Jeffrey LewisOn That East Coast GMD Site

As you probably know, the House Armed Services Committee wants to build a third missile defense site somewhere on the East Coast of the United States.

Al Kamen is running a very funny contest to suggest possible sites (“Where to Put It?”).  I am submitting Mianus, Connecticut.

Let’s have a little fun with that, before contemplating whether this is a good idea or not.

Just imagine the news coverage!

“You cannot open a newspaper or turn on a TV … without seeing a story of the rising threat from Iran and North Korea to mainland United States,” said Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the Strategic Forces subcommittee that included the East Coast interceptor language.

“With these emerging threats it is inevitable that an East Coast site will be necessary in order to ensure we have the ability to lessen the threats from both Iran and North Korea,” Turner told The Hill.

“That is why I strongly support the placement of up to 20 midcourse interceptors in Mianus, CT.

That’s a real story with only one fake sentence! See how smoothly that works?

Price estimates of siting interceptors in Mianus, er, at an undetermined East Coast site, range from $2-4 billion, which seems very low to me — and to others.  (Estimates for the European site were $9-13 billion, with a hefty chunk coming in the form of annual operating costs over 20 years.)

But even using the $2-4 billion range, is this a sensible expenditure?  What are we buying for a few billion bucks?  Not much.

We are not buying a thin layer of defense for the United States against Iranian ICBMs.  We already have that, to the extent you believe the system in Alaska has any capability.  This is a chart prepared by the Missile Defense Agency showing coverage of the US from the existing interceptor sites against a hypothetical Iranian ICBM:

Sorry about the poor quality — all of Trey Obering’s nice slides seem to have disappeared with the rise of the Phase Adaptive Approach.  This is from a May 2010 OSD report originally marked FOUO but since declassified.  As you can see, the current midcourse system — to the extent that it works at all — provides a layer of defense over the United States against missiles from Iran.

The assumptions behind this chart are not clear — does this assume a 90 percent chance of successful intercept?  Does this assume a liquid-fueled missile?  Are the number of interceptors constrained by shoot-look-shoot?

There is some hint of the answers to some of these questions in a pair of charts prepared by the Congressional Budget Office that shows a similar, though slightly smaller, engagement area:

CBO’s method, as best I can tell, was to ask whether a particular interceptor configuration would have a good shot at a missile headed from Iran to a target. I suspect some of the differences have to do with how capable MDA and CBO assume certain interceptors and radar systems to be.  To a first approximation, the only issue is defending Alaska — or, as CBO charmingly calls it, “less than one percent of the population.”

The point, however, is that the United States already has a thin layer of defense against any ICBMs Iran might develop.  The advantage of a third site is the ability to “shoot-look-shoot” instead of salvo fire. 

Now, I had always been of the view that shoot-look-shoot is not substantially better than salvo firing — and certainly not $2 billion dollars better.  Dean Wilkening convinced me of that with a nice little paper on missile defense effectiveness as a Bernoulli trial problem:

Finally, a single-site NMD system cannot cover the continental United States with a shoot-look-shoot firing doctrine. Typically, four to nine sites are required. Hence, the total number of interceptors deployed nationwide is four to nine times the numbers given in Figure 6. Comparing this to the interceptor levels for barrage fire shown in Figure 5, one observes that a shoot-look-shoot firing doctrine does not appear to be more effective for a thin national missile defense, especially when one considers the technical difficulty providing reliable kill assessment prior to firing the second shot(s).

Four to nine sites?  That means, in addition to Mianus, we’ll need interceptors in Hooker Hole, Louisiana; Fanny, West Virginia; Butts, Georgia; and my favorite, Dicktown, New Jersey.  Although perhaps Dicktown is already set in this department.

Dean Wilkening was on the National Academies Committee, so presumably the report benefited from his consideration of shoot-look-shoot as a Bernoulli trial problem. Maybe Dean has changed his mind, but is hard for me to imagine how a third site would be more cost effective at $2-4 billion instead of just adding more interceptors at existing sites to salvo or barrage fire.  (Assuming that we are comparing apples-to-apples in terms of interceptors.)

Perhaps the NAS report will convince me otherwise, but for now I am skeptical.  Certainly skeptical enough that I wouldn’t recommend we start spending money we don’t have.


If you don’t get the joke Mianus  yet, watch this video. It’s not work safe by the way.


  1. yousaf (History)

    If you go to the FAS report Ted Postol and I did on Russian concerns with EPAA last year, you’ll see that an East coast site would have a considerable _theoretical_ capability to engage (i.e. not necessarily intercept) ICBM warheads on flight paths to East Coast cities and possibly Chicago depending on the burnout speed of the interceptor.

    If decoys did not exist, and one thought that an imperfect NMD could somehow alter strategic deterrence, then an East Coast site (w/ SM-3 Block IIs) may make some sense.

    BTW, Besides the NAS study, a very scientifically precise study was done by the Defense Science Board — it is specific to the EPAA, but its conclusions re. decoys apply to any midcourse interceptor.

    For some reason the DSB report is taking forever to load — this may be because I am in Commie Canada right now, but I have excerpts from the DSB study in my commentary:

    I should add that if any East Coast site is made, it will with no doubt have a theoretical capability against Russian ICBMs and the Russians may cry foul as a perceived infringement on New START parity.

    Bottom line: agree w/ you 100% that an East Coast site is ill-advised.

  2. Thomas (History)

    Unrelated to GMD, I grew up next to Mianus, CT, and your post gave me the startling realization that I have never once considered this alternate pronunciation (locally it’s my-anne-us, not my-anus).

    Shocking I got through my teenage years without seeing that.

  3. Greg Thielmann (History)

    My less scatological nomination for the intheloop contest was Faith, North Carolina. I couldn’t resist bringing the basing location into sync with the rationale for strategic missile defense, which has always featured faith over facts. Let’s make it official that it’s Faith-based!

  4. Cthippo (History)

    I was going to write a post about why are we spending 2+ billion to defend against a threat that doesn’t, and probably never will, exist, but then I guess we all agree on that and so there is nothing left to do but make fun of place names.

    @Thomas, I too am shocked you got through high school with hearing that pronunciation.

  5. yousaf (History)

    At the risk of being tagged a troll, I’d also note that NAS specifically suggested that the East Coast site be considered as an ALTERNATIVE to EPAA’s Phase IV, not in addition to it.:

    Lastly, I do not concur with NAS’s negative view of boost-phase defense mentioned in their letter.

    If there were a wrong political decision to go forward with BMD then, as Ted recently showed in Moscow, a more effective system than EPAA would be a Caspian Sea barge based boost-phase.

    It was a great loss to the NAS study, and possibly to our national security, that they did not invite Ted’s participation.

    • Anon (History)

      Agreed Ted, Dick Garwin, yourself and a small handful of people — all **not** on the NAS study — are the few I trust in speaking the truth on missile defense.

      Admittedly, I was amazed just how damning the DSB study was: this is a heartening development. It appears that, at times, perhaps by mistake, the Pentagon releases reports that do contain the truth. A big thank you to the scientists on the DSB.

      The NAS study — as reflected in that letter — is far more political and hews to the corporate status-quo, trying not to rock the boat too much. It is simply false that accomplishing midcourse discrimination is an easier task than accomplishing surface-based boost-phase. Both however will be detrimental to our security so it all a bit moot.

      You can watch this video featuring Ted Postol, Dean Wilkening and some dude-in-a-suit and ask yourself who you would want on your team if you were working to secure your nation:

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Not sure a Caspian barge or ship is politically feasible. Also, it’s close enough to be conventionally countered. Iran have antiship missiles and fighter-bombers. And surface naval assets and special forces on the Caspian. You’d realistically want something mobile and self-defending.

      Less so than a Burke perhaps, but not clear to me how much so…

    • Jeffrey (History)

      You are not at risk of being tagged a troll because of the frequency of your participation but rather the shrillness of your tone.

      If you want to write a critique of the IAEA under ElBaradei and now Amano, be my guest. If you keep saying things like the IAEA is “politically tainted” just to be polemical, move on to some other blog.

    • Allen Thomson (History)

      > Also, it’s close enough to be conventionally countered.

      Somewhat behind all the discussion of whether a BMD concept would work is the problem of defense suppression. If, as is being discussed here, forward-based or mid-course radars, such as the AN/TPY-2 or SBX are crucial to the system, then you need to be sure they’ll be there when you need them, no? In the case of the AN/TPY-2 at Shariki, Japan, there seem to be some Patriot batteries that would be relevant. SBX seems to be out there on its own, unless an Aegis ship and maybe an SSN were to be detailed to stay with it.

  6. yousaf (History)

    A Caspian barge — i.e. a co-operative program w/ Russia that does not threaten Russian ICBMs — is entirely more feasible than Romania or Poland based sites with SM-3s that could be converted to “ArcLight” strike weapons.

    Google ArcLight SM-3 hypersonic strike weapon. Not sure why Russia has not raised more of stink.

    However, to be clear, I do not endorse boost-phase missile defense for the reasons that I don’t endorse any kind of strategic missile defense:

    I only mentioned Ted’s suggestion as a “less bad” alternative.

    In any case, political feasibility is secondary to technical feasibility.

    As the DSB showed the current planned EPAA system is technically highly problematic. (see my link above)

    BTW, The DSB did not mention that the Aegis cruisers have issues launching SM-3s in v. rough weather, which turned out to be a problem in the USA-193 intercept.

    So, I second Greg’s suggestion of “Faith, NC” as the location, since you had better pray our enemies don’t know about balloon decoys, and only launch attacks when it is pleasant out.

    It is indeed a faith-based missile defense system.

    PS: re. IAEA and shrill tone: correct, I meant my criticism to be directed at the DG, mostly, not to the fine people, generally, who work at the IAEA.

  7. Peter J. Brown (History)

    I am glad the “rough weather” issue with respect to ship-based BMD is not being overlooked somehow let alone swept under the rug.

    Boost-phase muscle flexing in the Caspian sounds like a good idea, but one has to wonder if this sort of militarization of a remote sea could result in further escalation of other longstanding sources of friction and conflict in that specific region in particular.

    Finally, the possible East Coast sites now appear hard to justify even when the potential list is expanded to include fringe sites like Cape Cod and ex-Loring AFB in northern Maine. That said, I don’t hear enough about the overall need for adequate redundancy which is something that casts the East Coast sites in a different light entirely.

  8. Cameron (History)

    Put me in the group that doesn’t understand how Thomas missed that pronunciation.

    I’d place them in Bird-In-Hand, Pennsylvania the placement of which would be worth two defense sites in Bush, IL.