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Shooting Down Missile Defense

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/slingshot.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

In the House Rayburn Building Wednesday afternoon, three physicists were patiently explaining to members of Congress that the U.S. missile defense system has little practical worth.

“If Iran were reckless enough to attack Europe or the United States,” said Phillip E. Coyle, senior adviser at the World Security Institute, a national-security study center, “current U.S. missile defense would not be effective.”


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

The hearing, held by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee, came a month after national security experts told the panel that missile defense draws resources away from the more pressing threat posed by Al Qaeda. The subcommittee chairman, John Tierney (D-Mass.), now plans a third hearing, on a date to be announced, where Pentagon officials will have the opportunity to defend the anti-ballistic missile program.

Congress’s oversight is perhaps the first serious challenge to a remarkably enduring defense program. As much as $150 billion has been spent since President Ronald Reagan first launched the strategic defense initiative, or “Star Wars,” in 1983. Since then, the quest to develop radar so sophisticated that it could detect and shoot down a nuclear warhead in outer space has taken on a life of its own. But the scrutiny indicates that Congress may break an old habit and finally stop funding the nation’s pursuit of missile defense. That could mean challenging the Bush administration’s latest plan to expand the program, which includes the president’s seemingly relentless push for an anti-missile shield just outside the Russian border.

“We are not on the same page with this administration,” said Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), co-chair of the Task Force on Terrorism and Proliferation Financing, which is seeking to re-direct Pentagon money to counterterrorism programs. “It’s alarming they want to go full speed ahead with another program.”

Since the dawn of the arms race with the Soviet Union, the Pentagon has attempted to create a program to defend against intercontinental ballistic missiles. These rocket missiles can be launched into outer space and travel more than 3,500 miles to deliver a warhead to a specific target.

Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists Global Security Program, testified before the subcommittee on Wednesday that missile defense relies on hitting the warheads once they are in space. But since a warhead travels at the same speed in space as a balloon, a country would likely decide to enclose the warhead in a balloon. They would then launch thousands of decoy balloons containing trajectory engines that allows the decoys to enter the atmosphere at the same time as the warhead. Gronlund said that anti-missile technology hasn’t been developed to distinguish which balloon would be the one to contain the warhead.

Gronlund told The Washington Independent prior to the hearing that developing such technology was beyond the skills of scientists today. “It’s a fruitless effort,” she said. “Reagan’s vision of a ’shield that could protect us from nuclear missiles just as a roof protects a family from the rain’ was appealing to many people. But missile defense simply doesn’t work.”

Reagan said those words in 1983 when he launched the Strategic Defense Initiative, somewhat derisively nicknamed “Star Wars.” Steven A. Hildreth, a national defense specialist at the Library of Congress’s Congressional Research Service, wrote in a report last year that Reagan envisioned a defensive shield that would employ “space-based sensors” and “exotic laser or x-ray devices designed to destroy incoming missiles.”

Since Reagan presented his plans for a vast sky shield, Hildreth noted, over the next 25 years, the goals have proven too fantastic to be realized. Instead, the program’s aim has been scaled back to deal with the relatively more realistic threat of short and medium-range missiles. In the process, the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency spent somewhere between $120 and $150 billion, mostly on research and development.

In the president’s fiscal-year 2009 budget, sent to Congress in February, a record $12.3 billion is set aside for missile defense. Jeff Kuetter, president of the George Marshall institute, which studies the interaction between science and public policy, noted at the Wednesday hearing that the figure is less than two percent of the Pentagon’s total budget.

But Stephen E. Flynn, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, said that missile defense should be compared not with other Pentagon spending but the Department of Homeland Security’s budget. At the first missile defense hearing, Flynn testified that $12 billion is more than 10 times what the president’s homeland security budget gives to protect mass transit, ports and national monuments.

Flynn argued that such a disparity was alarming, because threats like Al Qaeda have no incentive to develop costly missile technology. Far more likely is smuggling a missile across the border, which is both cheaper and not instantly traceable. “Smuggling a nuclear weapon into the United States,” Flynn told the committee, “provides an advantage that a ballistic missile does not: the potential for anonymity.”

Experts would seem to agree that no rational state would launch a missile at the United States, because the Pentagon’s retaliation would result in that country’s annihilation. “About the last thing in the world Iran is prepared to do is use a missile with a nuclear warhead,” said James F. Collins, Director of the Russia Eurasian Program at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace and U.S. ambassador to Russia from 1997 to 2001. “Everybody knows that the minute they do it, they will be torn apart,” he said.

Not that Iran has developed a long-range missile. In addition to the United States and Russia, only China, France and Britain have that capability. But the threat that Iran and North Korea, will, someday, successfully test a long-range missile has led to Bush’s almost annual expansion of the program. “I don’t see how an administration could have been more for missile defense than this one,” said Victoria Sampson, a research analyst at the Center for Defense Information.

The administration’s latest plan is to build a missile defense radar system in Poland and the Czech Republic, a key part of the president’s budget request. It is meant to intercept medium-range missiles that could travel 1,000 miles from Iran. NATO has approved it, but the radar’s proximity to Russia has emerged as a major concern of Russian President Vladimir Putin. After meeting with Bush two weeks ago, Putin said one of the main obstacles in U.S-Russia relations remains the missile defense shield.

“The U.S. proposal to establish missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic has alienated Russia to a degree not seen since the height of the Cold War,” Coyle said at the hearing. He added that the radar has no demonstrated ability to protect the U.S. or Europe.

Politically, however, Bush is trying to move forward — in part to preempt congressional opposition. “The Democrats in Congress are getting less enthusiastic about this,” Collins, the former ambassador, said.-

Congress has the power to block spending on missile defense, including the missile radar shield. It could be enough to thwart the administration’s latest plan of expansion at the Russian border “I would not give [the missile radar] great odds of happening,” Collins said. “It is very late in this administration and Congress has their own ideas.”

Shooting down the missile defense program for good, though, will be a tall order, requiring the reversal of deeply ingrained beltway thinking. “There is nothing realistic to prove missile defense can work, ” said Sampson, of the Center for Defense Information. “But there is a lot of institutional momentum for it.”

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