biological weapons. And rather than wasting time debating missile defense, we need to focus the national debate on the more immediate problem, which fortunately has more effective and less expensive remedies.