Thursday, June 22, 2006

The High Cost of Low Defense

In the run-up to a suspected North Korean missile test-launch, the United States has announced that its missile defense system only possesses "limited operational capability," meaning that it is most likely incapable of intercepting the North Korean missile.

Missile defense has been one of the most controversial defense issues for many years now, and, to my mind, it's a giant waste. Not because it doesn't work: this is exceedingly difficult technology, but there's no reason to think the technological hurdles won't be overcome. The question is at what price? It's hard to pin down a figure of how much the US has spent on missile defense, because there are multiple agencies and defense programs involved. The best information I can find comes from this Center for Defense Information report from January 2006 which claims that $92.5 billion has been spent on missile defense since 1983. Also, according to this CBS report from 2003, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that missile defense will cost, by 2015, $49 billion. No matter the figure, we're talking huge chunks of change.

Again, I don't object to missile defense on its to-date ineffectiveness. Nor do I object based on the price tag alone. But, how much of a threat is posed to the US by a missile strike? The answer, I believe, is not much, especially when compared to the other things that threaten this country. Launching and accurately targeting a ballistic missile is an exceedingly difficult prospect that, for the forseeable future, will only be possible by states. This is made clear when looking at the nature of the missile defense program: it is clearly aimed at states like North Korea. But why should it be assumed that traditional deterrence will fail to work? It may be difficult to deter regional powers from taking actions in their own backyards, but that's not what's at issue here. Rather, we're talking about a direct attack against the United States homeland. I see no reason to assume that the overwhelming might of the US and the American ability to retaliate would not be seen as a credible deterrent threat.

So, if deterrence can work to restrain rogue states from lobbing missiles at the US, then what's the point of spending umpteen billions of dollars on a missile defense system? Not much. That money would be better spent on other defense programs, like expanding the "boots on the ground" force or training troops for urban control operations.

UPDATE: The two top defense officials in the Clinton Administration, William Perry and Ashton Carter, have an article in today's Washington Post arguing that the US should "immediately make clear its intention to strike and destroy the North Korean Taepodong missile before it can be launched." The authors acknowledge that this would be an exceedingly unpopular step, especially with South Korea, but recommend the course of action nonetheless.

Such an action is a critical step in maintaining the deterrent relationship against North Korea. The US needs to make clear, in no uncertain terms, that a rogue state like North Korea will, in no way, form, or manner, be permitted to undermine regional or global stability, or threaten its neighbors.

No comments: