Response to Oct 2007 Rolling Stone Article on Missile Defense

Jack Hitt did a wonderful job of lambasting the missile defense program last year in Rolling Stone Magazine. But, in my mind at least, his analysis was heavy on the sardonic wit and somewhat light on giving both sides of the issue a fair shake. While this may play out just fine with his jaded disillusioned target audience at Rolling Stone, I can’t accept his conclusions at face value.

Bibliographical Entry

Hitt, Jack (2007). The Shield. Rolling Stone: 60-68, 91-97.

Author Information

Jack Hitt is an American writer whose work has been featured in The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, This American Life, Rolling Stone, and Wired. He has received the Livingston Award for national news coverage, and a piece on the anthropology of white Indians was selected for “Best American Science Writing”.

His work is characterized by a biting criticism of “conservative” American values and excessive military spending. Jack Hitt has written widely about space-based weapons and based on the few articles reviewed his perspective is highly critical of the concept in general, but usually backed by a good deal of quality research.

Content Summary

The article begins with the author’s incredulity at the existence of a backyard grill on board the Sea-Based X-band Radar (SBX) as a means to express his amazement at the fact that it (the SBX), and the missile defense program in general, have advanced to their current state. The SBX itself represents the culmination of this development; a fantastic feat of technological and engineering achievement, able to track the location and speed of incoming ICBMs with incredible precision. In fact, the missile defense shield which it will soon support has been turned on ever since July 4, 2006 when North Korea launched several missiles to include a prototype ICBM. The fact that the crew seems to be very well settled into their quarters on the SBX point strongly to the realization that missile defense has transitioned from a vague idea to a concrete reality.

The history of the missile defense program goes back to Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and has managed to barely survive each ensuing administration since then. It has had many supporters, but the most successful by far has been Donald Rumsfeld. Under his direction, missile-defense has become the US’s most expensive weapon system, with a forecasted budget of $19 billion by 2013. This has ultimately led to the creation of an initial “layered” missile shield comprised of many complex components.

But unfortunately, the components of this missile shield have not been subjected to the same rigors of empirical testing required of typical experimental weapons systems. Funding is no longer based on proven performance but rather on “capability” produced through a spiral development cycle. While this has aided in quick deployment, it has resulted in a situation where key functions have never been fully tested. And even in those instances in which testing is successful, the fact is that most tests are rigged for a positive outcome due to budgetary pressures. While the missile shield might seem to work in software or on paper no one really “knows” whether or not the shield will actually work in a crisis because there has been no observed performance of system behavior using a classical epistemology or knowledge-based approach.

In addition, the focus on capability has had unforeseen and very expensive consequences. For instance, a three-week period of rain at Fort Greeley, Alaska resulted in a mass flooding of the interceptor missile silos. If the system had gone through rigorous testing procedures, the eventuality of rain would likely have been accounted for. Mishaps like this have caused the missile defense budget to balloon out of control.

What has this out-of-control spending produced? It has effectively nullified old arms control treaties and brought an end to deterrence based on Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). It has never been tested end-to-end against a realistic threat across the entire spectrum of the missile shield. In short, it is far too expensive and totally unnecessary.


The author does a very convincing job of persuading his target audience that the missile defense program is a massively wasteful boondoggle. He accomplishes this by constantly referring to his main theme of “lack of knowledge based testing” in which the various components of the missile shield have not been rigorously tested to the empirical standards normally employed for standard weapons systems. He reinforces this idea by pointing out many failed tests and managerial blunders which he claims have resulted in massive overspending with no budgetary checks and balances tied to the actual performance of the system.

The author’s other main point is that despite the massive spending and limited capability of the missile shield, the very concept of missile defense has destabilized the natural balance of power and resulted in a state of affairs in which the United States is jeopardizing its relationship with other world powers such as Russia and China. The author uses sarcasm in interludes between his main points to bring a markedly humorous sense of cynicism to the military procurement process in general, and the highly lucrative nature of defense contracts more specifically.

It is clear from these arguments that the author assumes that missile defense on the whole has very little chance of succeeding (there are multiple references to the impossibility of a bullet hitting a bullet) and that there is no benefit to fielding systems which have not been subjected to rigorous testing as defined by classical empiricism. The author exhibits very strong biases towards nuclear deterrence based solely on diplomacy and balance-of-power politics and treaties. While these tactics may have been the only recourse during the past 50 years, it is important to note that the situation has changed dramatically.

The global environment has transitioned from a realist ideal of superpower nation states threatening one another with thousands of nuclear warheads and conventional military forces to a more pluralist setting. Rogue states and terrorist organizations have demonstrated their ability to dictate international policy mainly through the erratic behavior of their leaders who seem at times to operate without a rational decision-making process. These formerly weak and geographically constrained enemies are actively pursuing the technology to both produce nuclear weapons and bring them to bear against the United States and her allies as a surefire means to radically increase international influence in their favor.

The simple fact of the matter is that once an ICBM is launched, all of the treaties, foreign policy efforts, and diplomatic posturings amount to nothing more than hot air unless effective countermeasures exist to intercept the warhead before it reaches its intended target. What the author actually seems surprised by here is the fact that missile-defense has matured to the point where it is much more than the hot air he has grown so accustomed to. Despite his continuous complaints of insufficient testing and over-sufficient funding, the author fails to adequately frame the issue of missile-defense in two critical areas.

Firstly, the author’s unfailing devotion to the “empirical method” of development and testing reflect his refusal to consider nontraditional approaches. Throughout the article, many attempts are made to portray the spiral development cycle as completely ineffectual. However, the spiral process has been used with great success in software engineering for several years and is considered by many to be a cornerstone of the field. It does not even remotely resemble the analogy used in the article of “kicking a can down the road” with no clear end goal in sight.

Spiral development is characterized by a series of iterations each having a limited design goal or milestone and ending with a review of the total progress thus far, with necessary changes applied as performance and experience dictate. All of this is done with a focus on meeting the end goals of the project, and since missile defense is so software centric, certainly more so than traditional weapons systems, it is not such a stretch to envision the method being applied to both the hardware and software components of the system. The reason it has not been used extensively in the past could be the fact that it was first introduced by Barry Boehm in 1988, even though it is intended for large, complex, and expensive projects (such as missile defense).

Secondly, and most importantly, the author’s rejection of capabilities-based deployment as a viable solution to current and future nuclear threats is highly questionable. The consequences of an unforeseen nuclear strike by a rogue actor are sufficiently dire as to more than adequately justify any preemptive defensive capability development which has a feasible chance of providing effective countermeasures. The loss of a major US population center in a nuclear strike would be measured not in billions of dollars, but in trillions; not in thousands of needless deaths, but in millions.

The author quotes MDA Director Gen Obering’s “better than zero chance” statement from a Washington Post article in an effort to demonstrate how little progress has been made in producing a 100% reliable missile defense system. However, what he fails to realize (or perhaps chooses not to convey to his readers) is an exercise in simple math. Any chance of intercepting an incoming nuclear warhead is infinitely better than no chance at all. The stakes don’t come any higher than this, and the argument could easily be made that the costs incurred by the missile-defense program to this point would be but a drop in the bucket in comparison to the disaster that might result if a partially capable yet non-deployed system were unable to engage a nuclear threat because testing had not been completed.

In conclusion, this article is, for the most part, a well thought out and researched piece that provides plenty of detailed information for a reader new to the concepts of missile defense. Unfortunately, it fails to adequately address the full spectrum of thought on the subject and, as a result, presents an undeniably biased viewpoint that refuses to consider nontraditional approaches to procurement and development, as well as blatantly ignoring the incredibly high risks of not having a defensive capability.


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