Deploying missile defense to the region would not help contain and dissuade nuclear Iran
But if Tehran does obtain nuclear weapons, surrounding it with missile defenses, no matter how effective, will never eliminate the threat that a single missile could penetrate the defense system. Thus, the United States can never neutralize the deterrent value of any possible future Iranian nuclear ballistic missiles with any incarnation of missile defense. A nuclear-armed Iran would have to be treated identically by Washington whether or not missile defenses were in play.
The strategic uselessness of missile defenses aimed at intercepting nuclear-tipped missiles is clear (as I have argued before). This is a conceptual problem, not merely a technical one. The reason is simple: There is always a reasonable probability that one or more nuclear missiles will penetrate even the best missile defense system. Since a single nuclear missile hit would cause unacceptable damage to the United States, a missile defense system shouldn't change U.S. strategic calculations with respect to its enemies. Washington should treat North Korea, Iran, and other adversaries the same before and after setting up missile defense systems. Recently, Schelling publicly stated that missile defense will be of dubious value in addressing the possible future threats from Iran.
Exaggerating the abilities of missile defense is downright dangerous and military leaders ought to make sure that it doesn't happen; unfortunately, it does. Take, for example, these claims made in the February 2010 Ballistic Missile Defense Review (BMDR) report: "The United States now possesses a capacity to counter the projected threats from North Korea and Iran for the foreseeable future." And: "The United States is currently protected against the threat of limited ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] attack, as a result of investments made over the past decade in a system based on ground-based midcourse defense."
Neither of these statements is remotely true. The current system cannot even reliably intercept a single missile that's launched at a known time and on a known trajectory. None of the various missile defense systems, sea- or land-based, have ever been tested in a realistic setting: For instance, a surprise attack with salvos of missiles with decoy warheads (and other countermeasures) and unknown trajectories. J. Michael Gilmore, the director of the Operational Test and Evaluation Office of the Secretary of Defense, recently testified that "it will take as many as five to seven years to collect" just the necessary data to determine whether the administration's planned missile defense architecture is even sensible. And if future tests do prove it to be an empirical failure will the administration really roll back missile defense? It's unlikely. The long-range plans appear to be unencumbered by any realistic testing requirements.
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There is now, however, a growing consensus among independent experts that the existing strategic missile defense system does not measure up to the claims of its proponents. Two recent major studies, released by a Defense Science Board task force in 2011 and a committee of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in 2012 questioned key assumptions behind current U.S. strategic missile defense programs. For example, the NAS committee’s study characterized the current Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system as “very expensive,” “fragile,” and “ineffective” against “any but the most primitive attacks.”3
Recent test activity by the Missile Defense Agency has given little reason to doubt the negative assessments of these comprehensive studies. Indeed, 2012 was notable for the complete absence of flight tests of GMD interceptors. In the two most recent attempts to intercept ICBM re- entry vehicle targets (in 2010), the interceptors failed to score hits, leaving an overall system record of achieving hits in only half of the highly scripted tests to date.
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The U.S. Missile Defense Agency acknowledges that the proposed system could not handle an attack of that kind. The military recognizes that the first interceptor might miss its target and therefore plans to shoot as many as five interceptors at each incoming missile, in order to reduce the probability that the defenses might be penetrated. The idea is that if the first interceptor misses, the second might not, and so on. If Iran were to attack Europe with two missiles, and the defense were to fire five interceptors at each one, the ten interceptors that are planned for deployment in Poland would be quickly used up. If Iran were to launch more than two missiles at Europe, there might be no interceptors left to repel further attacks.
If Iran believed that U.S. missile defenses were effective and was reckless enough to want to attack Europe or the United States, it could simply build more missiles to overwhelm those defenses. If Iran were to attack Europe with more than one or two missiles, the European missile defense system as proposed could not defend Europe.