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May 02, 2006

Things That Don’t Work

By Neil the Ethical Werewolf

It’s easy to understand why people support the Star Wars anti-missile program. It promises to save us from deadly missiles by using exciting technology to shoot them down in midair. This sounds really awesome, and would be a significant reason for trying to set it up, if it worked. The trouble is that it doesn’t work, and there’s no sign that it’ll ever be close to working.

Fred Kaplan summarized the state of anti-missile technology in a 2004 article:

In the past six years of flight tests, here is what the Pentagon's missile-defense agency has demonstrated: A missile can hit another missile in mid-air as long as a) the operators know exactly where the target missile has come from and where it's going; b) the target missile is flying at a slower-than-normal speed; c) it's transmitting a special beam that exaggerates its radar signature, thus making it easier to track; d) only one target missile has been launched; and e) the "attack" happens in daylight.

Beyond that, the program's managers know nothing—in part because they have never run a test that goes beyond this heavily scripted (it would not be too strong to call it "rigged") scenario.

Kaplan italicizes “can” because even under these favorable conditions, anti-missile systems still don’t always work. Several months after Kaplan’s article, the Missile Defense Agency attempted a test that had been postponed several times because of equipment problems and bad weather. (And yes, it is kind of worrisome that the system is so finicky that it can’t be tested in bad weather.) The test failed, with the interceptor failing to even get off the launch pad. In a retest three months later, the intereceptor failed to launch again.

And then there’s the problem of decoys. As Josh Freiss describes, it’s cheap and simple to confuse missile defense systems by shooting off several mylar balloons as well as a warhead. If the warhead itself is placed inside another balloon, there will be no way for the missile defense system to tell the difference between the real warhead and the decoys. (Since the warhead and the decoys spend a lot of time flying above the atmosphere, where there’s no air resistance, the different weight won’t cause them to fly differently.) In the words of Nobel Prize winning physicist Stephen Weinberg, “We may know the nature of the nuclear warhead. But we will not know what other things are sent along with the warhead in the form of decoys that will exhaust our defenses. I don't see how that problem can ever be solved.”

Rather than letting defense contractors swindle us into spending billions of dollars (currently around $10 billion a year) on a system that doesn’t work and won’t meet the real challenges it faces, there’s plenty of good things we could do to make ourselves safer from missile attack. For example, we could buy up loose nuclear material from poorly guarded facilities in the former USSR. We could provide jobs in America for unemployed Soviet nuclear scientists, so that poverty doesn’t force them to sell their talents to our enemies. There’s also the possibility of using foreign aid to encourage other countries to do what’s right on nuclear proliferation issues. But buying things that don’t work is no solution to our problems.

May 2, 2006 in Foreign Policy | Permalink


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You will have to pry the idiocy of missile defense from the cold, dead fingers of the right.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | May 2, 2006 4:25:33 PM

A fine example of faith-based national security!

Posted by: CParis | May 2, 2006 4:28:46 PM

How about an international treaty, enforced by the UN Security Council's threat of sanctions, that missile attacks can only be lauched in good weather at both the sending and receiving end of their missile track?


Posted by: JimPortlandOR | May 2, 2006 4:31:40 PM

"In the contest between bullet and armor, bullet always wins."

The only thing Tom Clancy ever wrote worth remembering.

Posted by: Stephen | May 2, 2006 4:45:46 PM

Despite the fact that "Star Wars" still doesn't work today, in 2006, my daughter recently "learned" in her high school history class that this program contributed to the downfall of the Soviet Union. See what you get with liberal academia?

Posted by: mrgumby2u | May 2, 2006 5:22:46 PM

Despite the fact that "Star Wars" still doesn't work today, in 2006, my daughter recently "learned" in her high school history class that this program contributed to the downfall of the Soviet Union.

It probably did contribute, though it's hard to estimate to exactly what degree. The fUSSR spent a lot of money on half-baked strategies to counter SDI, which didn't do any favors to their strained economy.

Posted by: Hamilton Lovecraft | May 2, 2006 5:53:07 PM

A group of us engineers were once sitting around at a social gathering and agreed that we should apply for jobs working on the Star Wars program. Why? First, Congress is pouring lots of money into it, creating many available job opportunities. Next, we avoid any guilt about working on weapons systems and being responsible for killing people because the program will never work. Finally, politicians will never cancel the program because it would make them look "weak on national defense," so job security is guaranteed. So say what you want about missile defense funding, lots of engineers need to buy houses and raise families, so we're all for it!

Posted by: Constantine | May 2, 2006 5:58:30 PM

I'm getting pretty sick of the whole "Soviet Union collapses because of Reagan's massive defense spending." Like we're really supposed to believe that the absurd boondoggle that is SDI was a major player in the downfall of the Soviet Union.

Sure, anything that caused them to spend more money than they had contributed. However, we shouldn't point out specific dumb programs as being factors, rather that the whole arms race itself helped to create instability.

We need to remember that they couldn't even feed themselves. We sent the USSR wheat for crying out loud! Much more important than our giveaways to the military-industrial complex was the increasing access to information not controlled by the Soviet government, the growing obstinance of satellite nations, and gestures of goodwill such as the USA selling (and sometimes giving, IIRC) them needed foodstuffs.

I can't believe kids are learning such tripe in schools today. Tempts me to homeschool.

Posted by: Stephen | May 2, 2006 6:46:25 PM

The only way that we will ever get anywhere is to work at it. If we had the sort of budget we needed to actually get a well-oiled Star Wars program in operation, it would be fully operational right now with I would estimate about 85-90% accuracy. However naysayers like yourselves who have nothing to add to anything but wish only to complain keep holding the program back.

You are fulfilling your own prophecies.

Posted by: shoelimpy™ | May 2, 2006 6:46:32 PM

Wow...I had completely forgotten about this program (although now that you bring it up, I do remember reading that devastating Kaplan piece at the time). Which I guess is testimony to the sheer overwhelming number of astonishingly stupid initiatives that have come out of this administration.

Posted by: Tom Hilton | May 2, 2006 6:46:52 PM

Stem cells dont "work" yet either.... should we just give up on it?

Look I agree that Bush is probably pushing Star Wars too hard right now, but we should still attach some kind of baseline funding to it.

Posted by: joe blow | May 2, 2006 9:25:10 PM

Well, among the naysayers are my father who actually has engineered on various testing parts of the project for ~30 years. Basically, with a whole bunch of engineering, interception will work, but then as soon as your enemies put a little effort into countering your counters, you're back where you started.

Posted by: pantomimeHorse | May 3, 2006 12:32:56 AM

This is really old news.
The U.S. sent the "Bomarc" missile system to be deployed in Canadian forward staging areas back around 1960. Contrary to the Canadian PM's assurances to the public that nuclear warheads were not being allowed on Canadian soil ( an essential part of the tactical strategy to make up difficulties by increasing "kill radius" ), American servicemenn confirmed that they were indeed deployed outside Goose Bay, Labrador.
That they were deployed at all came as a result of U.S.A.F. alarm at the new Canadian tactical interceptor (Avro Arrow) being developed and U.S. arms manufacturers' push to keep it from production. This was at the time when Canada had the largest air force in the free world and heritage arrangements with British designers.
To make it short, they never worked ( but were sent to establish American air superiority ) and were removed after an abortive two year installation.
It was thought to be physically impossible to shoot down multiple missiles when the numbers became high enough : too many defenders were needed to neutralize each possible assault.
I don't believe this has changed.

Posted by: opit | May 3, 2006 1:30:16 AM

Maybe if we work hard enough at it, perpetual motions machines will work too. The NSF should attach a baseline funding to it. It'll never work if we don't try, which is just what the naysayers propose.

Posted by: Julian Elson | May 3, 2006 2:50:18 AM

The whole missile defence boondoggle amazes me. Everyone seriously involved in it (research, manufacture, management, funding, promotion etc) must know that it doesn't work and isn't likely to work for the foreseeable future. Even setting aside the various political/strategic arguments against SDI, which for me are overwhelming in themselves, the practical problems make it a non-starter. Yet for decades we continue to pour money into it like it's going to be a panacea. You couldn't ask for a stronger confirmation of the military-industrial complex view of politics.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | May 3, 2006 7:47:25 AM

The problem with Neil's post is typical of the liberals approach to defense and why few trust them with national security.
Neil suggest trashing this program which has a defined benefit....protect us from missiles, but has no real alternative to offer. Same for many of the liberals' rants. "We don't like the way Bush is running the Iraq war" is the standard cry, but when asked for what they would do differently at this point in time they have ths exact same plan as Bush!

Posted by: Fred Jones | May 3, 2006 8:02:13 AM

"Neil suggest trashing this program which has a defined benefit....protect us from missiles, but has no real alternative to offer"

This is so stupid, I think my head is going to explode! While we dedicate billions to programs that have no hope of success, we are spending ourselves into deficit hell. Are we going to end up like the Soviet Union, bankrupting our country by transferring the US Treasury to repub cronies and war profiteers?

Posted by: CParis | May 3, 2006 10:15:56 AM

"Neil suggest trashing this program which has a defined benefit....protect us from missiles, but has no real alternative to offer."

Okay, here is how this works Fred.

Politician A proposes that we Fund the Fairies Defense program -- a program that will capture, breed, and train fairies to fight terrorists. This is, obviously, a plan based on wishful thinking, influenced by the deep pockets of the Fairy Capture Lobby, has zero chance of being effective, and is projected to cost billions and billions of dollars. In technical terms, such ideas are generally referred to by the term Fucking Stupid Idea.

Now, a Fucking Stupid Idea is, by definition, an idea that makes the existing situation worse. In this case, the billions and billions of dollars that could go to other, non Fucking Stupid Ideas to deal with terrorism are instead going to be wasted on aid stupid Fucking Idea. Stopping the implementation of a Fucking Stupid Idea is a good thing, since, as already mentioned, the Fucking Stupid Idea will make the situation worse. Therefore, opposition to the Fucking Stupid Idea is in and of itself a plan of action, because stopping things from getting worse is always a valuable policy goal.

Politician B, by opposing the Fucking Stupid Idea, has by default the alternative position of Not Screwing Things Up Waorse Than They Already Are. He needs to articulate no further alternative position, as his default position is sufficiently beneficial to justify his opposition.

Is it clear now why Neil is under no obligation to present any other alternative to Star Wars and why your post sounds like whining designed to conceal the fact that there is no reason beyond pork for GOP constiuencies to continue with the Fucking Stupid Idea of Star Wars?

Posted by: kevin | May 3, 2006 10:43:29 AM

I'm a physicist. I like Kevin's tooth fairy argument. The tooth fairy seems to be very popular these days. Where are the politicians with the balls to question the patriotism of our war-profiteer weaponeers? Where are the true patriots?

Look, there's a simple way to test whether the believers are true. Assemble a crowd of SDI supporters for the test (politicians who vote for it, defense contractors, generals, &c), comfortable seated on some south sea isle near the interceptor launchpad (with drinks served, of course). After the target is launched, announce that it has a live (conventional) warhead, and it's aimed at the crowd of supporters. Observe their reaction. Wouldn't that be fun! This can be extended to the V22 osprey program. Require the most ardent supporters to fly along on the test flights.

BTW, SDI has several tens of millions of lines of code in the software that ties the system together. In other words, it's on the order of complexity of the windows operating system. It needs to work flawlessly the first time it is used, and it cannot be tested before being deployed. I guess the tooth fairy is writing code here, too!

Posted by: John P | May 3, 2006 11:29:09 AM

Isn't there something luddite-ish about the enthusiasm for saying it can't be done?

How about just saying that in a world of limited resources, how much, if any, should we devote to this kind of project?

Posted by: slickdpdx | May 3, 2006 11:38:21 AM

Kevin & John P - obviously you are not good patriots. You are using logic! Why do you hate America?

Posted by: CParis | May 3, 2006 11:39:18 AM

Thanks, kevin. But I do want to point out that in the last paragraph of my post, I do actually offer a set of alternative ways to protect us from missiles -- namely, taking loose nuclear material and unemployed nuclear scientists off the market, and using foreign aid to support nonproliferation. I'll leave the speculations on how Fred could've missed this to other people.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | May 3, 2006 11:55:51 AM

A good post kevin. However, not everyone is on board with your "it can't be done" premise. Contrary to this thread, it was not just missiles trying to hit missiles, but a variety of weapons including space-based X-ray lasers powered by nukes. It is still a controversial concept.

Posted by: Fred Jones | May 3, 2006 11:59:58 AM

...taking loose nuclear material and unemployed nuclear scientists off the market, and using foreign aid to support nonproliferation. I'll leave the speculations on how Fred could've missed this to other people.

Fred didn't miss anything. If you had taken the time to actually read my post I said you offered "no real alternatives"...and you didn't. What you substituted for a concerted defense effort was some vague suggestions about giving the Russian scienttists jobs and buying up materials. What if they don't want to work for us or sell us the materials? What about all of the materials out there that is not accounted for? These lame suggestions of Neil's are just that.....lame and, indeed, they are not "real alternatives".

Posted by: Fred Jones | May 3, 2006 12:10:39 PM

with I would estimate about 85-90% accuracy.

Is it fun to just come up with numbers based on absolutely nothing? If so, I should try that some time!

In my mind the worse part about this whole thing is Neil's own comment:

It promises to save us from deadly missiles by using exciting technology to shoot them down in midair. This sounds really awesome, and would be a significant reason for trying to set it up, if it worked.

I suppose it would sound awesome if you believed that the U.S. homeland was really threaten by such things, but I don't see that it is. There is currently 1 nation that is probably a threat to us in that manner and its N. Korea. How about instead of coming up with ways of protecting against attacks (so that we can do whateverthefuck we want with our foreign policy like unprovoked attacks? what?), structure foreign policy around diplomacy, not allowing potentionally threatening nations to have that capability in the first place. It would be alot cheaper.

Posted by: Adrock | May 3, 2006 12:17:47 PM

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