by THE EDITORIAL BOARD · February 11, 2018
In November, a target was launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Hawaii as part of a missile defense test. U.S. Navy
After more than 30 years of research and more than $200 billion, the nation’s ballistic missile defense program remains riddled with flaws, even as the threat from North Korean missiles escalates.
Still, President Trump persuaded Congress to increase spending for the program to $14 billion, from $10 billion, in the 2018 budget, claiming in his national security strategy that plans to push the system “will include the ability to defeat missile threats prior to launch.”
Mr. Trump is overselling the program, an interlocking network of interceptors, radars, sensors and so-called kill vehicles. He has boasted that the system is 97 percent effective in preventing limited-scale attacks; the truth is more like 50 percent. So its defense against North Korean weapons is hardly a sure thing.
The program’s failings were on display as recently as last month, when, during a test off the Hawaiian coast, an interceptor missile launched from a test site in Kauai failed to hit its target, an incoming dummy missile. That was the second failure in three tests of the interceptor, the SM-3, which is intended to be a mainstay of American regional missile defense systems being deployed in Romania, Poland and Japan to guard against medium-range missiles. The Pentagon has not disclosed what went wrong.
The problem isn’t just the latest test, though. Since 1999, the program at the heart of the multilayered missile defense system, the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system, designed to protect the United States by tracking and destroying intercontinental ballistic missiles from a non-superpower adversary, has failed eight of 18 tests.
A 2016 Pentagon report faulted the system as demonstrating “a limited capability to defend the U.S. homeland from small numbers” of medium- and long-range missiles “launched from North Korea or Iran.” Experts say the tests are not conducted under realistic conditions, and the test record has not shown sufficient improvement.
Meanwhile, in November, North Korea fired an intercontinental ballistic missile that flew higher and longer than previous launches — with a potential range of 8,000 miles — thus increasing the risk that it could soon hit the United States mainland.
Analysts attribute many of the problems with the system to the George W. Bush administration’s decision to accelerate it, rushing components into the field prematurely, without proper engineering and testing. Today, the pressures to show success are intensifying as the North Korean threat becomes more acute and Mr. Trump and Congress, desperate to be seen as protecting the American public, throw more money at the program.
But like the Reagan-era Star Wars initiative, it will never provide a foolproof, comprehensive shield against a nuclear adversary. There are real questions about whether the program is sustainable, especially if its managers cannot produce better results. A new Pentagon study of the program is expected shortly.
Missile defense needs to be part of the United States’ strategy, but it alone will not save the country from a North Korean nuclear attack. Is Mr. Trump, who threatened to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea, aware of this? He would make a serious error if faith in missile defense led him to take military action against North Korea on the ground that the system could save the United States from retaliation.
The president would be better off making sure that major powers keep enforcing tough sanctions on North Korea, that South Korea and Japan are prepared for any military action, that North Korea’s avenues for exporting nuclear technology are blocked and that America is ready to test any opening to engage North Korea in negotiations.