Jeffrey LewisA Real Ballistic Missile Defense

As you probably already know, the Missile Defense Agency’s Integrated Flight Test (IFT)-13C failed today.

I’ve got a post on the subject, Performance Anxiety: Missile Defense Booster Fails to Rise to the Occassion, over on

That post notes that flight tests cost around $100 million (this one may have been less since they didn’t burn the booster) and, just yesterday, Boeing received a new $928 million contract for further BMDS “enhancements.”

For readers of the Arms Control Wonk, I wanted to share an op-ed that I wrote about a year ago dwelling a slightly different use for that money. I called it:

How I’d Spend $8 Billion To Deal With Ballistic Missile Threats, or
You Can’t Fire A Ballistic Missile If A Navy SEAL Is Beating You With Your Own Severed Limbs.

Jeffrey Lewis, c. 2003

Having watched with the second Gulf War unfold with all the shock and awe that Don Rumsfeld promised, I have found myself becoming a vocal proponent of missile defense. Not the $8 billion dollar a year monstrosity the Administration is sticking (mostly) in the frost bitten Alaskan wilderness, mind you, but the real missile defense. The missile defense we actually used against missiles in Iraq. You don’t know what I mean? You aren’t alone.

While everyone fawned over the shoot-down of nine short-range missiles (mostly by older PAC-2 systems), no one seemed to be asking why Iraq never even fired any of two-dozen Scud missiles remaining from the arsenal that so bedeviled the same PAC-2 systems during the first Gulf War. At least no one but Defense News, which the revealed the answer in mid-May: General Tommy Franks admitted that US and allied special operations forces “flooded” into Western Iraq to prevent Scud launches. And on that score, Special Operations Forces had a perfect record. Not a single Scud was launched. None. Zero. Zip. Nada. Army Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal told a Pentagon news conference that it was “probably the most effective and the widest use of special operations forces in recent history.”

Left: All the missile defense you could ever want.

Prior to the war, the Allies projected an air of complete confidence in the missile defense systems that had been deployed following the abysmal failure of the Patriot anti-missile system during the first Gulf War. The United States deployed PAC-3 Missiles to supplement Israel’s highly regarded Arrow system. The head of the Israel’s Air Defense Forces event told the Associated Press, “I’m sure we are better prepared today. In 1991, we had almost nothing. Now we have a very active, robust defense.”

What he didn’t mention, and what Defense News revealed, was that the Israeli government was limp-dick terrified about the prospect of Scud missile launches and begged to add Israeli special forces to the allied teams that, in retrospect, didn’t appear to need any help. Israel had an active, robust missile defense, alright—the guys they call “snake-eaters”.

If neither we, nor our allies, believe that missile defenses will provide protection, shouldn’t we be spending the money somewhere else? Even with the Administration’s record $1.5 billion increase in funding for special operations forces in the FY04 request, the $4.5 billion budget for SOCOM is far less than the $7.7 billion for the Missile Defense Agency. One of the principle rationales for missile defense, articulated in the final repot of the Rumsfeld Commission on ballistic missile threats, is the inability of the intelligence community “to provide timely and accurate estimates of ballistic missile threats to the U.S.” The Rumsfeld Commission recommended strengthening “the community’s capabilities in this area”. I can think of some guys who might be able to help out.

There is a general trend in missile defense programs to add layers to the front-end of the system to cope with the complexities of intercepting a ballistic missile. General Ronald Kadish, Missile Defense Agency Director, likes to explain that adding a boost phase layer complicates adversary use of counter-measures and provides defense against all ranges of missiles against targets anywhere in the world. Some of his colleagues in the Air Force have also begun talking about using UCAVs to conduct “pre-boost” intercepts before the missiles can be launched.

Right: This is much harder for an interceptor.

But can’t we, as defense-wonks like to say, “think outside of the box”? It seems to me that there isn’t a better pre-boost phase defense than our Special Operations Forces. While the Missile Defense Agency reports endless cost over-runs and follows failed flight tests with test runs so dry they’d make a decent martini, the soldiers of Special Operations Command are out there stacking up Scuds like cordwood. You don’t have to rig the testing program to get these (literally) bomb dropping motherfuckers in the game.

We like to talk about deterring the use of ballistic missiles—particularly deterring mid-level commanders who might choose to desert rather than fire warheads with chemical, biological or nuclear payloads. And while some of these guys may worry about airstrikes, I guarantee you there isn’t one commander in the world who wouldn’t shit his pants at the thought of the Delta Force dropping by to say hello. If Saddam knew what was coming, the entire Iraqi army would have been outfitted in brown pants.

Here’s a simple test: Let’s say two guys offer to take your girlfriend out to dinner while you are out of town—one is a pasty, Ron Kadish look-alike who commanded a Patriot Battery in Jaffa, while the other was collecting ears from Republican Guard soldiers in some unpronounceable hell-hole in Western Iraq. Which one are YOU going be worried about? Me too.

So, hat’s off to the snake-eaters. I’d love to see what you could do with Ron Kadish’s $8 billion.


  1. Jonrog1 (History)

    See. Low tech. Boots on the ground. HUMINT. Not sexy, and it won’t make the contractors rich. What will it take to get a SecDef who digs this approach over the “transformation” of our armed services, apparently “transformed” into moving targets in pinatas?

    Linked and discussed over at Kung Fu Monkey.

  2. snig (History)

    so the question becomes how to insert specops in say … north korea?

  3. ding (History)

    It’s a nice thought that you can find mobile launchers with special forces. But as far as I’ve read (and granted, I might have missed something in the news), nobody on the ground actually ever destroyed one of the launchers. Or found one. Searching for them from the air was also a problem despite the high priority on the job.

    It seems like what we have is a result (no launches) without knowing the cause (destroyed launchers or Iraqi generals saying, “We were ordered to launch but worried about coalition special forces noticing us).

  4. Bill Robinson (History)

    Why did Iraq not launch any of its two dozen Scuds? Because there were none. Final report of the Iraq Survey Group (Duelfer report): “The Iraq Survey Group (ISG) has uncovered no evidence Iraq retained Scud-variant missiles, and debriefings of Iraqi officials in addition to some documentation suggest that Iraq did not retain such missiles after 1991.”

    Just goes to show that even missile defence can work—as long as there aren’t any actual missiles.

  5. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    I suppose I should have added that this is why I didn’t turn the op-ed into something serious:

    The Duelfer Report found “that Iraq expended or destroyed all of the 819 Scud missiles it acquired from the Soviet Union.”

    I don’t quite know what to say about Army Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who claimed this was “probably the most effective and the widest use of special operations forces in recent history.” (Emphasis mine.) My father would call that a lie.

    Anywho, the main point that I wanted to make is that—when the chips were down—the military and civilian officials had no confidence in the Patriot against Scud-type missiles.

    If the strategy is to use special operations forces, than the funding should reflect the strategy.

  6. ajay (History)

    “In other words, the Iraqis fired their missiles at the same rate regardless of whether SOF were operating in the launch area.56 Thus, on the tactical and operational level, it would appear that the special operations in western Iraq did not achieve their objective of eliminating, or seriously reducing, the Scud threat.”

    Source: Special Operations Forces and Elusive Enemy Ground Targets: Lessons from Vietnam and the Persian Gulf War:William Rosenau : The Rand Corporation.

    [It’s worth noting that the “Gulf War” refers to the 1991 Persian Gulf War–ed.]

  7. jmatt1 (History)

    While it’s a nice thought, Special Forces are no replacement for tactical or ballistic missile defense. They might be useful in an arena where you have been deploying for six months, have complete air supremacy and have otherwise been breathing down the enemy’s neck day and night.

    So while the cost / benefit debate for BMD is certainly warranted, the Seals would be asleep in their racks a thousand miles away when North Korea decided there might be some value to a first strike on its neigbors or the US.

  8. Mark Gubrud (History)

    1. There were no Iraqi scuds in 03. It was an interesting case; many “experts” including the London IIIS had parroted the Bush gang’s insistence that there was some reason to believe Iraq had a dozen or so stashed away. There wasn’t, and they didn’t.

    2. In the 1991 war, special ops were deployed along with search aircraft and both had a hard time locating scuds. As I recall, they had little or no success, and the Iraqis continued to launch throughtout the war. Of course, if you can locate the weapons, you can send forces to disable them.

    3. What’s this “hat’s off” to SoF?