For decades, America’s defense against nuclear attack has rested on twin pillars: The nation’s homeland missile defense system is designed to thwart a small-scale, or “limited,” attack by the likes of North Korea or Iran. As for the threat of a large-scale strike by China or Russia, the prospect of massive U.S. retaliation is supposed to deter both from ever launching missiles..........................
Central to this strategy was a one-word qualifier – “limited” -- used to define the mission of the homeland defense system. The language was carefully crafted to avoid reigniting an arms race among the superpowers.
Now, with virtually no public debate, bipartisan majorities in Congress have removed the word “limited” from the nation’s missile defense policy. They did so in giving final approval over the last month to the year-end defense bill, the National Defense Authorization Act.
“These amendments were historic in nature — given the paradigm shift forward that they represent,” said Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), who introduced and shepherded the amendments in the House.
Leading defense scientists said the idea that a space-based system could provide security against nuclear attack is a fantasy.
“It defies the laws of physics and is not based on science of any kind,” said L. David Montague, a retired president of missile systems for Lockheed Corp. and co-chair of a National Academy of Sciences panel that studied missile defense technologies at the request of Congress.
“Even if we darken the sky with hundreds or thousands of satellites and interceptors, there’s no way to ensure against a dedicated attack,” Montague said in an interview. “So it’s an opportunity to waste a prodigious amount of money.”
He called the provisions passed by Congress “insanity, pure and simple.”
The National Academy study, released in 2012, concluded that even a bare-bones space-based missile defense system would cost about $200 billion to put in place, and hundreds of billions to operate in subsequent years.
The current homeland anti-missile system — the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, or GMD — relies on interceptors at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and Ft. Greely, Alaska. In flight tests, the system, which has cost taxpayers more than $40 billion, has managed to destroy mock enemy warheads only about half the time.
Military officials estimate that, in the event of an attack, the U.S. would have to fire four or five interceptors for every incoming warhead. As a result, the system’s arsenal of 34 operational interceptors could be rapidly depleted.
..............................The policy changes were greeted with opposition from another quarter as well. At a congressional hearing in April, Franks pressed Vice Adm. James D. Syring, director of the Missile Defense Agency, for his stance on expanding U.S. capability into space.
Syring pushed back.
“I have serious concerns about the technical feasibility of the interceptors in space and I have serious concerns about the long-term affordability of a program like that,” he said.