October 14, 2013

Maine Voices: Extra missile defense site – in Maine or elsewhere – would be a waste

The system, which would rely on current technology, has little prospect of ever performing as advertised.

Earlier this year, Sen. Susan Collins came out in favor of locating a new missile defense site in Maine, and the Pentagon recently announced that a Navy field training site near Rangeley in the western part of the state is one of five sites being considered.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Dr. Laura Grego is a senior scientist in the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Mass. Professor Paul Josephson teaches history at Colby College in Waterville.

Sen. Collins says her constituents are enthusiastic about hosting a site, but not all are.

The idea may sound appealing at first blush. The strategic missile defense system is supposed to protect us against incoming long-range ballistic missiles by launching interceptors to knock them down. And construction could provide jobs and revenue to the state.

But the reality is that after decades of research and tens of billions of taxpayer dollars, the Ground-Based Midcourse missile defense system continues to fail key tests and has little prospect of ever performing as advertised. And there are better ways to reduce the threat posed by nuclear weapons – negotiating further nuclear stockpile reductions with the Russians, for example.

Furthermore, such missile defense systems can do nothing to stop other types of nuclear attack that may be more likely than a long-range missile strike (for example, a bomb on a boat in a U.S. harbor or a short-range missile fired from a boat off the U.S. coast). Is this a smart investment?

According to the Congressional Budget Office, building and operating a new missile defense site would cost $3.6 billion in the first five years alone. The Pentagon is struggling to improve the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system, and has not requested money for a site, nor has a decision been made to build one.

In testimony this summer, the director of the Missile Defense Agency stated there are more cost-effective alternatives to strengthen the U.S. missile defense system, including improving the system’s radars, which could be deployed much more quickly than building a new site.

Why would elected officials in Congress insist on spending so much unrequested money in a time of fiscal crisis? Last year, Congress demanded that the Pentagon study options for an additional interceptor site for the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system. That study is still in the works and will take about two years to complete.

Regardless, some impatient members of Congress want to get out ahead of the Pentagon and have asked for hundreds of millions of dollars in this year’s budget to get started.

Given all the uncertainty around the federal budget, it is unclear what will happen on that front. But the desire to fund it exists and appears to be growing, despite the many problems with the Midcourse Defense system.

To build a new site sometime in the next few years, the Pentagon would need to use existing technology that is currently used in Alaska and California. This is a recipe for continued expensive failure.

A 2012 study by the National Academy of Sciences noted the system’s current abysmal state and recommended an entirely new system be devised. Philip Coyle, a former assistant secretary of defense, says the technical core of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense program is “in tatters.”

The system’s dreadful track record tells the story. It has failed to shoot down test missiles in eight of 16 attempts since 1999, even though operators knew the time and place of the incoming “attack” missile ahead of time. And its performance has not improved. The system hasn’t had a successful test since 2008. Its most recent attempt, a $214 million test in July, was its third failure in a row.

Perhaps most important, the system has never been tested in anything resembling real-world conditions, where a missile attack would include decoys and other countermeasures that can overwhelm it.

Any country capable of launching a long-range missile, according to the U.S. intelligence community, would be capable of including such countermeasures. The Pentagon has no working strategy to deal with countermeasures, and so a new site provides no real security and wastes billions of dollars. It would be an expensive scarecrow indeed.

Rushing ahead to build an unnecessary, expensive new site with old, ineffective technology is the wrong way to reduce the nuclear threat, or create jobs, for that matter. Maine certainly could use more investment – both public and private – but this technologically challenged program is definitely not the way to get it. And it would not make us or anybody else in the United States safer or more secure.

— Special to the Press Herald

 

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