The once and future missile defense

By Joe Schembrie
web posted May 15, 2000

Long ago, in a place far away, there was once a highly-civilized people whose technology was so advanced that a single middle-class worker's income could support a family of four. These mythic, legendary people drove their cars legally at seventy miles an hour and walked on the Moon - and even had an Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) system to protect their homeland from nuclear missile attack.

You probably guessed that I'm not talking about Atlantis in 9000 BC - but rather, America in the 1970s. You probably knew about the living standards, the speed limits, and maybe even the moon walking. But were you aware that we actually had a viable anti-missile system way back then? Not just designed or prototyped - but actually deployed and operational?

The system was called Safeguard. Development of Safeguard was approved in 1969, and on October 1, 1975, the system was made operational. Relatively inexpensive by today's standards, Safeguard's Sprint and Spartan missiles were successfully tested, scoring 58 intercepts out of 70 attempted. With four missiles dedicated toward each target, there was less than one chance in a thousand that an incoming warhead would get through.

Contrast that with today's still-experimental National Missile Defense (NMD) ABM system. After over fifty billion dollars spent on sophisticated 'Star Wars' technology, NMD anti-missile tests fail more often than they succeed. And high-tech doesn't come cheap; it will cost at least thirty billion dollars more to deploy NMD.

To be fair, the NMD system faces greater technical challenges than Safeguard. NMD relies on sophisticated computer technology to directly strike one missile payload with another - a task called 'kinetic kill,' which is comparable to stopping a bullet by shooting another bullet at it. The old Safeguard system used the brute force method: the anti-missiles each carried a nuclear warhead. Hitting an atomic bomb with an atomic bomb is not hard, and even the crude microchips of the 1970s were up to the computational job.

Wonder what happened to Safeguard? Congress shut it down after only one day of operation. Given the geopolitical realities of the time, it just wasn't cost-effective. The enemy could stuff his offensive missiles with multiple warheads and countless decoys - and therefore, tens of anti-missiles might be required to counter even a single enemy missile. With over a thousand missiles in the Russian arsenal, an effective Safeguard system would require tens of thousands of anti-missiles. Not even the United States could afford that.

However, our anti-missile system needs are different today. We no longer regard the Russian nuclear arsenal as the main threat. Instead, we're concerned about the much-smaller nuclear arsenals of many up-and-coming nations. China is in the forefront, but the list also includes dictatorships like North Korea and Iraq.

Suppose Iraq develops a nuclear-tipped missile that can hit a US city. Suppose Iraq decides to invade Kuwait again. Do we let Saddam get away with it this time - or do we face nuclear annihilation of one or more major American metropolitan areas?

This could be our fate in the near future unless we do something about it - and incessantly testing an unreliable anti-missile system isn't going to protect us from real missiles in the real world. To truly be safe, we must have a system that works, and we must actually deploy it. So instead of spending more years tinkering around with unproven kinetic-kill anti-missile technology, we should go back to the surefire method of fighting nukes with nukes.

Yes, mid-air bursts of anti-missile nuclear warheads will cause fallout. A couple hundred babies will have shortened lifespans because of heightened Strontium 90 concentrations in their mother's milk. But the alternative is letting more powerful nuclear warheads fall on American cities - which could immediately shorten the lifespans of millions of people, with far more fallout as well.

If nuclear sledgehammers are so effective as ABMs, why did we ever go to kinetic-kill systems anyway? Probably because conservative legislators thought that ABM deployment would gain nonpartisan political support from liberals if the use of nuclear warheads was avoided. But instead, liberals have proven just as immune to the arguments in favor of ABM. Indeed, they now relish gloating about the 'unworkability' of missile defense!

Unless we want to sympathize with this apparent death wish, it's time for us to implement a time-tested, workable ABM system. Let's put aside the high-tech visions of NMD for the present, and protect our cities from thermonuclear holocaust with the simple, proven, nuke-against-nuke anti-missile technology that was developed and deployed a quarter-century ago with Safeguard.

In a dangerous age not long from now, in a place not far from home, millions of people could find safety in that once and future missile defense.

Joe Schembrie is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right.

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