At some point, I was going to get around to commenting on Tony Andragna’s unjustified skepticism over our technical ability to defend ourselves against missiles, but Will Vehrs beat me to it in the same archive.
Many look at the test failures (and ignore the successes) so far and conclude that it’s Just Too Hard.
That’s extremely myopic. If we’d had the same attitude early in the missile program in the late fifties, we would have neither missiles nor a space program–launch failures were a regular and discouraging occurrence (remember post-Sputnik panic from the book, “The Right Stuff”? “Our rockets always blow up”).
Most technical arguments against missile defense (by people like Dick Garwin, Kosta Tsipis, et al) are of the form:
Here is how I think a missile defense would work (i.e., set up strawman).
Here are all the problems with this scenario, and what I believe to be trivial countermeasures.
I’m really smart, and if I can’t think up ways around these problems, neither can anyone else (thereby knocking the straw out of the man).
While there have been some sincere, and even good arguments against missile defense, most are of the disingenuous variety described above. Will’s right–if we can land a man on the moon, we can (eventually) defend ourselves against missiles. We can quickly come up with a defense against North Korean missiles. It would take a little longer to come up with a defense against Chinese, or even Russian missiles, but we can do it if we need to. The Soviets knew this, which is one of the primary reasons that they threw in the towel. Ultimately, defense is favored in economic terms for two reasons. The first is that for any intelligently-designed system, the kill vehicle is cheaper than the offensive warhead, on the margin. The second is that, even if this is not the case, and the marginal costs of defense are greater than the marginal costs of offense, we’re a lot richer than our adversaries, and will remain so for some time, so we can afford to outspend them–it’s still cheaper for us in terms of percentage GDP. Again, the Soviets recognized this.
It should also be noted (as Don Rumsfeld did the other day) that while there are game-theoretical arguments to be made for both cases (that defense will encourage an offensive arms race, and that defense will suppress one), the empirical evidence is in. For the thirty years that we had the ABM treaty, missile inventories were growing like mushrooms after a spring rain, unchecked by ABM treaties or (on the Soviet side) even by arms-control treaties. But in the past few years, and particularly in the past year, despite, or more likely because of, all the talk about scrapping the ABM treaty, we are reducing inventories.
But whether or not it will defend against a Russian onslaught is not a relevant issue to current decisions. Regardless of one’s view of its morality (mine is dim), an argument can be made that MAD is stable in a bi-polar world. Such an argument falls apart in a multi-polar world, and it just becomes a matter of time until some dictator with bin-Laden ethics and intelligence (re: intelligence–that’s not a compliment) flunks Game Theory 101 and decides to lob something at us. In such an event, just as with the gun-control debate in general, as an engineer, I’ll trust hardware over paper every time.
And Will, the actual expression, post Apollo, among space policy enthusiasts is “If we can put a man on the Moon, why can’t we put a man on the Moon?” Realistically, right now it would take us longer to put a man on the Moon than it did in 1960 (at least as a government effort). It’s not because we don’t have the technology…