Missile Defense: Does It Work?

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The U.S. said this week that it will not deploy a planned ground-based missile defense in Eastern Europe. Instead, a different system will be deployed. While there has been plenty of diplomatic and political fallout over the decision, there hasn't been a lot of talk about whether the new approach would actually work.

With enough jargon to bring joy to a geek's heart, Gen. James Cartwright outlined the vision for missile defense in Europe on Thursday.

"As we move into the second phase, which, as [Defense Secretary Robert Gates] said, is somewhere around the 2015 time frame, we expect to have an upgrade to the SM-3 Block IA, which will be called the SM-3 Block IB," Cartwright announced. "We're a little bit anal about this, but that's the way we laid it out."

Here's what he's actually saying: The missile that shoots down missiles, called the standard missile 3, will be upgraded over time. It will be deployed on ships, and eventually on land, in and around Europe. The goal is to defend the continent from short- and medium-range Iranian ballistic missiles.

The Obama administration says the new system is better than the one they're scrapping.

"We now have proven capabilities to intercept these ballistic missiles with land-and-sea-based interceptors supported by much-improved sensors," Defense Secretary Gates has said.

But how proven are those capabilities?

Theodore Postol is a professor at MIT, former adviser to the chief of Naval Operations, and something of a missile defense skeptic. He says some successful tests, and the shooting down of a satellite last year, give him some confidence in the system.

"There are problematic features of the defense, but that's true of all defenses," Postol says. "But if you're just talking about the general engineering assessment of the two systems, I think it is clear that the Navy system is far better tested."

The Navy system is the new one. To understand what's still problematic, you need to know a little of how these missiles work.

"Think about a missile in space as the equivalent of a light bulb in a totally dark environment," Postol says. The interceptor can easily see that light, but it can't really see any details of the target from any distance — and it's moving incredibly fast toward it.

"You only have a tenth of a second, or a fraction of a second to make any adjustments — which is essentially no time so you tend to hit the middle of the target," Postol explains.

Which you would think would be a good thing — but it isn't. The middle is not the warhead; it's the rocket. So the rocket might be destroyed, but the warhead keeps going. It's like a ball that's already been thrown.

Postol says that for the current threat, conventionally armed missiles, this isn't ideal. But there's only so much damage these kinds of missiles can do.

But then there's the nightmare scenario. "If the threat becomes nuclear, it's quite serious," Postol says. "In my view, the defense will not be adequate."

That, says Postol, is what the debate should be about. People talk about giving up our defensive capabilities, he says, but "if you don't have much defensive capability, I don't know what you're giving up."

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