The Folly of Star Wars

When Steven Colbert declared George W. Bush not to be “brainiac” or a “factinista,” he likely wasn’t thinking of Dubya’s policies on Iran or national missile “defense.” But Colbert would have been on target if he had been.

Bush’s folly of refusing to sign a nonaggression pact with Tehran in return for Iran’s cessation of nuclear enrichment and future possible bomb making is that the US cannot effectively project forces into Iran in any event.

We are fighting the Iraq war with repeated deployments of the National Guard and reserves, which were not designed for this use. The U.S. Army is, perforce, almost broken. Now the Taliban is challenging our forces anew in Afghanistan, our commander-in-chief is about to militarize the US-Mexican border with-surprise!-more National Guardsmen, and the next Gulf Coast hurricane season is almost upon us-a certain, future drain on guard and reserve resources.

Moreover-and the mainstream media is mostly silent about this-the Islamic bomb to worry most about in the near-term is in Pakistan, not Iran, yet the administration hyperventilates about Tehran, not Islamabad. In Pakistan, the Musharraf regime already has the bomb, yet is barely managing to stay one step ahead of increasingly powerful opponents in the streets (who are enraged about the American invasion of Iraq and would inherit the “Islamic Bomb” if Musharraf should fall).

Now Bush has announced a plan to use a missile “defense” against Iran. It beats negotiates, the president seems to be saying. The anti-missile-missile system would be similar to the one the administration deployed in Alaska where tests still have not proved its viability, despite an initial cost of $122 billion.

To improve the systems chances of success, the folks in charge of the Alaska-based system lowered the bar to success in tests recently: only one interceptor went up against a target that employed countermeasures. In other words, it’s an anti-missile-missile that depends on an enemy who would cooperate with us by eschewing decoys and countermoves. The administration will not, cannot estimate the cost of our own anti-missile program, much less the proposed new one.

That’s not the half of it.

Even if the Pentagon could deploy an anti-missile missile that was 80 percent effective-a better success rate than any in history-the system would be unlikely to prevent a successful enemy attack. The explanation lies in probability theory:

Let’s assume an 80 percent success rate for a U.S. missile interceptor matched against an incoming warhead (the equivalent of trying to hit a gnat with a b-b gun). Let’s further assume an enemy has launched eight ICBM warheads against us.

Probability theory teaches that the U.S. missile interceptor attacking the first warhead takes an 80 percent bite out of its (the interceptor’s) probability of success, leaving a 20 percent probability that the attack will succeed and the defense will fail.

The Pentagon’s second interceptor takes an 80 percent bite out of the second warhead’s probability of success.

But in terms of totally defeating the attack, 20 percent of the attack is now beyond the ability of the second interceptor to change. That is, there’s a 20 percent probability that the attack has already succeeded with the first warhead, and the defense has failed in its mission of total protection.

Therefore, the second interceptor can only take an 80 percent bite out of the remaining 80 percent, which means the best you can do with two interceptors against two warheads is 80 percent of 80 percent, or 64 percent.

Run through the declining success rates to the eighth incoming warhead, and you’ll discover that U.S. interceptors boasting “80 percent reliability” will collectively achieve only a 17 percent probability of success against the eight-missile attack.

If the enemy launched 20 missiles instead of eight (more likely), the national missile defense system’s probability of success falls to 1 percent – meaning there is a 99 percent chance that the attack will succeed.

Bush’s anti-missile missile system gives new meaning to a “faith based initiative.”

LES AUCOIN is a former congressman from Oregon who served on the House Defense Appropriations Committee, where he led a study of missile defense and won the Herman Scoville Award from the Union of Concerned Scientists for legislating a ban on anti-satellite weapons during the Reagan Administration. A retired professor of political science, he is an Ashland, Oregon writer. He can be reache through his blog: