What Missile Defense Is Supposed To Do

It’s possible to envision the world — either the physical world or the social and political world — as being like either “a clock or a cloud”:http://www.jstor.org/pss/2010037. Either it’s deterministic and ultimately knowable — you know, like clockwork — or it’s chaotic, irreducibly complex, and elusive. Like a cloud.

Me, I don’t subscribe to either a “clock theory” of politics or a “cloud theory.” I subscribe to a “stopped clock” theory. But that’s only because I’ve been following missile defense issues for so very long. Few people who have an opinion in the first place ever really change their mind about missile defenses. For altogether too many devotees of the subject, the hands of their mental clocks are always pointing in a “fixed direction”:http://www.totalwonkerr.net/1950/deep-missile-defense-thought.

To be clear, it’s possible to have reasoned discussions about this subject, even across the divide of instinctively held viewpoints. But not with anyone and everyone.

All of this is by way of justifying a narrow focus on one little snippet of “Charles Krauthammer’s extensively flawed column”:http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/09/AR2009070902363.html of late last week:

bq. [An offense-defense linkage] is important for Russia because of the huge American technological advantage in defensive weaponry. We can reliably shoot down an intercontinental ballistic missile. They cannot.

Just two points.

First, GMD — America’s existing strategic BMD system — has no known or anticipated capability against Russian missiles. According to MDA, current and planned capabilities are oriented to North Korea and Iran. According to this “fact sheet”:http://www.mda.mil/mdaLink/pdf/bmds.pdf, for example,

bq. The Ground-based Midcourse Defense element is now deployed in Alaska and California to defend the U.S. homeland against a limited attack from countries like North Korea and Iran and is also being developed for deployment in Europe to defend against an attack from Iran.

(There are even more explicit statements to this effect in older MDA budget documents, but they don’t seem to be online anymore. I’ll see if I can’t dig one up. *Update:* “Found it”:http://www.totalwonkerr.net/2069/can-gmd-stop-russian-missiles!)

There is a longstanding dispute in expert circles — one of those disputes that never gets resolved — about whether GMD is actually capable of coping with North Korean or Iranian “countermeasures”:http://www.ucsusa.org/nuclear_weapons_and_global_security/missile_defense/technical_issues/countermeasures-a-technical.html. So far as I’m aware, there is no dispute in the United States — none — about the system’s ability to cope with Russian countermeasures. It hasn’t any.

Second, against a North Korea-type threat, Russian missile defense may be ahead of U.S. missile defense. The “A-135 defensive system around Moscow”:http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/world/russia/abm3.htm, so far as I know, is still nuclear-armed, which should provide it with certain advantages over the hit-to-kill systems now favored by the United States. “Richard Garwin’s presentation”:http://fas.org/rlg/Garwin,%206-03-2009,%200715-SHARE%20YES.pdf for a missile defense conference last month happened to address this point:

bq.. [Since the 1950s,] Our Strategic Military Panel tried its hardest to help make U.S. ICBMs and SLBMs effective and to give them the ability to penetrate potential Soviet missile defenses, whether armed with nuclear warheads or conventional. On the other hand, we tried our best to devise and to evaluate systems for defending the United States against nuclear-armed Soviet missiles. So we early-on analyzed such techniques and technologies as multiple independently-targeted reentry vehicles (MIRVs), various other countermeasures and tactics, such as attacking and blinding the defense, and antisimulation.

In the 1960s, the technology was not available to have homing intercept against warheads in space, so that the only feasible BMD systems used nuclear-armed interceptors. Even for the nuclear BMD, mid-course intercept is problematical because of the availability of countermeasures, together with the ability of the offense readily to stretch out the string of warheads and decoys for many hundreds of km along the trajectory even to a specific point target. …

Countermeasures become a lot simpler against the small kinetic-energy intercept (KEI) kill vehicles that form the core of current U.S. BMD efforts. The homing kill vehicle (HKV) either collides with the warhead or it doesn’t.

p. Bottom line: Don’t go looking for deep insights into strategic systems on the op-ed page of the _Post_.

2 thoughts on “What Missile Defense Is Supposed To Do

  1. CorentinB

    Yes, having nuclear-armed interceptors would help in some way, since you wouldn’t have to discriminate the target RV from the clouds of debris and countermeasures accompanying it. However, it is my understanding that detonating a nuclear weapon at these altitudes would generate a huge EMP effect, which would probably have major consequences for the defender’s economy and society, and would blind the his radars – leaving it vulnerable to a follow-on attack.

    Not to mention the fact that the A-135 system is only intended for the defense of Moscow, and doesn’t seem to have a much larger coverage (and is definitely not-mobile, mor movable).

    I’m no physicist nor engineer, though…

  2. Josh


    The details are beyond my expertise, but the EMP, IR redout, and radar blackout effects would depend on the characteristics of the nuclear warhead, as well as the position of the detonation. (EMP effects only take place at certain altitudes.)

    There is also the matter of where the detonation would take place. With a GMD-type system vs. a North Korean RV headed for North America, it would take place over Russia or the Russian Arctic. As you note, the A-135 isn’t quite so leggy.

    Having said that, it is important to note that GMD has always been a hit-to-kill system. I don’t believe that nuclear interceptors have been entertained seriously in the U.S. for decades — probably not since the shutdown of the Safeguard system in the 1970s. Wait — I’m forgetting about the LoADS idea of the early 1980s. This would have been a nuclear-tipped system that would defend MX missile fields. It was never built. After that, the idea went out of fashion in the U.S.


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