What we have here is a failure to operate

Now these guys knew how to operate.

George W. Bush loves missile defense. Loves, loves, loves. So does Donald Rumsfeld. And Dick Cheney. So do a legion of members of Congress, most of them Republicans.

For that matter, so do most Americans. At least they like the idea of it. (Sadly, if you poll them, they think we already have one.)

Who doesn’t love missile defense?

Well, for one, the military.

At least, they don’t love long-range missile defenses.

Give them a short-range defense, against an imminent, likely threat, and they will deploy anything you give them, even if they are not sure if it will work.

(See, for example, the Patriot anti-missile system, which performed abysmally in the first Gulf war, in 1992.)

But hand them a system intended to defend against long-range missiles – a threat we’ve “faced” for 40 years – and they want some proof it will work before they agree to take it.

This is perfectly clear if you examine what has happened on missile defense in the last two and half years.

In December 2002, President Bush declared that he would deploy long-range anti-missile systems in 2004.

The deadline became September 30, 2004, conveniently before the November elections.

The Missile Defense Agency dropped all other priorities (like, say, for example, testing to see if the system actually works) and put everything into getting missiles in silos.

By September 30, five interceptors were in. But was the system turned on? No. Why not?

Well, someone realized that the military folks who actually operate the system might need to sign off on taking control of it.

That would be, primarily, Strategic Command, which was given overall responsibility for missile defense, and Northern Command, where the system is largely being fielded.

So, the Missile Defense Agency said that the Commands were doing “reviews” and once those reviews were done, the system would be turned on.

What information did the Commands have to go on? Well, the Pentagon’s own Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, David Duma, who in his annual report nicely stated that he had no bloody idea if the thing would work or not:

Numerous ground tests and exercises have demonstrated system interconnectivity and limited interoperability. However, the components of BMDS remain immature. It is not possible to estimate the current mission capability of the BMDS with high confidence.

So, what did the Commands do? They took a pass. They said – not publicly, but privately – no, we don’t want this. We don’t know what it can do.

It’s funny. If you look at the homepage of Strategic Command, it leads with a lovely mission statement that includes missile defense:

Provide the nation with global deterrence capabilities and synchronized DoD effects to combat adversary weapons of mass destruction worldwide. Enable decisive global kinetic and non-kinetic combat effects through the application and advocacy of integrated intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR); space and global strike operations; information operations; integrated missile defense and robust command and control.

But if you look at the issue areas where it is actually doing work – the links in the left hand column – the only missile defense link is for tactical ballistic missile warning.

So, the ballyhooed missile defense program, the driving goal of the Bush administration when it first came to office, sits in limbo. The Missile Defense Agency says, in essence, it could be turned on at any time.

But the Pentagon’s spokesperson, Lawrence Di Rita, made it clear that the system may never declared operational:

I don’t know that such a declaration will ever be made.

I don’t know what else to say.

Lewis adds … For an excellent review of the operational challenges posed by the missile defense system, read:

M. Elaine Bunn, Deploying Missile Defense: Major Operational Challenges, Strategic Forum 209 (August 2004).

Bunn asks a lot of awkward questions like “Who will have weapons release authority?”

Also, I am really more of an Altman man, myself.

Update from Stephen Shocking news – the Director of the Missile Defense agency, Lieutenant General Henry A. Trey Obering III, says that the anti-missile system has a chance in hell of working:

We have a better than zero chance of successfully intercepting, I believe, an inbound warhead.

It is also irrefutably true that, if a warhead is incoming, and I am standing quite near to its impact point, and I threw a golf ball at it, I have a better than zero chance of hitting it and causing it to fail to explode.

But should the President or the military plan anything based on any confidence in my aim?

PS Though, in my own defense, I did once throw a tennis ball through the only open window in a moving school bus as it drove by. (But the bus continued to operate.)


  1. Stephen Moore (History)

    The Bunn article is well worth a read.

    In addition to key questions about weapons release authority, she also forecasts the ‘excruciating’ choices defenders may face re: allocating resources of doubtful reliability in the event of a crisis:

    Another nettlesome question for the defender is this: do you shoot against what has been launched or hold some interceptors in reserve for what may be coming later? The dilemma is that the defender would want neither for the rogue state adversary to have missiles remaining when the United States has used all its interceptors nor to have a nuclear detonation on U.S. soil and still have unused interceptor missiles in the ground. The latter consideration would argue for shooting at what is in the air and allocating sufficient interceptors to have high confidence of destroying them, without holding back interceptors for what may be coming later. Of course, BMD is not the only capability the United States would have in such a messy strategic situation. Attack operations against an adversary that is launching ballistic missiles are another option.

    There may be agonizing trade-offs about what to defend when there are limited defense interceptors.

    Agonizing is right.