In recent months the debate over ballistic missile defense has become highly mathematical. With advocates and detractors pitting their numbers against each other. I contend that such arguments misunderstand the nature of ballistic missile defense and armed conflict in general.
War is not mathematical. As Clausewitz noted; cannot fight a “war by Algebra”. Systems always have weaknesses and faults which will conspire to bring them to a stop. Human and mechanical errors will always compound these faults. Communication deficits, confusion and imperfect knowledge of the situation add to them. Clausewitz called this concept Friction, and it continues to exist despite the presence of machines and the computerization of many aspects of warfare.
It is folly to believe that any system of the stress of combat will perform perfectly. Despite it’s highly technical nature, missile defense suffers from friction as much as any other aspect of war fighting. For example, during the Persian Gulf War a computer glitch resulted in a scud missile penetrating U.S air defense and hitting a barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing 28 soldiers.
The Sensors and computer programs the such defenses rely on are imperfect and often result in tragic or near tragic mistakes. The case of Stanislov Petrov is another reminder of how sensor can fail spectacularly and result in near apocalyptic consequences.
Human error has also proven a source of trouble in missile defense. In 1979 a technician mistaken inserted a training tape into NORADs computer systems resulting in a false alarm. Then there was the incident in 1988 where the Aegis equipped USS Vincennes mistook Iran Air flight 655 for a diving F-14A Tomcat and shot it down using a SM-2MR missile. Both The Aegis and standard missile family are still used today for air and ballistic missile defense on American cruisers and destroyer.
Today the most prominent conflict is over the effectiveness of the Ground Based Mid-Course Defense (GMD) designed to intercept ICBMs in their mid-course phase. When you consider the factors inherent in friction, the limitations of the system become apparent. What happens if there is a false alarm like the ones in 1979 and 1983 that leads the Air Force to expend all of its GBIs on a non-existent target or strike a satellite in Low Earth Orbit instead?
During a launch, Can we be certain that C3 will function well enough to react the a real launch? If the launch officer is unsure of a threat because he can only get confirmation from a single source does he launch or not? What happens when this deliberative process runs up against the interception time window?
The existence of these possibilities rarely comes into the debate, but has a fundamental effect on the nature of missile defense. There is no such thing as a perfect weapons system; whether it is a missile or a rifle. Even the well tested Patriot still occasionally misses targets, as does the Iron Dome.
Surprise is another factor that rarely gets mentioned. Technology is not stagnant but missile defenses are often designed with particular scenarios in mind. If a missile exceeds these parameters then the chance it will be intercepted will be very low. Nations often keep developments hidden so they cannot be countered until first use. Innovations like MIRVs, more advanced decoys and terminal maneuverability can all seriously degrade the effectiveness of missile defense.
This does not mean that missile defense is not useful, but it does mean the way we view it must change to conform to nature of warfare. Friction and Surprise will always rear their heads to gum up even the most well laid plans and nothing in war is immune. No nation should stake the survival of millions on any system working 100 percent of the time.
Missile defense must therefore be viewed as a tool for damage mitigation rather than total immunity. The experience of the Iron dome in 2014 is instructive. Even though it could not intercept every projectile or save every life it did manage to reduce the damage to a level that allowed Israel to function somewhat normally throughout the war. It’s effect was strategic in that it reduced Hamas’ ability to impose costs on Israel during the war.
That said, Qassam and Grad rockets did strike Israeli soil during the war. Houses were damaged and daily life was disrupted by warning sirens. People were hit when they either did not take cover or were in sparsely populated areas which were not viewed as a priority for missile defense.
As Americans this may be hard to except due to cultural proclivity for 100 percent solutions and desire to feel totally safe from any threat. It is however, the nature of warfare. Nothing is a certainty and no system is full proof. If war breaks out with a nuclear power, someone will get hit.