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Ballistic Missile Defense: Burning Money

In 1983 President Ronald Reagan delivered a landmark speech on a new Cold War defence strategy.  Dubbed “Star Wars”, his…

By Erin Empey , in Radioactive Blasphemy , on January 16, 2009

In 1983 President Ronald Reagan delivered a landmark speech on a new Cold War defence strategy.  Dubbed “Star Wars”, his new Strategic Defence Initiative proposed to place defensive lasers on the ground and in space which could shoot down incoming Soviet missiles.  Star Wars didn’t make it off the ground; it was scrapped as budgetary and technological limitations coincided with the end of the Cold War.  The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty remained in effect, a relief to those who believed that the stalemate of Mutual Assured Destruction would prevent either superpower from initiating a nuclear war.  The ABM treaty restricted missile defences to a limited ground based system that could protect a single target.

The US sought to abandon the treaty to develop nuclear defences against “rogue” states and terrorists since at least 1999.  On September 11, 2001 it finally found justification and by December President George W. Bush announced a withdrawal from the ABM treaty.  Russia’s initial reaction was measured.  Hostilities had long subsided, bi-lateral agreements on reducing stockpiles and securing nuclear materials were in effect, and Russia had a long list of domestic problems to focus on.

This was before the US made plans to deploy missile defence in Poland and Czechoslovakia, ostensibly as a defence against Iran and North Korea.  Russia is now responding with plans for a massive re-armament program.  Despite conflict over Georgia, it is unlikely either country would engage in nuclear warfare.  The  missile defence system is pitiful in the face of Russia’s arsenal.  The US has a hungry military industrial complex to feed, and Russia is looking for bargaining power in reducing the very arms it is acquiring.  In short, both countries are just burning money.

Investment into American missile defence since its inception is estimated to be around $150 billion.  As Bush leaves office he is asking for $13.2 billion for missile defence programs in 2009 and $62.5 billion over the coming five years.

A global recession is the wrong time to be investing in a system that has an underwhelming success rate in the threats it was designed for.  Missile defence is useless against the threats that are most likely to face the United States.  Former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton claims that

“the emerging threats from rogue states possessing a few nuclear-capable ballistic missiles required that we develop adequate defences –especially because many emerging nuclear-weapons states do not accept the same calculus of deterrence that maintained the Cold War’s uneasy nuclear standoff.”

Really?  North Korea or Iran could be so hell-bent on testing their toys that they would risk the wrath of a country with a 2000+ stockpile of warheads? There is no rogue state that America could not wipe out of existence within minutes.

Presumably the real threat is the martyrs, the terrorists who are willing to sacrifice their own lives to further an ideological agenda.  Osama bin Laden has reportedly attempted to acquire nuclear weapons.  But terrorists are not rogue states.  They are non-state actors, who do not possess the technological know-how or the financing to successfully launch an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile at the United States.  A nuclear attack on the US is far more likely to occur in the form of a “dirty bomb,” nuclear material smuggled into the states and packed into conventional explosives.  Any group resourceful enough to bring a country to its knees with box-cutters could surely figure out how to spread nuclear terror at a discount.  Missile defence is useless against this type of threat as well as biological weapons.  Not to mention natural disasters, obesity, poverty, gun violence and other mundane domestic issues that seem to claim a lot more American lives than terrorism.

Barack Obama has been reported as saying that he would support missile defence if it could be proven to work.  If he is anywhere near as reasonable as his reputation suggests, then that statement makes it evident where he will stand on the issue.  Diplomacy is cheap, and development is effective.  The significance of development was mentioned in a new report released by the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism titled World at Risk.  Rather than endorsing missile defence, it proposed increasing development funding for impoverished regions of Pakistan, the “crossroads of terrorism”.  It also called for strengthening international treaties and securing loose nuclear materials.

Sixty-two and a half billion dollars over the next five years can buy a lot of school books and dig a lot of wells, which would have a much more profound and lasting counter-effect on radicalism.  Arms races have no finish line.


  • The fear is that countries like Iran are not rational actors and that they would be willing to risk being annihilated to bring about some sort of religious inspired endgame. Traditional deterrence mechanisms would not work in this situation.

    Having said that, I agree that it is hard to justify pissing off the Russians for the sake of a system that doesn’t seem to work all that well.

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