U.S. Missile Misses, but That Won't Stop Funding

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Missed. Again. The $12.5 billion U.S. National Missile Defense (NMD) program suffered another setback Tuesday night when it failed its most elaborate test to date. An interceptor missile fired from a Pacific atoll failed to hit a mock warhead deployed by a missile fired in California. Although the system managed to destroy a mock warhead last October, it was later reported to have been a lucky accident after the interceptor missile had locked on to a decoy balloon that drifted close to the target. "I call the Pentagon all the time and sometimes they can’t transfer my calls to the right place," says TIME Pentagon correspondent Mark Thompson. "So how are they going to manage to shoot down a missile with a missile? This is not a criticism; simply an acknowledgment of the tremendous technological challenge of what they’re trying to achieve."

NMD advocates will remind the public how difficult it is to "hit a bullet with a bullet"; detractors will claim the test proves their claim that the system is a multibillion-dollar waste of time. And Russia will fume at Washington's disregard for the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, which sharply limits the deployment of such systems. Still, don't expect that to restrain politicians on both sides of the aisle from lavishing billions of dollars on the program — it's enormously popular on Capitol Hill, and unlikely to be scaled back in an election year no matter how poor its report card. The irony is that long-range missiles aren’t exactly the preeminent threat facing the U.S. in the near future. "The bad guys are more likely to use a Piper Cub to deliver a weapon of mass destruction than a long-range missile, which always has a return address," says Thompson. "If they did use a missile they’re more likely to fire it at short range from a cargo ship so nearby that this system couldn’t stop it. So we’re spending most of the money countering the least likely 10 percent of potential threats to this country."