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Editorial: Rushing Deployment; Missile Defense Isn’t Ready

With Iran nuclear talks fizzling and North Korea threatening to turn Seoul into a sea of fire, it took political courage for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to go before Congress with a 2014 defense budget that cut money for missile defense programs. Yet, in our eyes, the real problem is that the $500 million in trims was merely cosmetic.

A deeper slice into the $10 billion the Pentagon spends each year on such programs wouldn’t make the United States one iota less safe, and would help with the $500 billion or so the Pentagon is likely to have to cut over a decade in any deficit-reduction deal.

Don’t get us wrong, we share Ronald Reagan’s dream, famously expounded almost exactly 30 years ago, of a shield protecting the U.S. (and other nations) from intercontinental ballistic missiles and shorter-range threats. Unfortunately, since the U.S. program’s inception, its governing philosophy has been to rush through research, ignore repeated testing failures and jump full force into production and deployment. The result: We have a nonfunctioning solution to a less-than-immediate problem.

The central concept of missile defense — hitting a bullet with another bullet — has proved maddeningly elusive. The Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system, the primary barrier against long-range ballistic missiles, has “improved” to a 50 percent success rate, which is excellent for NBA three-pointers but unacceptable for nuclear Armageddon. Worse, none of those tests included decoys or other countermeasures that an enemy would probably use.

Last year, a study by the National Research Council found that building systems to strike enemy missiles in the takeoff stage wasn’t “practical or feasible.” It also suggested scrapping the existing West Coast system.

Why, then, did President Barack Obama decide last month to divert an additional $1 billion to that very program? It may have looked as if he was standing up to North Korea, but the only beneficiaries are likely to be the contractors and barkeeps near Fort Greely, Alaska. (The Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense packages that Obama dispatched to Guam have proved somewhat effective against slower, shorter-range missiles in tests, yet are a long way from being part of a homeland shield.)

The renewed rush to set up batteries also ignores the nature of the threat. North Korea and Iran clearly mean us no good. But Iran has neither a functioning bomb nor a missile to carry it. Kim Jong Un’s regime has tested a nuclear device and, as was divulged Thursday, may have a warhead that could fit on a short- or medium-range ballistic missile. Yet, as Hagel told the House Armed Services Committee, it is a long way from having a reliable intercontinental nuclearized missile that threatens the U.S.

Given the limitations of the U.S.’s enemies and its possession of the ultimate deterrent — a nuclear arsenal that Obama is wisely paying to modernize — there is time to get the science right on missile defense.

The smart course is to ignore Kim’s threats and go back to the drawing board. We can save billions on production and deployment costs even if we increase spending for research and development on new proposals. John Arquilla, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, suggests tapping private-sector creativity by establishing a competition similar to the X-Prize for space flight. Who knows, maybe Reagan’s oft-mocked idea for a canopy of X-ray lasers in space will prove the feasible solution.

Bloomberg News