Funny how a silver bullet, when designed and built by the U.S. military-industrial complex, costs its weight in gold. And when you’re trying to hit a silver bullet with another silver bullet—the goal of the Pentagon’s national missile shield since 1983—it turns out to be far more costly than that.
Meeting the challenges associated with shooting a bullet into a bullet—in space, no less—requires a methodical approach. It should be taken one step at a time. The first step should be completed before the second step is started. Yet the hype that has surrounded missile defense for more than a generation has telescoped those steps, resulting in a very costly, and very leaky, shield.
The good news is that the Pentagon finally scrapped its latest pie-in-the-sky effort on August 21 (after spending $1.2 billion on it since 2013). The bad news is that it was merely a replacement for the original Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle. The EKV (“exoatmospheric” means outside the Earth’s atmosphere, roughly 65 miles high), is a cobbled-together contraption, not unlike Rube Goldberg’s inane mid-20th century inventions that harnessed collections of pails, pulleys, and pendulums to try to accomplish simple tasks.
It was rushed into operation in 2004 and hasn’t worked reliably since. The worse news is that killing the second effort is already leading to a third try. (And that’s not the worst news; more on that to come.)
All of this was so predictable. The Pentagon and politicians hyped the threat, so they had to accelerate development. That made even the slim chance of success impossible. Quality work takes a painstaking approach that builds upon previous successes, and should be immune to the political posturing that only increases chances for failure.
The Pentagon needed to replace the original EKV with the Redesigned Kill Vehicle (RKV) because it cost too much, wasn’t reliable, and missed too many targets during tests. Such exercises have always been highly scripted, meaning its real-world performance would be even worse. Now the RKV has been canceled after a long series of problems. Boeing led the $5.8 billion project, although Raytheon was actually building the RKV itself.
President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative was intended to make the Soviet Union’s thousands of atomic warheads “impotent and obsolete.” But that proved impossible. With the end of the Cold War, the U.S. government has opted for a much smaller system designed to stop only a handful of missiles from a rogue state like North Korea or Iran. (The Pentagon’s rhetoric hasn’t adjusted to that more modest reality: “Missile defense. It’s not a game,” the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency says. “But you do get to save the world.”)
The original kill vehicle remains perched atop 40 missile interceptors based in Alaska and four in California as part of the Pentagon Missile Defense Agency’s (MDA) Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system. Their aim is to collide with any incoming enemy missile and turn it into space dust. Precise details on the highly classified kill vehicles are tough to verify. But each roughly 4-foot-long “bullet” reportedly weighs about 140 pounds.
Ever since the U.S. government embraced a national missile-defense system, there has been a rush to throw billions of dollars at a limited threat. Today’s missile-defense gap echoes the imaginary 1950s U.S. missile and bomber gaps (compared to the Soviet Union) used to justify sharp increases in U.S. defense spending. A theology now surrounds missile defense, its choir pounding a constant drumbeat that the threat is growing and requires even more resources, faster. (end of excerpt)
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