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Philip Taylor and Laura Grego: Missile defense in Ravenna? Not if the system fails to work

By Philip Taylor and Laura Grego

The Pentagon recently announced that Camp Ravenna near Akron is one of five sites being considered for a potential future deployment of additional strategic missile defense interceptors.

The idea may sound appealing at first blush. The strategic missile defense system is supposed to protect the United States against incoming long-range ballistic missiles by launching interceptors to knock them down. And the site’s 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 (GMD) 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, for example, by negotiating further substantial reductions in the still massive U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.

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 a new missile defense site our wisest investment?

According to the Congressional Budget Office, building and operating the new site would cost $3.6 billion in its first five years alone. The Pentagon, struggling to improve the existing GMD system, has not requested any money for a new 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 consider spending so much unrequested money in a time of fiscal crisis? The origin is last year, when Congress demanded the Pentagon study options for an additional interceptor site for the GMD system. That study is still in the works, and will take about two years to complete. Regardless, a small group of 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 the project started.

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

To build a new site sometime in the next few years, the Pentagon would need to use the existing technology that is currently fielded 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 GMD 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” ahead of time. And the system’s performance has not been improving over time; its last successful intercept was five years ago. The most recent attempt, a $214-million intercept test in July, was the third such failure in a row.

Perhaps most important for its long-term prospects, the GMD system has never been tested in anything resembling real-world conditions, where a missile attack would include decoys and other countermeasures that can fool or 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 the difficult countermeasures problem, 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, costly new site with old, ineffective technology is the wrong way to reduce the nuclear threat, or to create jobs, for that matter. Ohio 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.

Taylor is a distinguished university professor and Perkins professor of physics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Grego is a senior scientist in the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Mass.


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