A new study from the American Physical Society, the nation’s leading organization of physicists, concludes that despite 65 years of efforts and the expenditure of over $350 billion, “no missile defense system thus far developed has been shown to be effective against realistic ICBM threats.” Current and planned systems are incapable of defending the United States against even a limited attack by North Korea. They are even less capable against the more sophisticated weapons fielded by China and Russia.
As the study notes, “the explosion of even a single nuclear warhead over a major U.S. city would be an enormous disaster, potentially killing a million people and reducing 100 square miles to rubble.” None of the defenses produced or deployed by the United States could prevent such a catastrophe.
The study could have significant repercussions in Congress which approves some $20 billion a year for “missile defense and defeat” programs under the erroneous perception that these weapons work or soon could work against nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Weapons designed to intercept short- and medium-range missiles, such as the Patriot and Aegis systems, have shown success in tests. Very short-range defense, such as the Iron Dome system fielded by Israel, are said to have great success in intercepting rockets that travel tens of miles, though there has been no independent verification of these claims. Long-range missiles, however, present a much more difficult challenge.
Missiles that fly more than 3000 kilometers (1860 miles) travel outside the atmosphere for much of their trajectory and re-enter at high velocity, many times greater than the speed of sound. ICBMs — missiles that fly more than 5500 km (3400 miles) — fielded by China and Russia are quit sophisticated and can use “technologies specifically designed to defeat current and future U.S. defenses against ballistic missiles, such as maneuvering warheads, multiple independently targeted warheads, and hypersonic glide weapons,” the study notes. These two nations may also soon field weapons that can defeat any known defense systems “such as short-range ballistic missiles launched from ships off U.S. coasts, nuclear weapons launched on fractional-orbit trajectories, nuclear-armed uncrewed underwater vehicles, or nuclear-armed cruise missiles.”
The detailed study, though, looked at defending against a single, more basic North Korean ICBM or a salvo of 10 such missiles. This is the focus of current U.S. missile defense programs. After a comprehensive analysis of the capabilities of the North Korean forces, including the counter-measures North Korea has likely developed, the authors found that even a defense against this limited threat is not effective and is not likely to be effective for the next 15 years.
Specifically, the scientists examined the $90 billion Ground-Based Mid-Course Defense system, consisting of 44 interceptors based in Alaska and California. This system is designed to “hit a bullet with a bullet,” destroying the warhead in the middle of its flight as it travels through the cold and darkness of space. While this capability has been shown in tests against simple targets, the deployed system has such grave issues with reliability, could be crippled by attacks on its radars, and is so vulnerable to defeat by simple countermeasures, such as decoys, that it “cannot be expected to provide a robust or reliable defense against more than the simplest attacks by a small number of relatively unsophisticated missiles,” such as the Hwasong-15. “The ability of any missile defense system to do this reliably has not been demonstrated,” the scientists note, as no system has ever been tested against realistic counter-measures, including decoys, chaff, or radar-absorbing coatings.
As recent tests have demonstrated, North Korea is moving beyond this baseline threat. U.S. intelligence estimates that North Korea “is likely already capable of launching a more sophisticated attack,” the study notes. So the scientists also examined two new ideas for adding to the deployed systems.
The first are interceptors designed to hit an enemy missile in its boost-phase, the initial period of flight when the rocket engines are firing, launching the nuclear warhead into space. This could theoretically solve the problems with mid-course interception as the missile would be hit when it is slow, hot and vulnerable rather than fast, cold and disguised. They found that any of the proposed systems using interceptors launched from ships, aircraft or from land face “very difficult technical challenges” that render them “unable to defend the entire continental United States.”
Space-based systems, also designed to intercept enemy missiles in their boost-phase, fare no better. This type of defense “would require many hundreds of weapons orbiting on space platforms to theoretically defend against a single North Korean ICBM, and thousands to defend against five ICBMs launched within a short time.” The cost to field these weapons would be enormous and they would be “vulnerable to being disabled by anti-satellite weapons.”
The scientific study is the first independent report on missile defenses from the APS since the physicists studied boost-phase defenses in 2003 and directed energy weapons in 1987. Both studies concluded that these defensive systems were unfeasible in the foreseeable future. Their findings have been upheld by the failure of these systems since.
The current report concludes that creating a reliable and effective defense against the threat posed by even a small number of relatively unsophisticated nuclear-armed ICBMs “remains a daunting challenge.” Specifically, “the difficulties are numerous, ranging from the unresolved countermeasures problem for midcourse-intercept to the severe reach-versus-time challenge of boost-phase intercept.”
Though Gen. John Hyten testified to Congress when he was in charge of these programs in 2020 that he had “100 percent confidence in those capabilities against North Korea,” the scientists found that “few of the main challenges have been solved, and many of the hard problems are likely to remain unsolved during, and probably beyond, the 15-year time horizon the study considered.”
The science is clear: For the foreseeable future an effective defense of the nation against ballistic missiles will remain a fantasy.
Joseph Cirincione is a national security analyst and author with over 35 years of experience working these issues in Washington, D.C. He is the author or editor of seven books, including Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World before It Is Too Late and Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons. He served previously as president of Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation, vice president for national security at the Center for American Progress and director for nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, among other positions. He worked for over nine years on the professional staff of the Armed Services Committee and the Government Operations Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives. He is adjunct faculty at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He appears frequently on television, radio and in the media and is the author of over eight hundred articles and reports on defense and national security. He tweets @Cirincione.
A medium-range ballistic missile target is launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, Hawaii, during Flight Test Standard Missile-27 Event 2 (FTM-27 E2) on Aug. 29, 2017. The target was successfully intercepted by SM-6 missiles fired from the guided missile destroyer USS John Paul Jones (DDG 53). (DoD photo by Latonja Martin)
Senator Lindsey Graham had two options walking into the Doha Forum in Qatar this weekend: find a way to triangulate his full-throated support for Netanyahu policies in Israel for the largely Palestinian-supportive Muslim audience Sunday, or wave his own flag without reservation. He went with the latter.
The South Carolina Republican made it clear he was no stranger to the region — he touted a long friendship with his host the Emir of Qatar and lauded the kingdom's role as international mediator and host to America's Fifth Fleet. But he didn't bat an eye to tell this audience — thousands of Muslims assembled from across the Gulf and the broader Middle East, plus attendees from Global South nations and Europe — that the U.S. veto of the ceasefire was one of the few things he thought the Biden Administration got right.
"President Biden ...You have risen to the occasion after October the seventh," he said, addressing the audience Sunday. "I have a world of difference with President Biden on many things. But when he vetoed the ceasefire resolution, he did the right thing and let me tell you why. Every ceasefire Hamas has ever entered has been broken and we're not going to do a ceasefire until hostages begin to be released like promised and would give the Israeli military the time and space they need to make sure that Hamas ceases to be a threat to Israel and the Palestinian people."
"So as a Republican, I am standing behind President Biden's decision, that resolution and the one that comes next."
He also said the only way there will be peace in the Middle East and to get the real culprit — Iran — and to start building a state for Palestine, was for the normalization process between Arab States and Israel to continue, with the Israel-Saudi deal the icing on the cake.
"I pledge in front of the world to help President Biden secure the votes in the United States Senate to make it possible for Saudi Arabia to have a defense agreement with us, which would then make it possible for Saudi Arabia, to recognize Israel," he declared. "Before the world I pledge my support, to help reconstruct a new Palestine but none of this is possible until you have a less corrupt younger Palestinian Authority, replacing the one we have. And a Hamas can no longer wreak havoc on Israel, on their own people.”
That potential U.S.-brokered Israel-Saudi deal have been deemed all but dead after the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel. Graham contended that aside from hating Jews, Hamas launched the attacks to kill any hope for that deal to go forward. Observers have come to similar conclusions — that the so-called Abraham Accords had left the Palestinians on the cutting room floor, inciting anger among the militant elements in Gaza. But unlike Graham, these critics' hold that the agreements are the problem — that regional leaders' shouldn't have allowed Israel to shunt the peace process to the side in the first place.
Not only did Graham ignore this fatal flaw of the agreements, he reveled in his own blind spots, choosing to ignore any culpability of the Netanyahu government over the decades leading to the violence and what appears today, an endless bombardment and on-the-ground military operation in Gaza with chances for further talks between the two sides dwindling by the hour. Instead, he appeared to blame Iran for everything.
"The biggest fear of the Ayatollah is that the Arab world, in conjunction with Israel, marches toward the light away from the darkness. (Iran hates) the idea that everybody in this room can find a way to work with Israel and live with Israel where everybody makes money and can live in peace. Because let me tell you, their agenda is different than yours. So I believe we cannot let Iran win."
He said he was committed to a two-state solution, and if there was any moment in his talk where he put any responsibility on Israel it was this: "I'm going to Israel soon and here's what I'm telling Israeli friends — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, none of these Arab countries can help you. Unless you make a commitment for a two state solution. ...To my friends in Israel the best thing you can do to beat Iran is to give the Palestinians a life where they're not dependent upon terrorist organizations that they can live and work and be prosperous."
How Israelis could get there, from here, was not explained by Lindsey Graham, or whether he honestly thought that was possible given the "hell on earth" Gaza is becoming today. But we know he doesn't believe that the civilian crisis on the ground now will reduce the chances for peace tomorrow, because of the way he reacted to U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's remarks earlier this month.
Austin said “the lesson is that you can only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians. In this kind of a fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population. And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”
“Strategic defeat would be inflaming the Palestinians? They’re already inflamed,” Graham continued. “They’re taught from the time they’re born to hate the Jews and to kill them. They’re taught math: If you have 10 Jews and kill six, how many would you have left?”
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Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov speaks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Dec. 10. (Vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — In remarks Sunday at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov seemed to revel in what is becoming a groundswell of international frustration with the United States over its policies in Israel. Despite Russia’s own near-isolated status after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Lavrov glibly characterized the U.S. as on the wrong side of history, the leader of the dying world order, and the purveyor of its own brand of “cancel culture.”
“I think everybody understands that this (Gaza war) did not happen in a vacuum that there were decades of unfulfilled promises that the Palestinians would get their own state,” and years of political and security hostilities that exploded on Oct. 7, he charged. “This is about the cancel culture, whatever you don’t like about events that led to the current situation you cancel. Everything that came before February 2022, including the bloody coup (in Ukraine) and the unconstitutional change of power … all this was canceled. The only thing that remains is that Russia invaded Ukraine.”
Lavrov, beamed in from Russia to the international audience in Doha, went fairly unchallenged, though his interviewer James Bays, diplomatic editor at Al Jazeera, attempted to corner him on accusations stemming from Russia’s own bloody record in Chechnya in the 1990s and and 2000s and its ongoing military campaign in Syria, which Lavrov noted was at the “behest” of the Syrian government.
On the issue of the failed ceasefire vote at the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent veto member, Lavrov said, “we strongly condemn the terrorist attack against Israel. At the same time we do not think it is acceptable to use this (terrorist) event for collective punishment of millions of Palestinian people.” Did he condemn the United States for vetoing the ceasefire measure? “It’s up to the regional countries and the other countries of the world to judge,” he declared.
When asked if there was a “stalemate” in the Russian war in Ukraine, and what the Russians may have gained from their invasion in 2022, he said simply, “it’s up to the Ukrainians to understand how deep a hole they are in and where the Americans have put them.”
On whether a ceasefire may be in the offing in that war Lavrov said, “a year and half ago (Zelensky) signed a decree prohibiting any negotiations with the Putin government. They had the chance in March and April 2022, very soon after the beginning of the special military operation, where in Istanbul the negotiators reached a deal with neutrality for Ukraine, no NATO, and security guarantees…it was canceled,” he added, because the Americans and Brits wanted to “exhaust (Ukrainians) more.”
Lavrov gleefully piggybacked on themes from an earlier forum panel on the Global South. He accused “the United States and its allies” of building “the model of globalization, which they thought would serve them well.” But now, Lavrov contends, the unaligned are using “the principles and instruments of globalization to beat the West on their own terms.” As for Russia, Lavrov deployed a little “cancel culture” of his own, cherry picking the high points of his country's history over the last 200 years to project a nation that he boasts will emerge unscathed by Western assaults today.
“In the beginning of the 19th century Napoleon (rose European armies) against Russia and we defeated him; in the 20th century Hitler did the same. We defeated him and became stronger after that as well,” he said. With the Ukraine war, the West will find “that Russia has already become much stronger than it was before this.”
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UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks in opening session of the Doha Forum in Qatar, December 10. (vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — The U.S. veto of the UN Security Council vote for a ceasefire in the war in Gaza is being met with widespread anger and frustration by the international community and especially in the Arab world, as reflected in opening remarks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Sunday.
Addressing the forum, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the vote was “regrettable…that does not make it less necessary. I can promise that I will not give up.” He said since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in Israel and the ensuing Israeli retaliation in Gaza, “the Council’s authority and credibility were seriously undermined” by a succession of failed votes to respond to ongoing civilian carnage on the Strip.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, foreign minister of Qatar, said the current crisis and the U.S. reaction to it, including its thwarting of the ceasefire call (it was the only vote of disapproval; the UK abstained) was exposing the “great gap between East and West ... and double standards in the international community.” He pointed to those drawing attention to war crimes in “other contexts” (no doubt referring to Russia in Ukraine ) “hesitating to call for the end of these crimes in the Gaza strip.”
He repeatedly called for the creation of new multipolar world order that "respects justice and equality between the people where no people are more powerful than the other."
The U.S. said it did not approve the ceasefire resolution Friday because of the lack of condemnation of Hamas in the language, and that it not include a declaration of Israel’s right to defend itself. U.S. ambassador Robert Wood said halting Israel’s military action would “only plant the seeds for the next war.”
The result is that people here at the forum say they are more convinced than ever that U.S. policy is reflexively and intimately intertwined with Israel's activities in Gaza. As Mohammad Shtayyeh, prime minister of Palestine, charged, Washington has given the “greenest of green lights” to what Israel is doing on the ground. This was exacerbated this weekend with news that the Biden Administration is bypassing Congressional review to send 13,000 tank rounds to Israel. This, despite efforts by Democrats in his own party to condition the transfer of offensive weapons to prevent their use against civilians.
Meanwhile, humanitarian advocates repeatedly called the situation on the ground “unprecedented.” In an interview with Al Jazeera reporter Stefanie Dekker on the dais, Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said his own organization is “on the brink of collapse.” They have lost 134 relief workers in Gaza since Israeli operations began. He described staff in silent stupefaction over the loss of homes, families. “There is no doubt a ceasefire is needed; we want to put an end to hell on earth right now in Gaza.”
Khaled Saffuri, executive director of the National Interest Foundation in Washington, told RS he was struck by the backlash against American brands in his own travels in Kuwait and Qatar over the last week, citing customer and restaurant boycotts of Coke, Pepsi, MacDonald’s, and Starbucks. “It’s horrible,” he said of the lopsided UN vote. “America is losing a lot in the Muslim world.”
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