Why all these costly US missile defenses don't work

The U.S. public learned on Jan. 31 that the U.S. Navy tried and failed for the second time in a year to intercept a missile with an SM-III missile from the defense contractor Raytheon.

On the same day, the Pentagon announced it would spend another $6.5 billion on 20 more missile interceptors for the ground-based, mid-course defense system (GMD), which is meant to protect the U.S. homeland from missile attacks from North Korea or Russia.

But the GMD has a bad track record. It recently had a successful test that may have calmed the fears of some in the U.S. amid nuclear tensions with North Korea, but a recent paper on the test shows it was unrealistically generous.

gmd ft greely

A ground-based missile interceptor is lowered into its missile silo during a recent emplacement at the Missile Defense Complex at Fort Greely, Alaska. (Army photo by Sgt. Jack W. Carlson III)

Laura Grego and David Wright, leading experts in the field of ballistic missiles, writing for the Union of Concerned Scientists, found that the so-called intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) the GMD knocked down was flown on a favorable trajectory, slower than the real thing, and without any of the tricks or savvy North Korea might use in an actual attack. The paper concludes the U.S. has no reliable ballistic missile defense capability for the homeland.

That capability, or lack thereof, comes after the U.S. has spent more than $40 billion over the last decade and a half on ballistic missile defense.

During that time, Boeing, Raytehon, and Lockheed Martin, key players in the BMD scene, have all posted record profits — and they continue to get contracts with the Pentagon.

Also Read: The Pentagon is pumping millions more into missile defense

To be clear, the U.S. can defend against some, shorter-range missiles. Aegis-equipped ballistic missile destroyers at sea have a good track record of defending themselves, but they’re not meant to go after ICBMs. Patriot missiles have saved some lives from short-range missile attacks on the battlefield, though that has been historically over-hyped or just lied about.

BMD kind of works on a theoretical level, but is that worth $40B?

Missile defense plays into the complicated and highly theoretical world of nuclear deterrence. For an adversary like North Korea, maybe even the single-digit percent chance a missile would be intercepted by the U.S. would dissuade them from attacking.

But much more likely, North Korea wouldn’t attack the U.S. because of the U.S.’s ability to return the favor tenfold.

It’s entirely unclear, and no expert can demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that BMD has ever deterred anyone, or done anything beside line pockets of defense contractors.

For the U.S. taxpayer, who has contributed billions to the cause of missile defenses while enriching the world’s biggest defense contractors, a fair question might be: Where is the capability? Why don’t these systems work?