On September 1, 2006, the US held a missile defense test, which has been widely heralded by the government as a “success.” The $80 million test involved a dummy warhead launched from Kodiak Island in Alaska, which was intercepted and destroyed by an interceptor missile launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
Lt. General Henry Obering III, the director of the Missile Defense Agency, was rhapsodic in his praise for the test: “I don’t want to ask the North Koreans to launch against us that would be a realistic end-to-end test. Short of that, this is about as good as it gets.”
For the defense contractors profiting from the missile defense system, such as Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon, this must be about as good as it gets. But the rest of the American public, who might end up as victims of a nuclear attack and who have already paid over $100 billion for the development of missile defenses, are entitled to a lot more clarity on just how realistic such a test is. While the interceptor missile did destroy the dummy warhead, there are many questions worth asking.
First, if the system works so well, why did it have to be postponed due to bad weather the previous day? Will the system work only in good weather? Will cloud cover make the system ineffective?
Second, did the Missile Defense Agency include a homing device in the dummy warhead, as it has frequently done in the past, to help guide the interceptor missile to its target? Homing devices in the target dummy warheads have made the missile defense tests seem a lot more successful than they really are, and it is highly unlikely that a potential enemy would want to help our missile defense system by placing homing devices in their warheads.
Third, would the system be able to work against a sophisticated attacking missile that was able to take evasive action or against an attack by multiple missiles? There is also the question of whether the system would be able to find the real warheads hidden in a volley of decoys.
After the recent test, General Obering commented, “I feel a lot safer and sleep a lot better at night.” While the general may feel safer, I doubt that the American people should feel safer until these questions are answered to their satisfaction.
If the rest of us want to join General Obering in feeling safer and sleeping better at night, perhaps we should encourage our government leaders to try diplomacy aimed at building friendships and partnerships with potential enemies, rather than continuing to base our security and our future on a costly and ineffectual missile defense system that is likely to fail under real world conditions. Another cost effective way of improving our security would be to encourage our top officials to show some actual leadership in achieving the obligations for nuclear disarmament that are set forth in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
DAVID KRIEGER is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.