Missile Defense: Does It Work? The Obama administration announced last week that it would deploy a new type of missile defense to Europe. Among all the debate about the politics of the move, there was little exploration over whether the system would actually work.
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Missile Defense: Does It Work?

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Missile Defense: Does It Work?


President Obama said this past week that the U.S. will not deploy a planned ground-based missile defense system in Eastern Europe. Instead, a different system will be put in place. There's been plenty of diplomatic and political fallout over this decision, but not a lot of talk about whether the new approach would actually work.

NPR's J.J. Sutherland decided to find out why.

J.J. SUTHERLAND: With enough jargon to bring joy to a geek's heart, General James Cartwright outlined a vision for missile defense in Europe.

General JAMES CARTWRIGHT: As we move into the second phase, which Mr. Secretary said is somewhere around the 2015 timeframe, we expect to have an upgrade to the SM-3 Block 1A, which will be called the SM-3 Block 1B. We're a little bit anal about this, but that's the way we laid it out.

SUTHERLAND: Here's what he actually saying: the missiles that shoots down missiles, called a 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 just better than the one they're scrapping. Defense Secretary Robert Gates…

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): We now have proven capabilities to intercept these ballistic missiles with land- and sea-based interceptors supported by much-improved sensors.

SUTHERLAND: How proven are those capabilities? Theodore Postol is a professor at MIT, former advisor 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 gives him some confidence in the system.

Professor THEODORE POSTOL (MIT; Former Advisor to Chief of Naval Operations): There are problematic features of the defense, but that's true of all defenses. But if you're just talking about the sort of the general engineering assessment of the two systems, I think it is clear that the Navy system is far better tested.

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

Prof. POSTOL: Think about a missile in space as the equivalent of a light bulb in a totally dark environment.

SUTHERLAND: 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 towards it.

Prof. POSTOL: Which means you only have a tenth of a second or a fraction of a second to make any adjustments, which is essentially no time. So, one of the problems you would have with the system like this is you tend to hit the middle of the target.

SUTHERLAND: 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 for the current threat, conventionally-armed missiles, that's not ideal, but there's only so much damage they could do. But then there's the nightmare scenario.

Prof. POSTOL: If the threat becomes nuclear, it's quite serious and, in my view, the defense will not be adequate.

SUTHERLAND: Not because this is a bad choice, but it's because the nature of the problems these kinds of defenses fundamentally face. And that, says Postol, is what the debate should be about.

Prof. POSTOL: People talking about, for example, us giving up our defensive capability. Well, if you don't have much defensive capability, I don't know what you're giving up.

SUTHERLAND: J.J. Sutherland, NPR News.

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