Michael KreponWhat Next?

In the wake of the Senate’s consent to New START, Washington’s wonkdom is focusing on ballistic missile defenses and tactical nuclear weapons. The reasons why are clear enough: The Senate has laid down markers calling for discussions on Russia’s non-strategic nuclear weapons and the deployment, as promised, of planned theater missile defenses. The former will open a can of worms and the latter will raise hackles in Moscow, which remains hypersensitive about BMD.

The next treaty is usually more complicated and harder to negotiate than the last, and the successor to New START will probably be no different.

If we’re going to expend a great deal of effort on new negotiations, setting priorities might be helpful. In my view, tactical nuclear weapons and BMD pale in strategic significance to a dangerous competition between major powers in space. U.S. citizens are very dependent on satellites for their national, economic, and personal security. What happens in space is far more consequential than the size of the Russian stockpile of non-strategic nuclear weapons or how many Aegis cruisers the Navy deploys.

Don’t get me wrong: I would like to count and reduce the stockpile of Russian tactical nuclear weapons. But what matters most in any strategic competition, crisis, or limited war is a crossing of the nuclear threshold – not the range of the nuclear weapon delivery vehicle that crosses it. Russia’s still bloated, greatly reduced stockpiles of short-range nuclear weapons pose a potential threat, but their use would result in great pain and no benefit to Moscow. Besides, the likelihood of a nuclear exchange between Moscow and NATO is as low as it has ever been during the Nuclear Age.

The strategic significance of BMD is also limited, notwithstanding the hyperventilation of its die-hard supporters and opponents. Even the most enthusiastic U.S. administrations have been constrained by technical, cost, and political realities surrounding BMD. Successive administrations with very diverse political orientations have all landed on approximately the same place: a modest national insurance policy against rudimentary, trans-oceanic threats, and far more concerted efforts in regions where U.S. forces, friends and allies face outlier regimes equipped with ballistic missiles. Technological advancements, flight tests, and smart theater missile defense architectures can help reinforce the NPT without threatening the Russian and Chinese deterrents.

In contrast, certain actions in space can have profound implications for national security and deterrence, which depend on the ability of various satellites to perform as planned. A growing number of nations now have the ability to interfere with these satellites. Space is becoming, as the Pentagon likes to say, more congested, competitive, and contested. A competition in space characterized by thinly disguised or overt anti-satellite weapon tests, and a space environment with weak norms governing space traffic management and debris mitigation, will have far greater strategic significance than how many tactical nuclear weapons major powers possess, or how many theater missile defense interceptors they deploy. The way major powers relate to each other in space is intertwined with how they relate to each other here on earth. If the United States and Russia do not reach agreement on rules of the road for space, nuclear dangers will rise, and prospects for the next New START will become more remote. More importantly, behavior in space will shape U.S.-Chinese relations, especially since Beijing doesn’t talk very much about nuclear weapons.

The Obama administration can no longer afford the luxury of pursuing one set of strategic negotiations at a time. It appears to be gearing up for the less important one.


  1. Henry Sokolski (History)

    Michael makes an important point: if the administration is serious about addressing important strategic threats, it would do well to think beyond Prague. Space competitions is one area that deserve attention as well as growing ground-based missile threats and poorly controlled civilian nuclear energy exports. These issues and others will be covered at a joint Nonproliferation Policy Education Center – Carnegie Endowment workshop, “Life after START” to be held 27 January at the Carnegie. To register, go to http://www.npolicy.org.

  2. yousaf (History)

    I’m not sure it is very productive to set priorities when it is entirely possible to have parallel tracks for all these important national security dialogues.

    I agree with your statement “The Obama administration can no longer afford the luxury of pursuing one set of strategic negotiations at a time”, which in mild conflict with your advocacy of also setting priorities.

    In my view, something that is at least as important as space security is ratifying the CTBT.

    I agree that tactical nuclear weapons ought not to be the subject of more urgent negotiations than some of the other subjects mentioned (BMD, space norms). The only reason I can think of that it has become an issue is that the subset of senators intent on voting against New START sought a subject they knew would be a non-starter with Russians.

    The Russians have replied by saying they will not talk about tactical nukes unless we talk about space weapons — probably a non-starter with the same subset of senators who disliked New START:


    One of the many elephants in the room, before we even come to talk of tactical nukes, is the huge UNdepolyed nuclear weapon stockpiles in the US and Russia.

    That all said, I think it will be difficult to not include strategic BMD in any conversations on space weapons: as we saw with USA-193 the SM3 is perfectly capable against a satellite in LEO.

    As one of the few, the proud “hyperventilators” against the stupidity that is midcourse strategic missile defense: I don’t advocate we negotiate with the Russians on this at all.

    I advocate that we listen to our own scientific experts who have told us for decades that _midcourse_ missile defense against nuclear-tipped missiles is technically infeasible.

    And even if it were to reach a level of technical maturity, where it could reliably intercept, say, ~40% of the incoming warheads (in a surprise attack, with countermeasures, in rough sea-conditions and the sun in an unfavorable position for discrimination) this will _still_ allow NK to ‘blackmail’ us or deter us since even the potential loss of one or two US cities will not be scoffed at by any US President.

    Strategic missile defense will need to be perfect to change the deterrence calculus.

    And, if perfect, it will only force the hand of potential adversaries to employ alternate — less ascribe-able and thus less deterrable — delivery methods. A perfect strategic BMD is not desirable so long as our adversaries possess nuclear weapons:


    So, yes, we can make a prioritized laundry list of arms control issues post-New START, but some of these issues have nothing to do with Russia, and everything to do with the intersection of physics and logic with our self-inflicted policies.

    On those issues, we need not wait for CTBT ratification, undeployed warheads’ reductions, or space security to become a reality.

    We could have started to rein in these flawed policies in 1968 — and even managed to so for a while:


    Parallel processing, please.

    • Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

      Is a midcourse system really a strategic dead end? Against a real arsenal like USSR/Russia? Sure, that interrelationship gave us the ABM treaty. However for lessor players like Iran and North Korea does it not leave open the prospect for first strike with the option of overwhelming any stunted retaliatory strike? I don’t think today’s midcourse systems are aimed at Russia. China – maybe, but for sure Iran and North Korea.

      The true value of that? In peace time, it’s def 200 lb gorilla sitting at the negotiations table that won’t be ignored whether we want it to or not. In a crisis? It could either be a key to entering a door who’s limits of badness are bound by your imagination, or a saving grace. I’m still in the twilight zone as to which way it would go.

    • yousaf (History)

      much of this has been discussed before, but let me try.

      Firstly, the effectiveness of midcourse BMD is compromised by the enemy’s use of countermeasures: There has never been a successful test against countermeasures. And these are tests where we know the launch time, trajectory and the signatures of the decoys. We will not have access to that info in a real scenario.

      Thus, I hope no US President launches a first strike against NK in the false belief that BMD can assuredly intercept their missiles.

      Even the credible possibility of a single nuclear weapon landing on a US city is a sufficient deterrent for us. see eg.:


      Secondly, were future realistic (i.e. unknown launch time, rough sea conditions, bad sun angle, unknown CMs etc.) tests of missile defense with countermeasures to approach a measurable degree of success, say 10 or 20%, our enemies would surely alter their posture to have other delivery methods.

      All these other delivery methods — eg. via ship/sailboat — are less ascribe-able and therefore less detereable. Our enemies would actually be more tempted to actually use these other delivery methods since they do not give as clear a signature as picked up via DSP when an ICBM is launched. (see the last URL in my previous comment)

      Thus the net effect of a even mildly workable BMD would be for our enemy to move to more useable delivery methods which they would less inhibited in actually using.

      Either midcourse strategic missile defense works, or it does not work and in either case it is bad for US security.

    • Scott Monje (History)

      I notice that Secretary Gates, just last week, said he believed that North Korea would develop a limited ICBM capability within the next five years but forgot to mention that we don’t have to worry about it because we have Ground-based Midcourse Defense in Alaska and California.

      (By the way, what is it about “five years”? Wasn’t that the same time frame Rumsfeld used when he made a similar prediction 13 years ago?)

    • Anon (History)
  3. Allen Thomson (History)

    Are there any useful discussions of how to address the issue that space is already heavily militarized(*), confers great military advantage to the operators and, consequently, presents a compelling target to opposing entities?

    It seems to me that unless this inconvenient fact can be addressed, attempts to institute anti-ASAT agreements are going to have a tough time getting anywhere.

    (*) Intelligence/reconnaissance, communications, precision geolocation, weather, etc.

  4. Mark Gubrud (History)


    As you know I strongly agree with you about the importance of space, and fervently hope that the administration will soon seek to do something positive in this area, even if it is something as utterly ineffectual in addressing the fundamental security issues posed by the emerging space arms race (“growing number of nations now have the ability to interfere with these satellites” – although it is actually still a small number) as the proposed Code of Conduct, which even its proponents advertise as Not Arms Control.

    Global adoption of a Code might create a more favorable setting for a further round of diplomacy leading to more substantial measures. However, the CoC as presently conceived will place no impediment in the path of growing antisatellite capabilities and ASAT tests as long as they are either “thinly disguised” or else “overt” but don’t involve high-speed impacts with objects lying within that thin band of altitude, velocity, and angle-of-attack parameters corresponding to Earth orbit.

    At the risk of further hyperventilation, I have to take issue with the idea that space can be separated from BMD, or that BMD deserves as much acceptance and rhetorical support as you lend it. If “Successive administrations with very diverse political orientations have all landed on approximately the same place,” in this instance that seems to indicate a corruption of the political process, given that through all these successive administrations substantially unchallenged science has informed us that the place they have landed is Fantasy Island.

    A “modest national insurance policy against rudimentary, trans-oceanic threats,” does not and cannot exist in the chosen form of exoatmospheric KE interceptors, and the “far more concerted efforts in regions where U.S. forces, friends and allies face outlier regimes equipped with ballistic missiles” is an equally ineffective boondoggle.

    At best, such systems raise by a minor fraction the cost to “outlier regimes” of fielding effective threats against the US or its allies. This has no strategic effect at all, unless, by telegraphing the degree of alarm felt about the potential threat, and ratcheting up political confrontation, it creates an even more dangerous and difficult situation than would otherwise have developed.

    At the same time, it is precisely this BMD mania which allows China (according to our government) to conduct “thinly disguised” tests of its KE-ASAT weapons, and which makes it impossible (given our own policies) to propose any actual control of KE-ASAT weapons, at least against LEO satellites – or to restrict testing of these weapons which, with appropriate boosters, pose a threat to satellites at all altitudes.

    It may be politically convenient to try to sweep these realities under the rug, but there is only so much you can achieve that way. Ultimately, allowing the Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush-Obama BMD March of Folly to continue means licensing the most dangerous form of ASAT to be massively deployed by all major powers. And while an outright ban may be too much to ask for at this point (no matter that it would make perfect sense in any rational calculus of United States and world interests), it will be impossible to construct any sort of effective space arms control regime without at least imposing some limits on exoatmospheric “missile defense” systems.

    Also, while KE interceptors are the most strategically dangerous kind of ASAT, they are not the most likely to be used; yet without at least limits on these weapons there is little hope of restraining the further development and deployment of such other space weapons as high-power lasers, jammers and maneuvering vehicles (aka coorbital ASATs or “space mines”) which may be capable of temporary and reversible or non-debris creating as well as violent interference with satellites.

    Nor is there any hope of achieving ASAT arms control if the US is unwilling to pledge not to deploy weapons in space, whether as ASATs, for ground attack, or for boost or midcourse BMD.


  5. Abjectief (History)

    If the USA wishes to use the European B61’s as bargaining-chips on arms-reduction issues, they’d better hurry. A number of European governments have finally spilled the beans and now the leftist-opposition parties are making a lot of fuss about it.

    The chances these leftist-political parties have in forming the next government in the coming 2-4 years are close to 50%, and if they do get to govern, they can’t really back down from the stance they took while in opposition. Hence the bombs may have left large parts of Europe before they’ve gotten a chance of turning up on the bargaining-table. And that would leave Russia with a lot more to bargain with.

  6. FSB (History)

    You say: “The strategic significance of BMD is also limited, notwithstanding the hyperventilation of its die-hard supporters and opponents.”

    Really? Hyperventilation? Besides this blog is there even a peep about missile defense in DC? It seems to have been bought hook, line and sinker without even a mere discussion let alone hyperventilation.

    Also why do you say the strategic significance of BMD is limited when the Chinese and Russians are telling us it is not — and they are right. See the CRS report Yousaf referenced in a previous post.

    Lastly, overturning BMD is way more important (as I see it) than space codes of conduct: BMD affects everyone now. Russian increases its arms, China too — then India and then Pakistan.

    I agree with Yousaf we can tackle many of these issues together — indeed many are inseparable. Needlessly saying people are hyperventilating just because they are not so interested in your topic is probably not the best way forward.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      China and Russia do not have to worry about any threat to their nuclear ballistic missiles posed by the BMD systems the US has currently announced plans to deploy. They can defeat these systems. So can Iran and North Korea.

      However, the GMD and planned SM-3 Block II versions pose a serious threat as ASAT weapons, and make it difficult to see how a space arms race will be avoided.

      In the further future, it is an open question where the obsession with missile defense will take the United States and whomever else we may succeed in transmitting this illness to. Some possible forms of “missile defense” may pose a more serious threat to the Russian and Chinese deterrents, especially if coupled with nuclear or conventional strategic strike weapons capable of an effective first strike on their nuclear forces.

      These potentially more effective forms of “missile defense” would include interceptors forward-deployed on stealthy aircraft (manned or drones). I put the words in quotes because forward-deployed weapons blur the line between defense and offense. A return to nuclear-tipped interceptors is another possibility.

      More broadly, as long as the US is pretending to have or be developing effective missile defenses, there will always be doubts in people’s minds about whether this might succeed, regardless of what scientists say. Indeed, this is what sustains the program politically in the US, as well as sustaining Russian paranoia.

      Missile defense in general is destabilizing with respect to future arms races and crisis stability. Anyone who desires a stable strategic relationship between major powers, let alone disarmament and nuclear abolition, must call for an end to the toxic combination of lying, stupidity and madness that sustains the BMD enterprise.

  7. Allen Thomson (History)

    The military arguments for ASAT, at least as long as there’s the possibility for conflict among space-capable states, are just too strong. Said states are going get ASAT in one form or another, quite possibly hiding them as something else, such as BMD.

    So perhaps the best to hope for, at least for now, is to get agreements that ASAT technologies won’t produce effects (like debris fields) that extend much beyond the targeted satellites. China may have done everybody a favor in demonstrating that direct-ascent KE ASAT, while cheap and effective, has undesirable side-effects.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      It won’t be possible to hide ASAT capabilities as BMD if the kind of BMD that poses an ASAT threat is banned – which can be done without any loss of BMD effectiveness, since this type of BMD is ineffective.

      Other kinds of ASAT threats can also be restricted and verifiably limited. The best way to start is with a declaration of principle:

      Weapons shall not be stationed in space or prepared for stationing in space.

      Space objects stationed in space shall enjoy sanctuary from deliberate harmful interference, and weapons for such interference shall not be prepared.

      -Declare that, then implement it.

      Declare also that non-weapons military uses of space are legitimate. We can then hedge against possible residual or covert ASAT capabilities by hardening, redundancy, and non-space alternatives.

      This is how to avoid a space arms race. The alternative, simply allowing the space arms race to take its course, leads to an extremely dangerous new confrontation.

    • Allen Thomson (History)

      > Weapons shall not be stationed in space or prepared for stationing in space.

      That would be desirable, and probably feasible.

      > Space objects stationed in space shall enjoy sanctuary from deliberate harmful interference, and weapons for such interference shall not be prepared.

      As long as some objects stationed in space are vital components of the owner’s military capability — as has been the case for decades — I doubt that would be feasible, at least without specifying exceptions.

  8. Coyote (History)

    I agree with Michael that Russian tactical nukes present a very remote threat to the US and its allies. However, Russian strategic nukes addressed in New START also present a very low threat as well. You may have noticed that in recent years the lack of concern over Russian nukes created a culture inside the US Air Force that allowed its nuclear forces to atrophy out of lack of interest. This was highlighted by a couple of weapons handling infringements that resulted both the Secretary and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force being fired.

    This is indicative of two things. First, inside the military and its industrial complex, the sense of tension with the Russians is almost non-existent. Second, the US will not tolerate mishandling of its nuclear resources regardless of the state of tensions. We will all concede that this is a good trend.

    I also agree with Michael that we need to move to ban kinetic destruction ASATs. There is no military utility to such devises. They are as rotten as employing gas was in the First World War—the winds shift just a little and you kill your own forces as well. (It was the gross impracticality of gas weapons more than anyone’s sense of humanity that preserved the ban on such weapons in the Second World War.)

    Because launching kinetic kill ASATs is massively expensive, only three countries have tested them. It would be quite easy to get our partners in Russia, China, and the US to negotiate, sign, and ratify such a treaty. Honestly, this is like banning peeing in your own bath water. It will be trickier to get the rest of the world to sign on. I am thinking North Korea and Iran. But, you have to start somewhere.

    There is a growing sense that the arms control community is hyping the kinetic kill ASAT threat. It is almost as if this issue is being overblown as a scare tactic to entice funding for their efforts. Yes, if employed, kinetic kill ASATs would make a mess of space. But no country is advocating their use. Please work on banning them. I’ll be glad to help. Seriously, ban kinetic kill ASATs.

    I agree with Mark that it may be difficult to tell the difference between a missile defense weapon and a kinetic kill ASAT. However, there is a practical aspect. No one can afford kinetic kill ASATs when so many cheaper, easier, and deniable anti-satellite weapons exist—such as various directed energy weapons provide. No one shoots golden bullets when lead is cheap.

    I agree with the argument that parallel tracks should be used to negotiate nukes, missile defense, and space weapons. They are NOT neatly intertwined. In a child’s game where you have to pick which of the three do not belong, you’d have to pick space weapons. You’ll note that between nuclear missiles, missile defenses, and space weapons, the term “missile” does not appear in one of them. The reality is that launch costs have dropped to the point to make SDI feasible, nor has technology delivered a small, high-powered, thermally efficient laser that can do the job.

    Now then, I will continue to take issue with those who assert that midcourse missile defense is impossible or that it is not being tested with sufficient rigor against countermeasures. People not involved with the testing have made these claims. They base their assertions on very little information. They have made the faulty assumption that they have all the information. But they don’t. Some have cited that in order to work that midcourse missile defense would have to violate the laws of physics, but they fail to explain the roughly 50% success rate the current testing demonstrates. Missile defenses work and they are within the budget. It is time to move on to the real debate and not focus on hollow straw men.

    It is entirely fair to question the wisdom of missile defense. Would it make a president too bold? Would it nonetheless leave us open to blackmail? Would it let a few attacking missiles slip by? Would it force an adversary to launch a more massive strike? Is it better to have a defense based on defensive systems than offensive systems? Should security rest on vulnerability, or physical defense? These are the relevant questions and are the legitimate points to be debated. And debated they must be.

    Finally, with regard to space weapons (as opposed to space-based weapons) and the codes of conduct, there is a serious omission that makes the codes impractical. Seeking a categorical ban on all harmful interference with satellites needs a qualifier. Otherwise some rogue could employ satellites in a hostile or unlawful manner and the world would have to play the helpless victim to such acts.

    I would qualify it this way: “Freedom of passage for all satellites and their carrying traffic behaving in a peaceful and lawful manner shall be respected and not interfered with in any manner by all parties. However, satellites or their carrying traffic behaving in a hostile or unlawful manner may be negated IAW the Law of Armed Conflict and the affected state’s inherent right of self-defense. Negation must be limited to temporary and reversible methods and be limited only to the applicable subset of services provided by the offending satellite or satellites. Every effort to protect peaceful and lawful services provided by an offending satellite or satellites must be made.” I would even go so far as to require states that resort to negating satellites to have to report such engagements to an international body for determination to see if their actions met the criteria laid out above. If negation actions fail to meet the criteria, based on the review of the international body, then the state that negated the services on a satellite or satellites would be liable to pay for any damages.



    • Seb (History)

      “It was the gross impracticality of gas weapons more than anyone’s sense of humanity that preserved the ban on such weapons in the Second World War.”

      Off topic, but really? Gas bombing of population centres would have been fairly horrific I imagine, and more effective at economic disruption than much of what was tried in the early parts of the strategic air war. Particularly by the Luftwaffe.

    • Amy (History)

      Dr. Coyote says: “Some have cited that in order to work that midcourse missile defense would have to violate the laws of physics, but they fail to explain the roughly 50% success rate the current testing demonstrates.”

      This is a misleading statement.

      The 50% success rate is in tests with no countermeasures.

      With countermeasures the success rate is 0%.

      And these are our own countermeasures and we know the launch time etc. — we will not have that luxury with North Korea.

      The empirical data vindicates the critics of missile defense.

      Further, as other people posting above state, the point is that even if the test success rate goes way up to 10% this will not alter the calculus of deterrence: we will not neutralize the ability of North Korea to blackmail us with anything less than a perfect missile defense — something that is not achievable, and most certainly has not been tested.

      I suggest Dr. Coyote abide by his alleged self-imposed moratorium on missile defense comments or else post something he has not posted before.

      Honestly, it is getting tiresome.

      Furthermore, it is not helping Dr. Coyote’s case to get repeatedly countered in the comment threads.

      Yes, all the physicists know nothing and the government has secret counter-counter measures that have never worked in any of the tests against our own CMs, but surely these will make us feel good in the long run, by 2087 or so, after we spend another $867 billion.

      Thank you gentlemen.

    • FSB (History)

      “Some have cited that in order to work that midcourse missile defense would have to violate the laws of physics”

      Not true — what physicists I am aware of do say is that the laws of physics (viz. IR and radio wave propagation and detection) imply that the success rate of missile defense *in combat conditions* including countermeasures will never be high enough to make any difference in matters of deterrence, blackmail, holding at risk, or whatever else you want to call that same concept.

      Furthermore, the test results against countermeasures are not 50% as you quote. You know what they are: zilch.

      Lastly the 50% is in our own tests. If we instead subjected the intercept team in CA to an unknown surprise attack with a salvo of missiles with CMs in bad weather the success rate would be likely 0.1% or so.

      This was written up before — nothing new:




      Midcourse missile defense is a waste of taxpayer money and actually reduces our security. And it does not work. And it has never been realistically tested, and never will be realistically tested.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      Hey Coyote,

      The reason “it may be difficult to tell the difference between a missile defense weapon and a kinetic kill ASAT” (or kinetic energy ASAT, KE-ASAT) is that there may be no difference at all. This is certainly the case for the GMD and future SM-3 Block II kinetic energy “missile defense” (KE-BMD) systems which can reach nearly all satellites in Low Earth Orbit and which can certainly hit them if they can hit much smaller and usually less visible warheads in the same range of altitudes and velocities relative to the interceptor.

      This is the problem with the idea of having a ban on KE-ASATs alone, while not banning these exoatmospheric KE-BMD systems. Such a ban would be completely meaningless from an arms control perspective. It would be like a ban on nuclear missiles that target cities, while still allowing those that target military bases.

      The same applies to the idea of a KE-ASAT test ban, while allowing the continued development and testing of KE-BMD. The effectiveness of a weapon as KE-ASAT can be fully verified in tests as KE-BMD only.

      I fully agree with you that other forms of ASAT exist and are perhaps more likely to be used, However, there will be no hope of controlling these others if KE-ASAT is left uncontrolled. Conversely, there will be no hope of controlling KE-ASAT if these other types of ASAT, and also space-based weapons, are not also controlled.

      The fact that non-debris creating means of interference with satellites may be preferred does not negate the importance of KE-ASAT, because most of the other threats are susceptible to defensive measures which for the most part have not yet been taken but may be in the future if the space arms race runs amok. KE or direct high-speed impact is a very certain kill mechanism, and one which can be used, for example, by fairly simple interceptors which could be pre-deployed on orbit. They would threaten satellites in crossing orbits but in many cases it would be hard to establish such intent or targeting based on the orbits chosen. So, even if KE-ASAT does not represent the preferred technology for the immediate future, if the space arms race runs its course we will come back to this technology.

      It is true that the space-based high-power chemical laser weapon is a dead stupid idea.

      The connection of space to nuclear weapons is that deep reductions in nuclear weapons, let alone abolition, require a stable strategic relationship between major powers. The emerging space arms race is a mortal threat to such stability.

      Once again, you assert that MD critics don’t have access to secrets, without suggesting what those secrets might be which would invalidate the categorical arguments made about the inability of midcourse KE-BMD systems to defeat simple countermeasures. Then you say that these arguments “fail to explain the roughly 50% success rate the current testing demonstrates.” Give us a break. As we have said over and over, the reason these tests have enjoyed any success at all is that they have not been tested against the simple countermeasures which it is well known would, with certainty, defeat these systems, unless the defense enjoyed sheer luck in picking out the right targets.

      What is notable is that even without serious challenge to the target identification and discrimination systems, the BMD tests fail about half the time. I’ll be generous and allow that this is partly due to the fact that the systems remain in development. I have no doubt that they can, in principle, be perfected to a level of reliability much closer to 100% – against targets unprotected by simple countermeasures, which includes most satellites.

      Finally, the proposal to institute or legitimize antisatellite warfare against “satellites or their carrying traffic behaving in a hostile or unlawful manner” is probably the surest way to ensure that an unrestrained space arms race will rage into the unknown future. I am certain no professional diplomats will judge that it would be easier to negotiate rules for an international body to determine when some spacefaring nation’s satellite “may be negated” than it would be to get global agreement that such interference, and the weapons needed to carry it out, should be verifiably banned.



  9. Coyote (History)

    Ooops… I meant to say that “launch costs have NOT dropped the point to make SDI feasible…”


  10. Magoo (History)

    I found your exposition and responses very interesting, especially as the juxtaposition of the litany of fears of weaponry and allied strategies adds to the fears that that instigates the need to add-on to the complex of arms control imperatives. Be it to do with strategic weapon inventories, the exclusion of tactical nuclear weapons, the CTBT, ballistic missile defences, and, as you put it, their comparative ‘strategic significance to a dangerous competition between major powers in space’. All these are the physical manifestations of the human race’s capacity to wreak physical destruction on adversarial communities.
    But even more central to the management and employment of the means – listed above – is the more invasive use of the electromagnetic spectrum that provides the means to control the operational strategies that result in arms control agreements, their verification and guarantees.
    As much as I tend to agree with your conclusion that unless the ‘powers’ put in place a benign and assured Treaty that obviates deployment of weapons in space and offensive actions aimed at existing ‘space infrastructure’ there is little hope of reducing nuclear dangers or any prospects of building on the existing arms control edifice with any degree of success, unless the unfettered use of the electromagnetic spectrum can be restrained. Besides providing the means to neutralise a great extent of the destructive potential human race has put into place, this medium can generate far greater havoc if not restrained. The ‘stuxnet’ incident is only the tip of the iceberg and is available to even much lesser endowed states.
    It’s time to start thinking of and negotiating agreements to inhibit the unrestrained use of the electromagnetic spectrum as a package with the existing arms control theologies.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      You don’t say what you mean by “agreements to inhibit the unrestrained use of the electromagnetic spectrum” and I am left with the impression that you are referring to concepts that have no basis in reality. Stuxnet was a computer virus apparently spread by USB port or other computer-to-computer connections.

  11. Anon (History)

    The post suggests that we have control over the agenda — “What Next?”

    Not really — or we have ~50% control at best.

    The agenda will largely be set by Russia, as I don’t think Senator Kyl and John Bolton will be submitting a draft of their much desired Tac Nuke Treaty anytime soon.

    This, then, will be the agenda, as set by Russia:

    a-missile defense

    b-space weapons

    Russia will be interested in (b) for sincere reasons as well as to tamp down on (a).

    Should Russia succeed in tamping down missile defense we should give them a medal of honor for saving American tax dollars.

    The over-eager and pre-emptive capitulation by this administration in fielding untested (and some actually tested and failed) interceptors is a disgrace.

    The “hyperventilation” against missile defense cannot be loud enough and all those analysts who have argued against it should also be nominated for medals.

    You have sure come a long way after 15 minutes in DC Mr. Obama:


  12. Coyote (History)

    Amy, I would have honoured the moratorium, except others did not. Like Tony Soprano says, “Whatyagonnado?” I do not believe my arguments have been countered effectively by anyone here. None of the sources you have cited have any insight into the tests themselves. This may grow tiresome, but it is nonetheless true. It concerns me deeply when credentialed academics trade away their objectivity to promote an agenda, although such is their right. I strongly believe that academics are free to have their own opinions and to express them as such, but there is something terribly wrong when they make absolute assertions with limited information. That wouldn’t pass undergraduate muster.

    FSB, I get the fact that you are not a fan of midcourse missile defenses. It is my least favourite method, too. There is an unfortunate problem that we face. If midcourse missile defenses are not made operational, then there is an added incentive to conduct pre-emptive strikes on an adversary’s launch sites. To some degree, the investment in midcourse and other missile defenses is a hedge against being thrown on the horns of that dilemma. That said, let’s be careful when we criticise the tests. Several key elements of the test are not disclosed for rather obvious security reasons. These include the test criteria, the conditions that are being simulated, the sensors employed, the guidance architecture, the endgame engagement methods, which of the combat scenarios are being played-out, the pen-aids being used (or simulated), the countermeasures employed (or simulated), and what counter-counter measures are involved (or simulated). Nor are the methods of simulation or post-test analysis disclosed. The roughly 50% failure rate that we see is good (in fact, that is the rate that we would expect) because we are pushing various technologies and learning a great deal in the process. (If our equipment breaks under certain conditions, theirs will too.) This will translate into a much more reliable system when made “fully mission capable,” as opposed to “partially mission capable.” As for the cost: I agree that the expense has been huge. This has been an expensive monkey on our backs. As the GAO Report pointed out, it could have been done better and cheaper. I am all about doing things “better and cheaper.”

    Mark, you offer some keen observations and very constructive comments. Good food for thought! You are right when you point to the difficulty telling the difference between a missile defense interceptor and a kinetic kill ASAT. We need to discuss this because it is an important point. But first, I’d like to point out that for every counter measure there is a counter-countermeasure. The countermeasures that you cited in previous entries; balloons, shaped decoys, chaff, RVs inside balloons, etc, are several decades old. There are many newer countermeasures that are far better and much more difficult to deal with. These second, third, and even fourth generation countermeasures are receiving the attention they deserve. It is an old game, and has much is common with the dance between surface to air missiles and aircraft. (footstomp!)

    Back to the difficulty differentiating a missile defense system from a kinetic kill ASAT. Do you have any idea how we could do that? Instead of saying, “No, both should be banned,” please think of how we could tell the difference if they were systems belonging to our partners in Russia or China? From a purely weapons standpoint, I am scratching my head. I guess it would have to do with the software installed. Yes, as you have pointed out, you could limit the stages to only allow interception at suborbital altitudes. That could be quickly verified by visual inspection.

    Also, a legal question: Is it even possible for a UN member state to obviate its inherent right of self-defense and its responsibility to protect its people—a right and responsibility that is guaranteed and asserted under Article 51 of the UN charter—in this case, via missile defenses?

    You raise the issue of a space arms race. That’s not a concern. There are so few satellites on orbit that every nation on Earth could afford to participate in such an arms race. Not much of a race, I’d say. Even African nations have negated satellites using temporary and reversible means of negation (TARN). We launch into space knowing that there are systems that will attempt to jam our signals, warp our antennas, or drive out of calibration and alignment the sensitive external components of our satellites. But a space arms race is another discussion.

    For all this discussion, I am really quite confident in the concept of missile defense because each of the last several administrations—often varying wildly in political views and agendas—embraced missile defense. I was not surprised when President Obama took office that his administration, which I believe was inclined against missile defense, embraced the concept once they had full access to all the pertinent information and did their own independent assessment. President Clinton’s administration had done the same.

    This administration, however, deserves extra credit for the additional scrutiny they put into this program and their renewed initiative to do missile defense in broad international partnerships… with an open hand to our Russian partners, which I sincerely hope they accept. This president deserves the benefit of the doubt.

    Cheers to all!


    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      I guess the problem with a BMD debate moratorium is that the administration has decided to continue the BMD March of Folly. Therefore silence = acquiescence to an unconcscionable waste of resources and historically dangerous policy course.

      I do not think the reason the administration chose to do this is that they came in and found out that the technical facts indicate that the systems they have chosen to support will actually be effective in preventing Iran, North Korea, or anybody else from being able to credibly threaten their neighbors or the US with nuclear ballistic missiles if they are able to produce them.

      Rather, I think the decisionmakers for the most part are not technically trained and may not feel competent to judge the technical issues themselves. They believe the systems are potentially useful as political and diplomatic tools, and don’t want to break continuity with three decades of US policy to fight the Republicans on this. It is easier for them to accept the assurances of MDA and contractors that the systems have been successfully tested. SM-3, in particular, benefited greatly from the successful “satellite shootdown” which we were (falsely) told protected the public from a serious hazard. However, that was an easy shot against a high-visibility target with no countermeasures, and it demonstrated the ASAT capability of these weapons.

      Coyote, I see you doubling down on the assertion that BMD critics do not have all the facts, still without giving us any indication of what facts could possibly overturn the judgement that it is impossible to discriminate between randomized aluminized mylar balloons which contain warheads and those that don’t using only radar, IR and optical sensors at thousands of km distance, or that explain how optical or IR sensors would be able to track a cold warhead in the dark. These countermeasures may indeed be “decades old” but that’s just the point: anyone who can build nuclear ballistic missiles can do these things, too, and they will surely be able to defeat the GMD and SM-3 systems.

      There are of course other possible countermeasures which can defeat these systems. There are also those to defeat terminal-phase and boost-phase BMD systems. The robust conclusion that was reached already in the 1960s is that against nuclear weapons, where at best fractional success for the defense is just not good enough, missile defense is futile, and worse, destabilizing. This is no less true when the adversary is Iran or North Korea than it is when the adversary is the USSR. Remember, one nuclear weapon can ruin your whole day, and the pursuit of missile defense, at huge expense, does not persuade the potential builder of nuclear missiles that its threat is ineffective or unneeded nor does it help to defuse the confrontation.

      You ask how KE-BMD interceptors could be distinguished from KE-ASATs. As you suggest, I think the only way is by an altitude ceiling. The SM-3 as-is, the Block I versions, could plausibly be allowed, although this would greatly weaken a KE-ASAT ban, and make a KE-ASAT test ban meaningless. The Block II versions would have to be banned, or else you make LEO a shooting gallery.

      I suppose the next worse thing would be a 1000-2000 km altitude ceiling, which would fully allow BMD, and leave LEO satellites unprotected, but still protect MEO (e.g. GPS) and GEO satellites.

      The arms control effectiveness of this latter option, however, would be very much in doubt, and much weaker than a total ban on exoatmospheric interceptors. Since we know that exoatmospheric interceptors, as missile defense, are ineffective against simple countermeasures, no actual security interest would have to be sacrificed to obtain a total ban.

      It is certainly reasonable for any state to give up weapons that are ineffective, particularly in exchange for stabilization of otherwise dangerous relationships with other states. It is also reasonable, in some cases, for states to voluntarily give up certain weapons that may be effective, in return for effectively verifiable pledges from other states to give up the same or other kinds of weapons. This is entirely consistent with the right and responsibility of self-defense, since it may be easier for the states entering such regimes of mutual restraint to ensure their ability to defend themselves against better-known and limited threats.

      You write that “Even African nations have negated satellites using temporary and reversible means of negation (TARN).” Leaving aside the snub at Africa (which includes South Africa, Libya, and a number of countries at war which have access to a wide range of stuff on the international arms market), you do not say what you mean by this.

      Maybe you mean they covered up a site with a tarp so our photo satellites couldn’t see it. Maybe you mean they used a local GPS jammer. These might be called negation of a satellite system, but they aren’t attacks on or interference with satellites themselves.

      Maybe you mean they used readily available satcomm equipment to hijack or jam the receivers of unhardened commercial or military satellites. These should be considered interference with space objects, and should be explicitly banned under a Space Security Convention (as they are implicitly under the OST); and such a ban would be more or less enforceable in that it would be possible to locate the source of such activity at least to within national borders. But the US can readily counter and harden its military and critical civil satellites against such easy forms of interference. Banning any such interference or weapons to carry it out would have the benefit of limiting this threat for the most part to the level that is easy to counter.

      It is possible that poor countries and even non-state actors would have some ability to use lasers or high-power jammers directed at satellites, but this is not so easy and banning militarized systems for such purposes would help to keep them off the arms market. It is also likely that major powers would retain such capabilities in spite of a ban, but they would be much less likely to use them, and we can further harden our satellites against such threats. In combination with redundancy, replacements and non-space alternatives, we can, under a space arms control regime, manage the vulnerability of our space assets.

      So, we’ve been over this a number of times now; I thank you, Coyote, for continuing to prod me into rehearsing this argument. I think it is pretty clear that robust space arms control is possible and is in the interests of the United States and of global security, whereas robust missile defense is not possible and its pursuit serves only the short-term political and economic interests of some, to the detriment of security for all.


  13. Scott Monje (History)

    Among the 50% of BMD tests that have failed, some have been due to failures on the part of the target missile. Should this make us concerned about the reliability of our missiles more generally?

    • Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

      A 50% effective system can still be an aid during a crisis when you are defending against 1 or 2 ICBM launches. I’m going to take a guess and make the assumption that we can discriminate against an inflated decoy (maybe we can’t) and I’ll also make note that the Russians/Soviets loaded the R-36 series with loads of full size and full mass decoys, or at least tested this. So does this bound the number of effective decoys someone like the North Koreans could throw into the pot? If so it sets the number of decoys to deal with, and even a 50% effective system would be worth having in a crisis having to pay the price of engaging everything in flight you cannot discern real from fake.

      I’m ready to be shot down here, It’s speculation on my part. Perhaps my wrongness is reflected in the very low number of interceptors deployed and on alert. Because from what I could see only 8 interceptors are deployed and I could find no numbers on alert levels. While the booster is solid and can sit alert for long periods of time, I have questions about the detector. If any IR sensors are cooled to liquid He levels, then that would present a huge complication for keeping a missile alerted. Point being the faith of such a system will be reflected in the number of deployed and alerted interceptors. It should reflect any probably attack during a probable crisis, and should also reflect the probable failure rate vs the probable target flux. If 8 is the real number I’d say the number of incomings the system can deal with right now is pretty darn close to 1.

    • Allen Thomson (History)

      > to pay the price of engaging everything in flight you cannot discern real from fake.

      Such things were discussed a while back in connection with NMD, the version of today’s GMD current at the time.







      My current impression is that MDA has a two-on-one firing doctrine, meaning that two GBIs have to be launched at each credible target. Or, worse, at each anticipated credible target.

      BTW, another thing that needs to be considered is defense suppression. In the case of GMD against North Korea, this means taking out the AN/TPY-2 radar at Shariki, Japan and SBX. The X-band imaging radars offer the best hope of distinguishing decoys from disguised warheads, although their capability to do that is not at all certain. (The VIS/IR sensors on the EKVs are likely not going to be able to do the job very well in realistic circumstances.)

    • Anon (History)

      A good article to see about decoys in a technically accurate, yet accessible, manner is:


      see the sidebar on p. 38

    • Anon (History)

      the 50% number does not apply to tests with countermeasures.

      The 0% number does, as also pointed out by Amy.

  14. Amy (History)

    Dr. Coyote again mis-states the success rate of tests where know all the details: timing, signature of all decoys, trajectory, sun-angle etc.

    The success rate of tests with counter-measures is NOT 50%

    The success rate of tests with counter-measures is exactly 0%.

    Why is the success rate of the governments trans-physical counter-countermeasures 0%? Will it be better against NK’s?

    And it is not as if we have just started testing countermeasures.

    We started in the mid-1990s and due to early failures the kinds of countermeasures that actually worked in spoofing the interceptor were dropped from the menu for future tests.

    The tests are not only not realistic, they are rigged.

    The MDA is an enormous waste of taxpayer funds and actively defrauds the tax-paying public.

    I do not think it is sensible to denigrate academics who are trying to help us choose the best methods to protect the country.

    I think it is much more sensible to call into question the motives of government/MDA officials, and contractors who stand to gain monetarily and status-wise, and also the many generally technically ill-informed people in DC who have been duped into thinking startegic missile defense will protect us.

    Many of these physicists and engineers have long served our country’s military and one is the father of the hydrogen bomb (Dick Garwin) — these are not peackniks:


    “This technology has not been adequately tested and has no demonstrated capability in a realistic attack scenario.

    None of the GMD tests have included realistic countermeasures or tumbling warheads.

    All flight intercept tests have been conducted under highly scripted conditions with the defense given advance information about the attack details.

    For these reasons, the intercepts achieved in past tests of the GMD system say nothing about the effectiveness of these interceptors under real-world conditions. Until these systems are subjected to an honest technical assessment and a rigorous testing program, there will be no data on which to base an assessment of how effective they might be in an actual attack.

    We assess that the planned European missile defense system would have essentially no capability to defend against a real missile attack.

    Independent and U.S. governmental technical analyses have
    shown that any country that could field a long-range missile could also add decoys and other
    countermeasures to that missile that would defeat a defense system like that being proposed for
    Europe. As the September 1999 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on foreign missile developments
    stated, “Russia and China each have developed numerous countermeasures and probably are willing
    to sell the requisite technologies.”

    Claiming that this system is effective when it is not is dangerous and could contribute to unwise decisions by U.S. policy makers. Moreover, deploying now would continue to undermine relations with Russia, whose cooperation is key to making progress on a range of important security issues, including nuclear arms reductions and halting the Iranian nuclear and missile programs.”

    signed by:

    John Ahearne #
    Lecturer in Public Policy Studies, Duke University

    Philip W. Anderson *
    Joseph Henry Professor of Physics Emeritus, Princeton University
    Nobel Laureate in Physics

    Lewis M. Branscomb #
    Aetna Professor in Public Policy and Corporate Management, Emeritus; Harvard University, John F.
    Kennedy School of Government

    Val L. Fitch * +
    Professor of Physics, Princeton University
    Nobel Laureate in Physics

    Jerome I. Friedman * +
    Institute Professor and Professor of Physics, MIT
    Nobel Laureate in Physics

    Richard L. Garwin * #
    Adjunct Professor of Physics, Columbia University
    National Medal of Science Laureate

    Sheldon Lee Glashow *
    Arthur G.B. Metcalf Professor of the Sciences, Boston University
    Nobel Laureate in Physics

    Kurt Gottfried
    Professor of Physics Emeritus, Cornell University

    David J. Gross * #
    Professor of Physics, University of California, Santa Barbara
    Nobel Laureate in Physics

    David Hammer
    J. Carlton Ward Professor of Nuclear Energy Engineering, Cornell University

    Ernest Henley * +
    Professor of Physics Emeritus, University of Washington

    Daniel Kleppner + #
    Lester Wolfe Professor of Physics, Emeritus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

    Leon Lederman *
    Professor of Science, Illinois Institute of Technology
    Nobel Laureate in Physics

    Douglas D. Osheroff *
    Professor of Physics and Applied Physics, Stanford University
    Nobel Laureate in Physics

    Norman F. Ramsey * + #
    Higgins Professor of Physics, Emeritus, Harvard University
    Nobel Laureate in Physics

    Myriam Sarachik * +
    Distinguished Professor of Physics, City College of the City University of New York

    Andrew M. Sessler * +
    Director Emeritus, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

    George Trilling * +
    Senior Faculty Physicist, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

    Steven Weinberg *
    Jack S. Josey – Welch Foundation Chair in Science and Professor of Physics, University of Texas at
    Nobel Laureate in Physics

    Robert Wilson * #
    Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
    Nobel Laureate in Physics
    * Member, National Academy of Sciences
    # Member, National Academy of Engineering
    + Past President, American Physical Society


  15. Anon (History)

    Amy is right on with the history of countermeasures fraud.

    Also note that the number of countermeasures is no even close to what would be sued in reality: first the MDA used 1 frickin’ decoy then 3:


    When the decoy actually fooled the sensors the MDA in its wisdom changed the decoy that could be more easily discriminated.


    You can stuff 25 mylar balloons in a warhead without any difficulty. You can put hundreds of foot long metal wires.

    As we saw with FTG 06 the SBX can be fooled/overloaded with chuff.

    The tests are incredibly unrealistic — and the _still_ do not succeed!

    Whatever unicorns and counter-countermeasures the MDA has they have not worked for 20 years. Never.

    I’ll go with the people with physics Nobel prizes.

  16. Coyote (History)


    I agree with the sentiment in the letter to the President wherein the signers support President Obama’s statement that missile defenses must be proven before deployed in Europe. That is precisely what the Missile Defense Agency is doing under very close supervision and oversight by this administration (more so than with past administrations). The President may decide to field the system in a “partially mission capable” (PMT) configuration. This means it could perform some, but not all of the missions on its manifest. Such a system would soon are brought to a “fully mission capable” (FMC) configuration.

    The letter soon goes astray with their criticisms of Ground-Based Midcourse Missile Defense. None of the signers ever served on any of the oversight committees, review boards, investigation panels, or milestone decision committees in this or any of the last three presidential administrations—and it shows. They are disdainful of an ongoing testing program into which they are simply outside observers.
    They are not in a position to comment on the rigours of the testing.

    I am in complete agreement with the assertion made towards the end: “Claiming that this system is effective when it is not is dangerous and could contribute to unwise decisions by U.S. policy makers.” That is right. Policy makers must have the best estimates on the performance of such systems. This is something that the DoD insists upon for their own planning.

    Let’s cut to the chase. The problem really boils down to the never-ending tit-for-tat between countermeasures (CMs) and counter-countermeasures (CCMs). This is what the game is really all about. Because it is a tit-for-tat—and based on the most sensitive intelligence and sometimes espionage—it is never discussed, and seldom demonstrated in public view.

    Keep in mind that live-fire missile defense tests are conducted in full view of the world. Other eyes are always watching. GREAT care it taken to protect CMs and CCMs to prevent them from being observed. (No need to give an adversary the advantage.) There will be no public disclosure of such matters, and hence, I doubt the critics of missile defense will ever be convinced that the system works under real-world attack conditions.

    So, this debate will never end. Sigh.

    Again, I am very confident in President Obama’s leadership on this matter. He has the right teams of people in place to help him make the best, most informed decisions.

    As for the idea that this is some sort of conspiracy perpetrated by the evil military industrial complex for personal profit, well, you are certainly free to think that.



    • Amy (History)

      Why don’t the CCMs work, and why have they not worked for 20 years?

    • Anon (History)

      “Again, I am very confident in President Obama’s leadership on this matter.”

      Yes, me too that is why I voted for him when he said:


      He does have smart people around him, and he ignored them in order to reach out the republicans with the fig leaf of fielding untested (and also tested and failed) missile “defenses”.

      He saw what such political compromise bought him when Sen Kyl stabbed him in the back over New START.

      Think again about missile “defense” Obama!

  17. Mark Gubrud (History)

    Coyote, your argument comes down to this “never-ending tit-for-tat between countermeasures (CMs) and counter-countermeasures (CCMs)” which you can’t describe for us because it is secret. That’s not an argument at all, it’s just begging to be believed on trust without presenting a shred of evidence.

    Your undisclosed secret is contrary to all information which is released publicly by MDA and leaked through the press and to various analysts. According to the picture that emerges from these sources, MDA has not even got tit for the very first tat.

    Certainly in the fields of avionics, radar and electronic warfare, armor, bio- and chem- warfare, etc, there is a never-ending evolution of measures, countermeasures, counter-countermeasures, etc. But there is no evidence of this in ballistic missile defense.

    The bulk of effort has been to develop the basic capability of the interceptors to hit their targets spot-on at relative velocities of the order of 10 km/s. That’s an amazing achievement, and a great deal of progress has been made, despite the fact that it’s very hard, and the systems are very complicated, which is why they fail half the time.

    But no progress has been made at all towards beating the shell game. Aluminized mylar balloons are light and can be deployed in large numbers on ballistic missiles. They can be different sizes and shapes, and there is no way to tell which one hides the warhead using any known sensor technology that is practical to be used in space at long range. MDA simply pretends that they are addressing this problem. They rig the game by using “decoys” that don’t look like the real targets, not hiding the targets inside “decoys” that are indistinguishable from others, and knowing in advance what each kind of target will look like to the sensor. This is an open scandal which has long been exposed. It has not been kept secret.

    I know that you are intelligent enough to understand this argument, you are an Air Force officer and professor, yet you keep responding with the same strategy of sowing confusion by introducing irrelevant distractions and trying to cast doubt without engaging the argument on substance. I think you truly are a Trickster, my friend.

  18. Amy (History)

    Dr. Coyote: whatever Counter-counter measures that the MDA has — they have not worked for 20 years.

    And there are rational arguments based in physics — for which one needs to be invited to no committees — that they cannot work.

    And I am sure Dick Garwin is aware of all the secrets associated with MDA, since he has high enough clearance to be on JASONs and he invented the hydrogen bomb.

    So even if no one else signed that letter, Dr. Garwin’s signature is enough for me.

    His authority on the subject over-rides yours, sorry to say.

    Further only 1,2,or 3 decoys have been used in tests — not the hundreds that could confuse the interceptors.

    The MDA is perpetrating a fraud on the tax paying public.

    Please give us our tax dollars back.

    • Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

      Amy, what was the nature of the failure? Did the munition hit a decoy? How many decoys can you expect in a typical attack? I’m well read enough on the subject to be aware of empty mylar balloons and the concept of enshrouding a real warhead in a mylar balloon. I’m even well read enough to be aware of outgassing and thermal means of discerning real from fake. If the failure was of the nature that a decoy was hit instead of the real warhead, and more important that a decoy was targeted and hit, that still might have value in a crisis providing you have enough interceptors to engage every target that can dynamically present a real threat to a city. I would imagine that a decoy cloud would present some sort of ballistic cross range error. During a crisis one could make the call to only intercept the incoming to urban areas and make the choice to deal with the fallout from an impact on the outer fringes of town. Providing of course the North Koreans and Iranians don’t have maneuvering warheads. Now if you had a terminal defense you’d reduce the decoys to full mass decoys, and there’s no way the flux of targets would overwhelm a interceptor force of even a few missiles.

      I understand your arguments about the value of the NMD during peace time I think there’s a lot of merit to those arguments, but I think the abolitionist’s side of the argument would have far more weight if you could articulate the technical ramifications of what would happen during a crisis and how it would aid in a better outcome of a crisis without a defense than with one.

  19. Onion (History)

    Some fresh voices on this debate —


    “I’ve got a missile-defense idea: We genetically engineer a race of bird-men to fly up and defuse the missiles with their beaks. That’d be cheaper and just as effective.”

    “Speaking of which, don’t use the can for a while. I just violated one hell of a B.M. Treaty myself.”

    “As Kenny Rogers says, you gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em; know when to walk away, know when to use humanity as a bargaining chip in a game of nuclear brinksmanship.”


    “Wait, the U.S. actually has a working missile defense system? Oh, I keep forgetting we now live in that alternate universe with that black president.”


    “Defense shields never work. I installed an alarm system for my home and an Iranian missile still broke in and stole my VCR.”


    Report: Nuclear Arsenal Will Go Bad Unless Used By 2000

    WASHINGTON, DC—A Defense Department report released Monday stated that the U.S. has barely a year and a half before its enormous stockpile of nuclear missiles goes bad. “Most of these weapons were manufactured in the mid-’70s with an expiration date of January 2000,” the report read. Reacting quickly to the findings, Pentagon officials are hard at work fomenting overseas discord in hopes of preventing government waste.

  20. Coyote (History)

    Mark, you have no idea how penetration aids (pen-aids), countermeasures (CMs), or counter-countermeasures (CCMs) are developed or tested. You don’t even know the state-of-the art associated with these systems. It is not your fault. Great effort is taken to make sure that no one not officially involved with such programs has such information. Such security measures prevent the next round of tit-for-tat developments among adversaries. Really, it is just that simple. If you think about it, you really don’t want lax security on these matters.

    Amy, Dick Garwin is a good guy, but he has never been involved with missile defense. He has no insight whatsoever into the missile defense community. Classified information is compartmented. That means people only have access to information about projects they actually work on. They do not have blanket access to information in every other program. Access to nuclear weapons information is a compartment of information that is much different than the compartments associated with missile defense.

    Missile defense is not a conspiracy and it is not a deception. It is one of the few things that Democrats and Republicans actually agree on in both houses of Congress and the White House. Support for missile defense has remained strong, even when the oversight committees were dominated by one party or the other. It has not been a contentious issue, nor has it been a deciding issue in election campaigns.



    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      Coyote, you are telling a story that nobody else is telling. You are saying that the information that MDA releases to the public is false, that the real details are top-secret, and that, in addition, all of the information that has been leaked to various analysts about the conditions and results of BMD tests or revealed by whistleblowers about what a sham they are is false information. You are giving us no evidence or argument other than that we should take it on faith that the missile defense program is being run in a coherent and sensible way. I’m sure some people will buy this. I see enough evidence and reason on the other side to say it is not so.


    • Anon (History)

      Coyote sez: “Mark, you have no idea how penetration aids (pen-aids), countermeasures (CMs), or counter-countermeasures (CCMs) are developed or tested. ”

      Well, *you*, Prof. Coyote, have no idea how the North Korean or Iranian penaids or CMs work either. You are also aware that NK will use more than 3 decoys on their missiles.

      Further, in 1997 and 1998 when the first decoys were used they spoofed the CCMs. So, as Amy relates above, instead of improving the system, the MDA defrauded the public by making other new decoys that were easier to tell apart from the warhead.

      Yes, the review committees are useful in MDA: useful for C.Y.A.

      As one of the earlier posters above mentioned, Garwin wrote a detailed critique of MD in 1968, so he is up to speed I’d say.

      As Amy points out only 1,2, or 3 decoys have ever been used — and even in these easy cases over 20 years, the MDA has never been able to hit the warhead.

      0% success rate.

      Amy: let me translate for you what Prof. Coyote (the academic) is saying: he is saying that in the Alchemy wing of the Astrology Dept. at MDA a lot of (mostly) white men get together and think up CMs and CCMs.

      Coyote: kindly allow me to translate what Amy is saying into English: Why don’t these “Counter-counter-measures” work after tweaking them and testing them for 20 years?

      FTG-06 and FTG-06a tests being the most recent failures.

      Yes, Prof. Coyote, the MDA has CCMs that do not work, not even with just 1,2, or 3 CMs in play — we have established that fact.

      You will note that this is a technically oriented blog where it is not as easy to dupe the commentators as it is for MDA to dupe the public at large.

  21. ArkadyRenko (History)

    I think this argument about ASAT weapons and missile defenses has already been settled, at least partially, because of conventional weapons.

    The Chinese are fairly close to a fully developed ASBM, one which will use ocean recon satellites to provide targeting data (presumably), than fire at those targets identified. In order to maintain a credible military in East Asia, the US must take actions to negate or mitigate that threat.

    How will the US prevent that threat? The easiest route is to blind the Chinese (ASAT weapons) and a necessary but hard route is to build a high powered and highly energetic missile defense interceptor (needs to be energetic to hit the maneuvering warhead). In both cases, they will be driven by conventional military necessity to advance their capabilities in ways which go against prior arms control treaties. In short, ASAT capabilities are not going away, on the contrary, they will only increase in the future.

    But, the missile defense development does not stop there. All the previous hyperventilating over mid course defense completely misses what is now the most promising avenue for missile defense. The concept is simple: build a high powered AAM, give it an infrared seeker, and load it on a UAV within say 300 miles of a missile launch point. Then conduct boost phase intercepts.

    Two points:
    1. This weapon will be very easy to convert into an ASAT. Merely give it a bit more oomph or put it on a F-22 and do a power launch into the stratosphere (like the old ASAT on the F-15s).
    2. Unlike the Mid Course Defense, it stands a very good chance of being highly successful. Note, development on Mid Course Defense has all but stagnated, while there are programs for naval defense and this air launched interceptor. So, missile defenses will become much closer to achieving their goal, which is to defend the US against a limited nuclear attack by a rogue state. At the same time, such developments will not please the Russians.

    In short, the worry about ASAT weapons and Mid Course Defenses is old news, the missile defense debate will shift in the future, and in such a way as to make negotiations far more difficult.

  22. Mark Gubrud (History)

    You raise some interesting and important issues, which require a bit more analysis.

    You say the Chinese “will use ocean recon satellites” to target their (still conjectural) ASBMs, and that the US will use “ASAT weapons” (you don’t specify what type) to “blind” these.

    However, assuming the Chinese recon satellites are in LEO, they will pass over any given region of the ocean only twice per day. They would have to be able to find the American ships on each pass, which would be hard to do. The US would have to target the Chinese satellites in advance of the pass, otherwise it would be too late. Temporary and reversible means such as blinding lasers would not do here; if the lasers were onboard the ships, they would give away the ships’ locations. Or, the Chinese might be using radar satellites. So the satellites would need to be physically interfered with, if not destroyed, preemptively. Basically, then, the US would need to launch a major attack on the Chinese constellation in space. The Chinese would then be likely to respond with a major attack on the American constellation. A full analysis of this scenario would be quite extensive. What we can say here is that this does not look like a simple solution to a simple problem.

    I think that the credibility of US power projection into East Asia is principally one of deterrence. We can say to the Chinese, “You do not want to tangle with us.” This does not mean we are going to be in any position to tangle with them, either.

    You say that “ASAT capabilities… will only increase….” But your argument is that ASATs are potentially militarily useful, not that arms control is necessarily ineffective. I think nations may reasonably judge that peace and security are preferable to weapons which cannot be used without risking massive destruction. Under a well-constructed arms control regime, the benefits of mutual adherence and the risk and difficulty of cheating without being caught will greatly outweigh the far-fetched chance that one can secretly arm, pull off a surprise attack and win something of value.

    You are right that high-acceleration boost-phase interceptors, possibly based on aircraft (manned or UAV), would potentially be more effective and difficult to countermeasure as compared with midcourse interceptors. However, such an approach is also dangerously destabilizing, because it blurs the line between offense and defense. In order to have a high likelihood of being able to catch rising missiles, the launch point of the interceptor has to be quite close to the launch point of the missile. If, for example, we were to fly BMD-carrying drones in or close to Iranian airspace or North Korean airspace, it is quite likely that they would malfunction, stray, or be shot down. When that happens, particularly in a time of crisis, it would create an ambiguous incident. Was the drone shot down because the mad dictator is about to launch a strike? Was the drone flying in because the Yanks are coming? It is not impossible to imagine this strategy resulting in the worst case imaginable: the missiles launched, and the interceptors failing or not being available at the critical moment.

    Also, unlike the case of midcourse interceptors, which clearly are capable of hitting satellites at the same altitudes, it is not clear that interceptors designed to catch rockets in boost phase would automatically be effective as ASATs, since they would likely use short-wave IR sensors, and target the rocket body.

    I do worry that you are right that the emphasis in missile defense will shift to these more aggressive strategies which would border on offense and be even more effective if used as part of a preemptive attack plan. Pushed far enough, in combination with nuclear or conventional strategic strike weapons, stealthy penetrating air-launched boost-phase missile interceptors would revive fears and fantasies, on all sides, of a disarming strategic first strike.

    • Allen Thomson (History)

      The speculation, based on the orbits of the Yaogan Weixing IX payloads, is that China may have begun creating a constellation of ELINT satellites similar to the US Navy’s PARCAE/White Cloud/NOSS system:



      The Soviet Union had something similar in its EORSATs,


      supplemented by RORSAT radar satellites,


      Apparently others of the Yaogan Weixing series carry radars, but I don’t know if there’s any indication that they carry out ocean surveillance tasks.


    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      Thanks, Allen, for these informative links, which I think demonstrate first that China is still in an early stage of developing the kind of ocean surveillance system that would enable targeting ASBMs from space, and second, that such a system would not involve one or a very few satellites but an entire constellation of satellites of different types and with different capabilities.

      Also, to reinforce what I wrote before, to obtain the precise location of ships needed for ASBM targeting would require optical or radar observation from satellites in LEO passing overhead, which implies both that a sizable constellation would be needed for continuous coverage and that the satellite that will target you needs to have been taken out before it got there, i.e. preemptively.

      Therefore, this is not the simple picture of a ship or naval battle group carrying ASATs that it uses to defend itself. Rather, this is the picture of the US and China engaged in major combat at the strategic level, playing footsie with nuclear war. We should be thinking less about how to win in such a giddy scenario, and more about how deterrence, diplomacy and arms control can work together to prevent anything like it from ever occurring.

  23. ArkadyRenko (History)

    I would argue, the US would need to do a full scale campaign against the satellites, in order to keep the carriers alive. And, in such a situation, the US would accept the full scale satellite engagement in order to achieve the military goal, the suppression of China’s anti-carrier ability. It wouldn’t be: shoot the satellites before they target the carrier, it would be, degrade the satellite constellation, using physical and electronic methods, until it is ineffective, then move the carriers within the threat radius.

    As to your comment about this being two countries on the verge of nuclear war, of course it will be! Two super powers engaging in a conventional war will be on the verge of a nuclear conflict, it was that case with the US and the Soviets and it will be that case with the US and China.

    Finally, the reason I brought up the anti-ballistic missiles on UAVs is because that will cause the destabilizing situation you feared. All the hyperventilating about GMD will be nothing compared to what will happen. The missiles work, they’ve already been tested, and technically it won’t be hard. But, because of the conventional missile threat, that missile defense strategy will be followed. Your hopeful international agreements will come to naught, because the conventional concerns are too great.

    • Allen Thomson (History)

      > Your hopeful international agreements will come to naught, because the conventional concerns are too great.

      I agree, at least in general. If, for example, Bill Gertz’ dreams come true and China and the US get into a shooting war, neither side is going to let the other’s intelligence satellites survive to provide targeting information that could be decisive in the conflict.

      Which is why I think that attempts to get a treaty that would comprehensively ban ASAT are futile at best. A treaty that would allow sorts of ASAT that would avoid the wide-spread collateral damage associated with hyper-velocity impact, nuclear explosions and perhaps big conventional explosions might be feasible.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      > Your hopeful international agreements will come to naught, because the conventional concerns are too great.

      > attempts to get a treaty that would comprehensively ban ASAT are futile

      I call that pessimism.

      Is there never a time to give up hope? If there is, I would say it comes some time after having actually tried.

      The US has not seriously sought an ASAT ban in the post-Cold War period. It would come at the price, for the US, of renouncing the technically baseless dream of space-based missile defense or other space-based weapons. It would come with the benefits, for the US, of formally legitimizing the use of space for non-weapons military and intelligence purposes, limiting the threat to our satellites, and avoiding a destabilizing new round of the strategic arms race.

      I say that would be a very good trade. Let’s give it a try.

    • Allen Thomson (History)

      > formally legitimizing the use of space for non-weapons military and intelligence purposes

      There’s the rub. I agree that seeking to ban the destructive components of weapon systems from space would be very desirable and possibly feasible — if for no other reason than that proposals for such don’t make much sense, even in their own terms.

      But the problem (I may be repeating myself here) is that “non-weapons military and intelligence” satellites serve, in many cases, as integral parts of weapons systems even if they don’t themselves blow anything up. The satellite sees you, the image interpreters looking at its pictures identify you, determine your coordinates and shortly thereafter a GPS-guided weapon lands on your head. No satellite, no headache.

      Again repeating, I think that a limited ASAT/ counter-space treaty that banned the sorts of weapons that produce widespread/indiscriminate effects while allowing the development of a military capability that no state is likely to give up might be feasible.

      Or we could all agree to get along and study war no more, which would be my preference.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      > “non-weapons military and intelligence” satellites serve, in many cases, as integral parts of weapons systems

      True enough, but the distinction can be made. I am saying legitimize such uses, and formalize space as a sanctuary for all non-weapons satellites. I think that on balance this would serve US and global security interests, particularly in comparison with the alternative, an extremely destabilizing arms race and confrontation in space.

      > No satellite, no headache.

      Problem is, they can take out our satellites too. We can mitigate the vulnerability of our space assets if and only if we limit the level of threat to them.

      Consider, also, that eliminating observation from space does not mean you will not be seen and targeted e.g. from aircraft (manned or UAV), submarines, ground observations, etc. The weapon that lands on your head can be guided by other means than GPS, too.

      Meanwhile, the US has been guiding weapons onto quite a few people’s heads using GPS, so it would be quite a concession to the US for 180 nations to sign on to a treaty saying that this is legitimate and that everybody agrees not to interfere with satellites or to have weapons for doing so.

    • Allen Thomson (History)

      > Problem is, they can take out our satellites too.

      My argument is meant to be symmetrical: their satellites see us, our satellites see them. Both sides have powerful reasons to prevent such observation. And whoever can will do that, by whatever means are available. Limiting the means is what I think might be doable; eliminating them probably isn’t.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      Allen, you make a strong argument, but I think the counterargument is more compelling. I don’t see a middle path in which some kinds of ASATs (and their use) are allowed while others are banned. This will not be a stable situation; in fact, I think just formalizing it will be destabilizing. As soon as you announce it’s going to be open season on satellites (as long as, say, you don’t produce persistent space debris), we are going to be off on a measure-vs.-countermeasure arms race, and since satellites can be hardened against rf, laser and cyber/cypher attacks, this will move to physical interference by coorbital microsatellites. Duels between the latter will tend toward increasing violence until we’re back at the very situation we sought to avoid. As Arkady pointed out, space warfare between major powers would not be a matter of a few subtle covert ops in the manner Coyote suggests; it would be fast-paced and massive, and it would be perilously close to nuclear war. We absolutely must avoid going down this road.

      > Limiting the means is what I think might be doable; eliminating them probably isn’t.

      The best way to limit the means is to ban them outright; this limits them to the lowest possible level, i.e. whatever states can get away with covertly. I think that’s good enough that we can harden satellites and provide enough backups and alternatives to deny the benefit of using any secretly stockpiled ASATs, particularly if the latter have not been tested.

  24. FSB (History)

    The hyperventilating about the drone-based boost phase MD is interesting but, alas, unless ArkadyRenko is elected President we are stuck with the expensive non-functional midcourse MD.

Pin It on Pinterest