E ver since their inception, missile defense systems of all kinds have been criticized for their purported helplessness against countermeasures.
Critics seized upon the latest tests of the Russian SS-27 Topol M single re-entry vehicle inter-continental ballistic missile, touting its sophisticated countermeasures designed to overcome multilayered defenses. In an article entitled, “A Rude Awakening to Missile Defense Dream,” in the Jan. 4, 2005, issue of the Christian Science Monitor, Scott Ritter attempted to put to rest the notion that the U.S. investment in a national missile shield has any meaning.
In reality, nothing is further from the truth. Rather than a “rude awakening,” the complex and costly Russian missile stands out as unwitting vindication of the entire concept of missile defense. The very need to develop such elaborate and costly missiles like the Topol M is tantamount to an operational success of the U.S. missile shield — and this without firing a shot.
Critics maintain that missile defenses are useless because they can be easily blocked by simple and cheap countermeasures that can be perfected by rogue nuclear states. Furthermore, they claim that such countermeasures need not be tested in real flight; hence when first used in action the defense will have no clue about how to overcome them.
There is an entire literature dedicated to the trivialization of missile defense on account of its supposed helplessness against hypothetically cheap countermeasures. In April 2000, the Union of Concerned Scientists published an extensive report describing dozens of such notional “simple” countermeasures to prove this point.
There is nothing new about countermeasures. In fact, they have been part and parcel of air warfare since World War II. The advent of the guided anti-aircraft missile generated a plethora of airborne countermeasures in an effort to blunt its effectiveness. This included relatively simple devices such as chaff and flares as well as complex and costly decoys and electronic warfare suites.
In spite of all this, air defense systems remain today a formidable challenge to air power, and are treated with respect by military planners. In retrospect, countermeasures did not blunt air defenses; rather, they unleashed a race between offense and defense: the “Wizard War” of R.V. Jones’ book about British science and intelligence during World War II.
One result was that combat aircraft became more and more expensive. As the threat from air defenses grew in sophistication, countermeasures became more elaborate, more expensive and more demanding in weight and volume. Entire new technologies such as stealth had to be invented to overcome them. This, in turn, increased the costs and reduced the affordability of combat aircraft along an Augustinian Law curve.
In fact, only a handful of the richest nations can today afford the immense cost of developing their own first-line combat aircraft, and even they can afford to buy just a limited number of them.
There has never been any reason to believe that things would evolve differently in missile warfare. As in air warfare, countermeasures are cheap or effective, never both together. Topol M sports a range of sophisticated countermeasures, from short-burn motors to a maneuvering warhead, and sacrifices some of its energy for a radar-avoiding depressed trajectory.
Those countermeasures come at a cost and are neither cheap nor simple. One could speculate how many of the cheaper SS-25 ICBMs the Russians could afford for a single new Topol M.
Moreover, the Russians don’t seem to buy the notion that countermeasures can be sprung in surprise without prior testing: The Topol M’s countermeasures are being tested again and again, in full view of the U.S. surveillance systems. This, in turn, will be grist to the mills of the designers of the U.S. next-generation missile defenses.
R.V. Jones’ “Wizard War” is thus shaping up before us once again. In such a technological race, the battle goes to the more affluent and more technologically proficient side.
By driving the Russians toward more expensive, less affordable missiles, U.S. missile defenses already are proving their worth to U.S. taxpayers. The U.S. missile shield is not aimed against Russia but against rogue nuclear states. Imagine North Korea or Iran with their early generation missiles and limited technological basis trying to emulate the sophistication of the Topol M.
By its very existence, the U.S. missile shield already had made their prospective first-generation ICBMs obsolete. If and when they come up with more sophisticated — and more expensive — designs, they will be forced to deploy fewer missiles.
It stands to reason that by that time, the future upgraded versions of the U.S. missile shield will be ready to deal with them.
Uzi Rubin is president of Rubincon, a consultancy, and founder of the Israel Missile Defense Organization.