More than 25 years and $100 billion ago, Ronald Reagan ordered the Pentagon to build a system to "intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil." This week the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said there wasn't much point. Marine General James Cartwright told an audience invested in missile defense that the bad guys have already abandoned the notion of shooting ballistic missiles toward the U.S. "Ballistic missiles are about as passé as e-mail," said Cartwright, who before becoming the nation's No. 2 military officer headed the U.S. Strategic Command, which grapples with these issues. "Nobody does it anymore. O.K.? It's just gone."
It wasn't so long ago that we were told the threat was imminent. Ballistic missiles were the peril that Reagan warned of in his famous 1983 "Star Wars" speech. Donald Rumsfeld rode the same issue into the Pentagon for his second tour as Defense Secretary in 2001. The so-called Rumsfeld commission, established during the Clinton era and officially known as the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, had warned in 1998 that "concerted efforts by a number of overtly or potentially hostile nations to acquire ballistic missiles with biological or nuclear payloads pose a growing threat to the United States, its deployed forces and its friends and allies." (See pictures of Russia celebrating its military might.)
Cartwright doesn't think the bad guys (like Iran and North Korea) have decided to play nice. They've simply decided to make their missiles less ballistic and even more diabolical. A ballistic missile has a regular arc, its fuel pushing it into space on a specific trajectory that follows a predictable pattern to its target back on Earth. The predictability of its ballistic arc is the basis on which the interception systems built under the missile-defense program operate. What Cartwright was saying is that U.S. foes who to date have shown no ability to marry a warhead of any kind to a simple, garden-variety ocean-spanning ballistic missile are going to simply skip that step and deploy craftier weapons atop their rockets.
Of course, there's a certain symmetry to the fact that current foes don't have a missile for us to shoot down, because the existing U.S. shield has not proved its capacity to intercept and destroy such a missile. While the shield, based in Alaska and California, has "demonstrated a capability against a simple foreign threat ... flight testing to date will not support a high level of confidence in its limited capabilities," the Pentagon's top weapons tester reported recently.
Instead of lobbing missiles toward the U.S. and letting physics and gravity handle the rest, Cartwright predicted that enemy warheads will be the military equivalent of a screwball. They're "going to maneuver, they're going to fly out of the atmosphere, they're going to fly in the atmosphere," Cartwright said. "No stupid person, enemy out there would be so silly as to come at us anymore with a minimum-energy trajectory. Come on. Give me a break. There's just no reason to. I mean, even the people that we would call Third World have gone beyond that." Cartwright's one consolation: various components of the missile-defense system in which the U.S. has already invested could be used against these more sophisticated warheads.
But Cartwright wasn't exactly reassuring that the adaptations will come in time. Something else he said is cause to ask why anyone should take this retooled view of the missile threat seriously. "The reality is that our ability to stay up with the pace of change, to outguess the enemy, to be able to be in the right place at the right time, has never been a forte of the military," he noted. "We almost always guess wrong." Now he tells us.