Tens of billions of dollars spent over three decades have still left the Pentagon with no reliable way to shoot down nuclear-tipped missiles approaching the U.S. homeland — a vulnerability that has taken on sharp new urgency after North Korea’s Independence Day test of its first ICBM.
Instead, the missile defense system designed to shield the United States from an intercontinental ballistic missile — a diverse network of sensors, radars and interceptor missiles based in Alaska and California — has failed three of its five tests, military leaders acknowledge. Even the two successful ones were heavily scripted.
“If the North Koreans fired everything they had at us, and we fired at all of the missiles, we’d probably get most of them,” said Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia nonproliferation program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. “But is ‘probably get most’ a good day or a bad day?”
The Pentagon’s official stance on Wednesday was that the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, designed by Boeing and a slew of other defense contractors, can knock out a missile whizzing through the atmosphere. But that view is in the minority.
Most current and former military officials and other experts argue that the chances of protecting U.S. territory from a surprise or short-notice ICBM attack would be slim at best. As recently as last month, the outgoing Navy admiral in charge of all the Pentagon’s missile defense programs told Congress he has “reliability concerns” with the system.
According to the Pentagon, Congress has provided at least $189.7 billion for missile defenses of all kinds since 1985, the heyday of Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative, which aimed to provide a space-based defense against a Soviet nuclear attack. Some of that investment has paid off — for example, on the Patriot missiles now widely used by the United States and its allies, along with other land- and sea-based systems designed to deflect shorter-range missiles in battle. But defenses against incoming ICBMs, falling from space at enormous speed, have proven far more elusive — and not for lack of trying.
The Ground-based Midcourse Defense system alone is estimated to ultimately cost at least $40 billion, according to a 2013 estimate from the Government Accountability Office.
“Partly we are failing because it is the hardest thing the Pentagon has tried to do,” said Phil Coyle, who served as the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester in the Clinton administration and in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Obama administration. “We’ve had more success with short-range and medium-range systems. But they are going more slowly, they are traveling in the atmosphere. That is different than traveling at 15,000 miles per hour in space. Especially when the enemy is trying to fool you,” such as with countermeasures and decoys.