Field of Science

Missile shield to be scrapped

It's a great day. This piece of news makes me feel extremely gratified as I am sure it does many others. Missile defense against ICBMs has been an eternal bug that has bitten almost every President since 1960. The Bush administration had aggressively pushed plans to implement a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. There has always been evidence that the efficacy of such a shield will ultimately be severely limited by the basic laws of physics, and that the adversary can essentially and cheaply overwhelm the defense with decoys and countermeasures.

I have written about these limitations and studies about them several times before (see below). The best article arguing against the European missile shield is a May 2008 article by Theodore Postol and George Lewis in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (free PDF here).

And as arms expert Pavel Podvig succinctly wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists only three days back, it's not just about the technology, but it's about a fundamentally flawed concept:
"The fundamental problem with the argument is that missile defense will never live up to its expectations. Let me say that again: Missile defense will never make a shred of difference when it comes to its primary mission--protecting a country from the threat of a nuclear missile attack. That isn't to say that advanced sensors and interceptors someday won't be able to deal with sophisticated missiles and decoys. They probably will. But again, this won't overcome the fundamental challenge of keeping a nation safe against a nuclear threat, because it would take only a small probability of success to make such a threat credible while missile defense would need to offer absolute certainty of protection to truly be effective...It's understandable that people often talk about European missile defense as one of the ways in which to deal with the missile threat posed by Iran. Or that someday missile defense could provide insurance for nuclear disarmament--this is the vision that Ronald Reagan had. When framed in this way, missile defense seems like a promising way out of difficult situations. But this promise is false. If a real confrontation ever comes about (and let's hope it never happens), we quickly would find out that missile defense offers no meaningful protection whatsoever".
Now the Obama administration has decided to scrap the unworkable shield and has decided to replace it with a much more realistic defense against short-range missiles. I cannot imagine how gratified this must make the scores of scientists, engineers and policy officials who have long argued against the feasibility of the shield. It also signals a huge shift in Bush-era foreign policy. Notice how the administration has diplomatically and shrewdly avoided mentioning the basic failures of the earlier system.

Unfortunately, the sordid history of missile defense and the inherent satisfaction that seems to stem by arguing in favor of a "shield" to protect the population makes me skeptical in believing that the concept is dead forever. But for now, there is peace in our time and this is a significant breakthrough.

Past posts on missile defense:
Made For Each Other
Missile Defense: The Eternal Bug
Holes in the Whole Enterprise
Czechs halt missile shield progress


  1. I think the problem is simple - there is not enough money, and the US goverment is still want missles in Europe and the Rocket question will arise and arise again when it will be needed. The US needs joker in Europe...

    Poland politics is strictly anti-Russian (always was) so they will make a lot of attempts to ensure US to have Rockets in the territory as also Czech. Pity? but it's true.

    I have lot of friends in US, I always think that we have more in common than things that separate us. We really don't need second Cold War...

    (I've made really depressive comment :)

  2. with continuous flow of agressive comments from russian politicians who still consider east european countries to be part of russian dominium, i would feel much more save with the radar base placed in the czech rep. and missiles in poland. also putin's successful efforts to throttle any attempt to teach russians what democrasy is about show how less in common we have with russia. (i am czech, by the way)

  3. Personally, I am undecided on the issue. It strikes me however, that the BAS article argues against itself when it talks about how the system upsets Russia. If the system doesn't work, then why would Russia be threatened by it? Or for that matter, Norway or anyone else? If it really is useless, then the only argument at all should be that it is just a waste of money. Any other resistance indicates that there might actually be something real there.

  4. :) Ok. the Cold War in comments.
    I don't think that Russian politics think the way you think they think (nice calambur). just to comment - I don't like the politicians at all, especially the Russian one ('maybe because I'm live in Russia :), but I want my country to be safe, so the Missiles in Poland or Czech would be unsafe for my country.

    I really don't want Rockets not in the Poland neither in the Czech land, and I really don't want politics to place them in Kaliningrad region.

  5. My one more two cents:
    I'm reading several non-Russian news sites and don't find any aggressive words of our politicians on US missiles in Europe...

  6. @Vladimir, I largely agree with you. The only way the US can maintain peace is by maintaining good diplomatic relations with Russia, notwithstanding the country's internal political problems. Poland is always going to have a problem with Russia, but from a geopolitical perspective it's Russia who is going to be the major player in Europe.

    @John: Interestingly, the system has been shown to not work against Iranian ICBMs but the Bush administration could never convincingly demonstrate that it would not work against Russian ICBMs (whose silos would be much closer to the interceptor bases). So Russia's concerns were justified at the time. It would have been much better for the US to own up to the fact and then reassure Russia.

    @Petr: The Czech republic's concern is understandable. But unless there is some real threat from Russia, the former missile system would simply destabilize relations without actually addressing the actual threat, which is Iranian medium range missiles. I am sure there is another way for the US to assure the Czech republic of its concerns about the country.

  7. to vladimir: see typical example:

    recently we had to banish two russian diplomats for espionage. i must admit that it had nothing to do with radar/anti-missiles, but it shows how active russion intelligence is in central and eastern europe.

    by no means i want to be offensive; i just want to show you guys how this issue can be perceived in central europe by member of the nation which was occupied by russians for twenty years ;)

  8. 2Petr: Niiiice, o-cc-u-pation...
    Petr if you really want to talk about the USSR and Russian politics knock to my Gtalk...I'm not a KGB agent neither Russian diplomat

  9. what is so funny about occupation in 1968, vladimir?

  10. Nothing, too many people today are using that word. If you really want to continue our discussion not in comments contact me chupvl at


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