Thursday, April 24, 2008

Highlights of Second House Hearing on Missile Defense

Last Thursday (April 16), the Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs held a hearing entitled, “What are the Prospects, What are the Costs?: Oversight of Missile Defense (Part 2)” (A summary of Part 1 can be found here). In his opening statement, committee Chairman John Tierney (D-MA) described the purpose of the hearing as an effort to “tackle head-on the questions of what are the prospects of our current missile defense efforts and at what are the costs.”

The witness list for the hearing included Dr. Lisbeth Gronlund (Senior Scientist and Co-Director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists), Dr. Richard Garwin (Fellow Emeritus at IBM Corporation’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center), Jeff Kueter (President of the George C. Marshall Institute in Washington, DC), and Philip E. Coyle, III. (Assistant Secretary of Defense and Director of Operational Test and Evaluation in the Department of Defense from 1994-2001). Their testimony’s can be found here, here, here, and here, respectively.

Wide-ranging in its scope and depth, the hearing covered many issues that will be familiar to observers of the missile defense debate: the nature of the threat, how to define operational criteria for success, the issues and challenges posed by decoys and countermeasures, the performance of GMD flight intercept tests, the (in)accuracy of MDA and DoD statements about GMD effectiveness and capability, the monetary costs of missile defense, and the costs of missile defense for U.S. strategic interests and international security.

Here I want to focus primarily on the portions of the hearing that dealt with the costs of missile defense (in particular the GMD element) for U.S. strategic interests and international security. Other than Kueter, who spent most of the hearing diligently parroting MDA and DoD talking points, all of the witnesses agreed that missile defense is likely to have many dangerous consequences.

First, as Dr. Gronlund observed in her submitted testimony, “It is dangerous if military and political leaders believe the GMD system is effective.” Specifically, such a belief could make U.S. decision makers “less motivated to pursue diplomatic means to address the North Korean [and Iranian] missile program.” Coyle also emphasized the pitfalls of an overreliance on technology at the expense of diplomacy. Noting the gains made by Ambassador Christopher Hill in achieving diplomatic success with North Korea, Coyle maintained that diplomacy “is the most cost-effective missile defense system.”

Second, Dr. Gronlund was keen to point out that so long as Russia and China fear that U.S. interceptors could threaten their deterrent capability, “worst-case analyses by political and military leaders, as well as a desire to have a visible response for both domestic and international audiences, may prompt both China and Russia to build or retain larger nuclear forces than they otherwise would, and may lead Russia to retain its missiles on high alert.”

Advocates of U.S. missile defense plans claim that the system would be directed against developing states such as North Korea and Iran, and would be powerless against a massive Russian or Chinese missile attack. Yet Russia and China’s perception that a U.S. missile defense system might compromise their ability to retaliate can’t be attributed to paranoia or political posturing alone. The U.S. is planning to increase the number of GBIs and Aegis interceptors that are capable of defending against ICBMs. Before long, Russia and China could face some 200 U.S. anti-missile interceptors, and in Russia’s case, some of these missiles would be stationed in Poland, very close to Moscow’s European-based ICBM installations. Russian defense analysts are undoubtedly questioning the purpose of a system that would (1) be in a position to target Russian ICBMs but would not be able to protect a large swath of Europe from an Iranian missile attack, (2) entail interceptors that, despite MDA claims to the contrary, would be fast enough to catch Russian ICBMs launched west of the Ural Mountains toward the U.S., and (3) eventually require far more interceptors than the 10 interceptors the Bush administration is initially planning to deploy to Poland, since, according to the way in which the Bush administration defines the nature of the Iranian threat, Tehran would have the knowledge, capacity, and incentive to build more than 10 ICBMs.

Third, according to Dr. Gawin:

A state wishing to deliver nuclear weapons to injure the United States homeland would far more likely use short-range ballistic missiles or cruise missiles launched from a ship to attack U.S. coastal cities with nuclear weapons than use an ICBM for that purpose.
Currently, the U.S. has no defense against an attack delivered via such means. At the March 5 hearing, homeland security expert Stephen Flynn also emphasized the opportunity costs of spending ridiculous amounts on ballistic missile defense, noting that the U.S. is far more likely to be attacked by weapons of mass destruction (WMD) transferred via non-missile means (such as through our ports with containers containing nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons) than by ICBMs.

Commenting on the incoherence of the Bush administration’s priorities in this regard, Coyle testified that:
By spending such colossal sums on ballistic missile defense, it is as if we have defined how our adversaries will attack us. We have declared that our adversaries will use ballistic missiles first and foremost – not cruise missiles, not cargo shipments, not terrorism – even though our ballistic missile defenses are not effective against realistic ballistic missile threats. And we are choosing to ignore the international consequences of that choice, as well as the budgetary and technical consequences.

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