Why isn't America protected from missile attacks like the Israelis?
Remarkable is the extent to which ruling class consensus can blot out common sense.
The headlines tell us that more and better US missile defense devices are being tested and deployed to keep pace with Iran’s and North Korea’s increasing capacity to deliver nuclear-armed ballistic missiles on ourselves and our allies. Secretary of Defense Hagel said that these improvements “make clear to the world that the United States stands firm against aggression.” The underlying reality however is that these devices, intentionally designed to be marginally adequate, are inadequate for their minimal purpose. Much less can they safeguard our lives and interests against serious threats from serious quarters: Russia, China, and whatever hostile forces might come into possession of Pakistan’s arsenal.
The reason for that inadequacy is our bipartisan ruling class’ half century old commitment to leaving our country vulnerable to Russian and Chinese missiles, supposing that doing so makes for peace while defending ourselves provokes war. Codified in the US-Soviet ABM Treaty of 1972, this 1960s madness yet rules our ruling class’ minds despite the Soviet Union’s 1991 demise and the Treaty’s 2002 abrogation. Accordingly, Republican and Democratic administrations have imposed on US antimissile programs the priority of ensuring that nothing be done that would hinder Russian or Chinese missiles from reaching America. Thus US programs, denatured by a self contradictory standard, channel twenty first century technology into 1950s approaches. This has meant doing the job the hard way, with crippling restrictions to boot.
This essay can only give one example, and suggest the mismatch between US programs and what technology can do to address our needs. Subsequent essays will delve into specifics.
In June, a huge oil-rig floating platform intended for deployment off North Korea was towed out of Pearl Harbor for testing, bearing the latest in X-band radar technology and the massive generators needed to power it. Once in operation, the radar will sight missiles coming from that country and convey enough information on their warheads’ trajectories to interceptor rockets based in California or Alaska to enable them to destroy them. This is progress, albeit small and disproportionately expensive.
The fundamental fact of ground-based missile defense is that the effectiveness of interceptor missiles depends on their being launched on the basis of accurate information about the trajectory of incoming warheads, as early as possible after they are launched. Given sufficient information, time, and location close to the places to be defended, interceptor missiles don’t have to be especially sophisticated. Thus America’s original (1959s-1960s) design for missile defense involved a network of powerful radars coupled with interceptor bases scattered throughout the country.
But since surface-based radars cannot see over the horizon, the interceptors to which they gave guidance information worked under extreme time-pressure. Our early warning radars in Alaska, Greenland, and the Orkney islands, able to see Soviet missiles in good time, were never given the capacity to give guidance information. By contrast, every radar in Russia’s vast periphery did that and does that. But the US observed the ABM Treaty, which restricted missile guidance to one site. The US limited its national missile defense to Alaska.
We now have 30 interceptor missiles in Alaska and 3 in California. Covering all of America from these locations, even with interceptors of prodigious speed and range, is very highly problematic to say the least, especially given the gratuitous requirement that they hit their targets directly rather than destroy them by explosions. The location of our state of the art radar in Alaska does not guarantee timely launch guidance information about all missiles even from North Korea, never mind from Iran.
That is why the oil-rig-platform-based radar will be stationed off North Korea. Of course, it is impossible to put such a thing on the likely pathway of Iranian missiles. Our ruling class almost convinced itself to place a much less capable radar of that kind in the Czech Republic, but then recoiled at the fact that this would give too much information, too early about missiles launched from Russia!
The point of all this is twofold. First, even the very best radars are sub-optimal means of informing missile interceptors because they are limited by the Earth’s curvature, because many are needed, because they are extraordinarily expensive, and because they are inherently vulnerable. Optical systems based in earth orbit can see-track missiles and warheads from the moment of launch and inform interceptors forthwith. Because this has always been clear, the 1972 ABM treaty prohibited using them to substitute for radars. The Treaty’s abrogation notwithstanding, the US still relies on radars. This is worse than stupid.
Consider: in 2013 Russia sent the first of its Yuriy Dolgorukiy Borel Class submarines on patrol in the South Atlantic. It carries 16 Bulava missiles, each with ten nuclear warheads of 100-150 kilotons, maneuverable, and launched on low trajectories. These weapons have what it takes to disarm America. Our best radars in the Pacific would never see them, and the ones on the East Coast would see them without the capacity to do anything about them.
Nor is Russia the only party that can launch ballistic missiles from the sea on low trajectories under our radars. Iran has practiced it. Everyone can. US interceptors based on land or sea can deal with such realities only if they are informed by systems based in space.
Second: It has always been clear that the most efficient way to defend against ballistic missiles is not to try hitting their warheads in flight but to destroy the missiles themselves shortly after launch, and that in nearly all cases this must be done from space. Once again, our ruling class has ruled out trying to do this because it would work too well, allowing us to defend ourselves against Russia and China as well as against “rogues.”
Americans have never shared the sophisticates’ consensus in favor of safety against the weak and vulnerability against the strong. Polls continue to show that, in our simplicity, Americans want to take missile defense seriously.