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April 7, 2008

Is Missile Defense Worth the Cost?


The year is 2020. The world, strained by a growing population and shrinking access to both oil and clean water, is a volatile place. Iran, having made hay out of tangled American policy in the neighboring country of Iraq and in control of most of the world’s remaining oil, finds itself faced by an increasingly hostile NATO alliance.


Sensing that war with the West is coming, a war it is technologically incapable of waging, Iran hatches a late night deal with ally North Korea to strike key communication centers in the United States and Europe with nuclear-tipped missiles. In the chaos that follows, Iran prepares to stand athwart the world, a new superpower flush with the oil necessary to fuel the roaring economies of China and India.


But there is one slight hitch. The United States has deployed a missile defense shield, with interceptor components in both Japan and Poland. The problem has Iran’s military planning staff scratching their heads – how to defeat America’s 10 interceptor missiles in Poland?


One of the generals smiles and says, “The answer is simple . . . we build 11 missiles.”


The history of weapons development has been a competition between offense and defense, and it’s always been the offense that has had the advantage. Much of that rests on the principle of simplicity – it is simply easier to attack something than it is to defend it.


This last week saw two developments on missile defense – that the Bush Administration claimed a big victory in securing NATO approval for missile defense, and that the question will be left to the next president. That puts off the question of whether the thing is worth the investment in American national security resources, or whether it’s just a national security earmark of epic proportions. (For the record, John McCain is in favor of missile defense, while the two Democrats have questioned its need).


Missile defense is itself predicated on the fact that future rival nations to the United States will want to threaten us with Cold War-era intercontinental ballistic missiles. A nuclear rival could seek out alternatives to ICBMs through air or sub-launched cruise missiles, or simply crating up a bomb and sailing it into a harbor.


These simple, readily available alternatives are on top of the oldest military trick in the book – swarming a defense. Once you’ve cracked the secrets of long-range missile technology, it’s not a very expensive proposition to simply keep building missiles, and certainly a lot simpler and cheaper than developing new and complex defense networks to bring them down.


Ultimately, the question isn’t whether we should protect ourselves from ICBMs, but whether the protection is worth the price. The current network is a scaled-down version of the old Star Wars system, and is essentially meant to defend against an attack launched by North Korea. The price of that protection, after decades of research, is more than $100 billion. And although it is still considered unproven, its rate of failure has been tremendous.


The problem is that the end of the Cold War made Soviet military technology and systems available on the open market. Sub-launched missile technology is no longer cutting edge. The Chinese have had it for at least two decades and the Indians are said to be close to deploying it. And we can presume powers that both hate us and have nuclear ambitions – North Korea and Iran – are building nuclear programs around an eventual deployment in subs.


That means we could spend more than $100 billion on a missile defense shield that is obsolete before it goes fully operational, and Europe could again sit under an umbrella of imperfect protection paid for chiefly by American taxpayers.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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