Since the end of WWII, Americans have been telling themselves that they’re better at just about everything. The United States is better at warring, sciencing, adventuring, economying, democracying, sportsing, freedoming… pick the activity of your choice, Americans will probably tell you that they’re the best at it.
As with any good myth, American exceptionalism is grounded in truth. The US defeated the Nazis, put a man on the moon, has the world’s largest economy, and is by far the greatest semi-functional democracy in the world. But this narrative has taken on a life of its own. Today, many Americans have come to believe that the US is so far ahead of any other nation on earth that it’s practically invincible.
This is where missile defense comes in. And, it all goes back to the Cold War.
By the 1960s, the US and Soviet Union could deliver tens of thousands of nuclear-tipped missiles to the other’s doorstep in thirty minutes or less. This brought America face to face with an unsettling truth. If the Soviet leadership woke up one morning feeling particularly suicidal, there was nothing the United States could do to prevent its annihilation. A retaliatory strike could be launched, but as the satirist Tom Lehrer points out, the knowledge that “we will all go together when we go” isn’t especially comforting.
Being helpless is a scary thing, and Americans are especially bad at coping with it. From the minute ballistic missiles were invented, the United States has been trying to figure out a way to shoot them down. The most famous example of this is Reagan’s obsession with “Star Wars,” a network of lasers and space-based missiles (yes, really) that was supposed to provide America with an impenetrable defense.
On paper, it seemed like a great idea. (At least to Reagan.) But in practice, it was a miserable failure.
As the Pentagon quickly learned, shooting down ballistic missiles is really, really hard. To this day, senior military officials frequently compare the process to hitting a bullet with a bullet, and as it turns out, that’s not a terribly easy thing to do.
The modern-day iteration of Star Wars, the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system (GMD), has failed 6 out of 10 intercepts since it was first tested in 2002. What’s worse is that the tests are heavily scripted for success – so they don’t even mirror real-life conditions.
Theatre-based missile defense systems, such as Patriot, aren’t much more reliable. Last month, social media footage emerged of US-supplied Saudi Patriot batteries failing catastrophically as they attempted to intercept missiles fired by Houthi rebels. One interceptor exploded shortly after launch, while another pulled a U-turn in mid-air and headed back to its point of origin. To this day, there is no independently verifiable information that Saudi Arabia has successfully intercepted a single Houthi missile during the conflict in Yemen.
Missile defense is a science that demands absolute perfection. If a single nuclear-tipped missile makes it through your defenses, you’ve lost in a bigly way. But the toughest challenge of all boils down to simple math. An attacker looking to defeat the best missile defenses in the world simply needs to launch more missiles at the target than the amount of interceptors the defender has to shoot them down with. And interceptors, as it turns out, are extremely expensive. Which poses another conundrum. The United States has yet to figure out a way to do missile defense without breaking the bank.
The United States has already spent fistfuls of cash on missile defense systems that don’t work. GBSD alone has cost $40 billion, and when you factor in all missile defense systems, past and present, you enter into the realm of 100s of billions. Spending billions more trying to perfect these systems is an exercise in futility, but that is precisely what Congress is doing.
In a way, it’s hard to blame them. The basic function of government is to protect its people, and having to admit, “sorry guys, you’re shit out of luck” isn’t an easy thing to do. But Congress’s job isn’t supposed to be easy. Coddling constituents with fairy tales and promises of magical shields of invincibility isn’t just dishonest, it generates very real risks.
What’s more, there are already signs that military and political leaders are beginning to believe their own bullshit. Calls for a “bloody nose” strike on North Korea earlier this year are a case in point. Guided by the mistaken belief that missile defense would protect US assets from North Korean retaliation, Policymakers were willing to play a high stakes game of chicken, a game which math dictates would have ended in disaster.
As uncomfortable as it is, the US needs to face reality. Unicorns aren’t real, and missile defense doesn’t make America invincible. At its very best, missile defense is a damage limitation tool to be used only in case of extreme emergency, like when the world is about to end. That scenario can only truly be avoided if we ensure that the missiles never fly in the first place.
Will Saetren is a research associate at the Institute for China-America Studies where he specializes in nuclear weapons policy.
**Correction 5/3/2018: A previous version of this story stated that the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system (GMD), had failed 6 out of 9 intercepts since it was first tested in 2002.