Selling the missile defense fantasy: Who benefits?

This is partially in response to Milo’s (rather credulous) thread in which he assumes that Missile defense will make us safe from Chinese Nukes.

It seems to me that that position just isn’t realistic. After nearly 20 years of research, we are really no closer today to creating an effective shield than we were when Regan first proposed it. The latest test of a hit-to-kill interceptor missed by more than a football field even though the missile team knew the trajectory of the target ahead of time

If we make a shield, (if we even can), China will counter it, and then we are several hundred billion poorer and back where we started.

On the other hand, it just doesn’t seem likely to me that all of the proponants of missile defense in the Bush whitehouse are really that technically illiterate. At least some of them have to know that we can’t make a shield that will do what they officially want it to do.

So my question is: What is the real reason they are pushing for missile defense? Who benefits, and in what way?

I have a couple of candidates for actual reasons:

1) They actually WANT an arms race.

I can’t really see any good reasons for this one, but there probably IS some faction that believes that we broke the back of communist USSR by arms-racing them into bankrupcy, and that we can do the same to communist China.

Is there some other reason why an arms race is a good thing?

2) This is a handout to the Military/Industrial complex.

This is my personal favorite. The ‘peace dividend’ that we got from the end of the cold war was actually pretty hard on the economies of many of the weapons designing and building towns in New England and elsewhere. (I actually saw this happen in CT.). Missile defense is payback. We give them billions to develop a weapon system that never has to work. Pork of the gods.

3) Vindication of Regan.

They know that this isn’t going to work, but then again, they also know that it isn’t ever going to be used. 100 Billion is cheap if it re-habilitates Regan as a visionary.

4) The people who are making the decisions really don’t understand that Missile defense is a fantasy.

Not my first choice by far, but within the ream of possibility. To most people, all technology is magic. They don’t really understand how it works, it just does. Engineers create things and the non-technical begin to believe that an engineer can make anything at all of they try hard enough. They begin to think that when an engineer says “this can’t be done”, they are really saying “I don’t want to/know how to do this”. That is: they are making a statement about their ignorance RATHER that a statement of specific knowledge.

“After all, lots of people said that heavier than air flight was impossible until the Wright brothers proved otherwise”.

On the other hand, lots of people have said that perpetual motion was impossible too. And guess what, unless we want to discard most of 200 years of physics, it is.

My guess is on 2 & 3. But you could have 4 as well under the right circumstances…


5) Politics.

Telling the people that your party wants to protect them from nuclear explosions, while the other guys could care less that your baby is bursting into flame, is an effective vote-getter. A sufficiently large portion of the American populace is either ignorant, stupid, lazy, or partisan enough to take this position at face value.

Note: No, this doesn’t include you, Milo. Sure you’re partisan (and, I would imagine, admittedly so), but you’re thinking about the issue and you’re asking questions. Good for you.

If you really believe this, you haven’t been paying attention to how amazingly our computer, guidance, and detection technology has developed in two decades.

And you misspelled Reagan. “Regan” sounds like a cross between Reagan and a vegan.

Tejota wrote

If you are as certain as your conviction implies than you must be violating your security clearance and responsibility.

Or are you really just guessing that we’ve made no progress in 20 years, as one who hears things around the water cooler?

For my own personal opinion: I find it inconceivable that applying research to a problem, (especially billions of dollars and 20 years worth of research) will not bring about a better solution. And even if we are off as bad as you describe (I doubt it), every bit of research narrows the problem space so that maybe in 1 year or 5 years or 20 years we’ll have a solution.

I don’t want to put words in the OP’s mouth, but perhaps Tejota wasn’t speaking strictly of the technical advances in the concept of a “shield.” Surely we have better missles, radar, computers, etc. than we did 20 years ago, but does this mean that we are closer to deploying a truly effective shield now? I would say no.

An effective missile defense system would have to be conceptually different than anything being considered (or developed) today. No conceivable NMD system using the current framework (missiles shooting down other misslies as they come) or something like it will be effective at stopping an actual threat. Countries capable of launching numerous ICBMs our way (e.g. China) would be able to simply overwhelm the defense with numbers and/or deploy counter-measures that they would have the luxury of developing to specifically counter our NMD. For “rogue states” or terrorists looking to deliver only a very small number of nuclear weapons, missiles are perhaps the least likely means of delivery. We’ve discussed this before. On the one hand, missile defense seeks to deal with a threat that it cannot possibly cope with. On the other, it seeks to deal with a threat that doesn’t exist.

Look into it, think about it, research it . . . but, cripes, don’t spend billions to actually do it when you know it won’t work.

Anyway, this line of argument really belongs in Milo’s thread. I suggest that we adjourn to there so as to avoid a complete (and redundant) hijack of this one.

Depends on what you mean by “closer”. If you mean closer as in “we just have to set up the system, but all the technology involved is proven and sound”, then you’re right, we’re no closer. Unfortunately, everyone else on the planet recognizes that, hey, the leaps of technology and application have become significantly more plausible in two decades, to the point where we’ve conducted tests of the system (doesn’t matter if it failed… each test is a new piece of data gained).

I think that, if we poured enough money into the project right now, we could get a decent defense shield in place in a year. Unfortunately, this would require such a large application of funds that the United States’ economy would collapse, thusly nullifying the point of a defense shield.

But it’s a fallicious and blatantly inaccurate statement to claim “We’ve made no progress” regarding SDI.

Oh, we’ve made progress with regards to SDI. That does not necessarily mean we’ve made progress towards an effective “shield.” In time, I’m sure that we’ll be able to deploy Bush’s missile defense system, and even that it will work well enough to do what it is meant to do (i.e. to have a reasonably good chance of shooting down a very small number of incoming missiles). In no way, however, would this be a “shield” from any feasible threat that exists in the real world. See above.

Even with your proviso, I still think this is exceptionally optimistic. We could certainly put something up in space (at horrendous cost), but I don’t think it would work wnywhere near effectively. Yes, computing power has gone up phenomenally in the past eighteen years since Reagan’s March 1983 speech. But there hasn’t been comparable improvements in any of the other areas (nor ought we to expect there to be – computers were still new enough). As far as I have heard, there haven’t been any improvements in laser technology, IR sensors, rail guns, “third generation nuclear devices”, or plasma devices, or rocketry to suggest a change in status from the situation in the days of the SDIO. Yes, I’ve seen a lot of the films – but it doesn’t change muy opinion.

Someone help me out here.

The proposal is for a system which has no guarantee of ever working, in fact all tests so far have been failures. Even if it does work, it provides no defence against any of a number of suggested methods for attacking the US (smuggled bombs, bacterial agents, etc) which are more likely to be used by “rogue nations”.

The estimated cost for developing this system is billions.

However, implementing cleaner energy policies is held to be too expensive for the American economy?

Could someone please tell me what I’m missing, as right now I just feel depressed.

You missed the coolest part, Gary!

One of the big statements Reagan originally made to counter the “What about SALT?” crowd (and Bush II is parroting) is that we plan to SHARE this wondrous technology with all the nations of the Earth!

See, now, when Pakistan takes out Savannah, Georgia, with a nuclear device concealed in a packing crate and brought in by tramp steamer, and Bush gets really mad and fires intercontinental missles back at 'em, they’ll be able to laser them down into the Atlantic with American Miracle Weapons in Space!

Still feeling depressed here, Ike.

Tejota - congratulations! You’ve at least tied the SDMB record, by misrepresenting someone’s views in the first sentence of your OP!

As I’ve pointed out in that thread, I am not in favor of the NMD.

I’m intrigued about the idea that some people think it will work; and that it is very likely that as our technological capabilities continue to grow by leaps and bounds, we can develop a credible system of knocking down missiles.

And the idea behind the thread was to ruminate on the topic of if it could work, would it make us safer than the concept of mutually assured destruction, or less safe?

Feel free to apologize. I won’t hold my breath.

Says who? Or “cite, please”, to put it more politely. I noticed this link in your thread on the subject that the UCS and MIT disagree. You still haven’t said anything about it.

And again, what do you say about any of the other methods of getting a bomb into the US?

Maybe he meant White House Aide Donald Regan?

That’s my major problem with the missile defense. We’ve had two major terrorist bombings in the past few years (and several minor ones).

All but one (WTC) was from a domestic threat. And both of the major ones were delivered not by missile, but by Ryder.

Ban yellow trucks, I say, before spending a bajillion bucks on this thing.


Uh, read any news story - or anything else you want to read - that has been written on this subject. I’ve yet to read one that says the idea of a missile defense shield will be forever impossible and beyond our technological capabilities. A great many say it is likely impossible now. That wasn’t my point in the passage that you quoted.

Bring it up in that thread, and I will. Why do we have two threads on this, again?

They need to be addressed. How are they being addressed now? I would presume that a missile defense system is designed to defend against missiles.

Should the Texas Rangers cut Alex Rodriguez if he isn’t a good basketball player?

Reagan. oops. :wink:

Yes, computers are cheaper, faster & far more powerful than they were in the 80’s. But these advances in computing technology are available to the other side as well, so they have no NET effect on our ability to shoot down their missiles. Missiles are somewhat faster and better controlled, but not by all that much.

The only real significant advance in missile capabilities is the cruise missile. (which, incidently, most forms of missile shield that are being discussed can’t handle).

Also along the way we’ve also discovered that some the problems are immensely more difficult than we originally thought. Especially target recognition, especially distinguishing real targets from decoys.

Back in the 80’s there was a sense that we were only a few years away from developing true AI. But as we moved forward, most of the ‘progress’ was actually a process of discovering what we can’t do with even an enormous amount of computing power.

The best chess programs in the world are basically brute force with a few heuristics. If you had told us that would be the case in the 80’s, most AI researchers would have thought you we not up on the latest research. :wink:

But this is a hijack. If you want to discuss the feasability, do it in Milo’s thread. He’s allowed to assume missile defense is possible, My point is that if it isn’t and they know it isn’t, why push it anyway.

I can hardly be expected to represent your views more accurately than you do yourself.

You said:

Which clearly implies that you believe that if we build a missile defense, then China will be unable to nuke us. Whether or not you believe it is wise to build a missile defense is irrelevent, you appear to believe it is possible to build an effective one. This is rather credulous.

So no, I haven’t misrepresented your views. Feel free to apologise for accusing me of doing so. I won’t hold my breath.

The point of THIS thread is that since it isn’t possible, we should explore the reasons why it Bush thinks it’s desirable to do so anyway.

I’ll make a deal, For your purposes, in this thread assume that it isn’t possible just for the sake of argument. And I’ll assume that it is possible (for the sake of argument) in yours.


Yes, but sometimes the data is “oh. that approach isn’t going to work at all. Back to the drawing board”.

When working with the MI complex, tests merely mean that tests were part of the original schedule, given sufficient pressure to ‘show progress’ they run them anyway even if they know they aren’t going to work. Sometimes, to ‘show progress’ they “cheat” (as they did in this last test).

The hard part isn’t launching a missile and having it go somewhere near the trajectory of another missile. We’ve been able to do THAT since the 70’s. The hard part is having the missile figure out where to go, and actually hit it’s target.

There’s a saying in my field. “Nine women can’t make a baby in a month.”

In a way this is true. But it’s also very misleading. How do you measure progress when the goal is moving away from you? Do you look back and see how far you’ve come? or do you look ahead an see how far you have to go?

I figure that the only reasonble thing to do is look ahead. By this measure, we have (appearantly) made no progress. Although that isn’t strictly true either. In reality, the goal isn’t receeding, what really happened is that when we begain, we had a wildly unrealistic assessment of where the goal was. It only appears to be receeding.

[sub]Are you familiar with a class of problems the computer scientists call ‘NP Complete’?[/sub]

So if you look at it that way, yes we have made progress.


Tom Clancy’s latest “The Bear and The Dragon” makes the not-so-subtle point that nuclear disarmament will make us weak and missile defense is needed to save our country from nuclear annihilation.