"A Reasonable Chance of Shooting It Down":

At a press conference earlier today, President Bush was asked several questions about the North Korean missile tests. Among his responses were the following comments about the United States' anti-ballistic missile capabilities:

Our missile systems are modest, our anti-ballistic missile systems are modest. They're new. It's new research. We've gotten -- testing them. And so I can't -- it's hard for me to give you a probability of success. But, nevertheless, the fact that a nontransparent society would be willing to tee up a rocket and fire it without identifying where it's going or what was on it means we need a ballistic missile system.

While existing systems may be "modest," the President further indicated that the military could well have intercepted a missile aimed toward North America. Specifically, Bush said "I think we had a reasonable chance of shooting it down. At least that's what the military commanders told me."

The official press conference transcript is here.


At least that's what the military commanders told me.

The thing about generals is that you don't get to be a colonel by telling the boss what he doesn't want to hear.
7.7.2006 4:56pm
Tracy Johnson (www):
Shouldn't that be "an anti-ballistic" in the last sentence of Bush's quote or is this a [sic] quote?
7.7.2006 4:58pm
The Mad Pigeon (www):
"Reasonable chance" doesn't sound so great when you're dealing with potential WMD warheads.
7.7.2006 5:32pm
Shouldn't that be "an anti-ballistic" in the last sentence of Bush's quote or is this a [sic] quote?

The press made the same mistake...

Q It's been three days since North Korea fired those missiles. Yesterday you said you did not know the trajectory of the long-range missile. Can you now tell us where was it was headed? And if it were headed? And if it were headed -- if it had been headed at the United States, how would our national ballistic missile system have taken it down?
7.7.2006 5:32pm
KeithK (mail):

"Reasonable chance" doesn't sound so great when you're dealing with potential WMD warheads.

No, which is why we oufght to be spending more money on missile defense. Or at least, that's part of the message that the administration wants to send. We have some capability now that does help to protect us but the danger is great enough that we need to do more.

This message is also why I think that the Pentagon wouldn't necessarily have admitted it if we actually did shoot down the NK missile (causing the failure). While the positive publicity for MD would be good, it might cause a certain amount of complacency.
7.7.2006 5:45pm

"Reasonable chance" doesn't sound so great when you're dealing with potential WMD warheads.

Yeah, but it's a whole lot better than "no chance".
7.7.2006 5:54pm
The primary purpose of these systems is deterrence. Yes, they'd surely be pointless if we were facing a Soviet threat where thousands of missiles would be launched. But when it's a matter of a rogue state that might only shoot one or two long-range missiles at you, it's sufficient to let them know that their missile MIGHT simply be shot down, at which point they would face overwhelming retaliation. It doesn't have to be a guaranteed defense to dissuade them from launching in the first place.
7.7.2006 5:59pm
anonyomousss (mail):
steve, all the deterrence is being done by the "massive retaliation" in your hypo. someone is only going to shoot at us if they don't expect massive retaliation, missile defense or no missile defense.

the president seems to be using a funny definition of "reasonable".
7.7.2006 6:06pm
nrein1 (mail):
I think there is no chance North Korea will shoot a missile at the Unted States within the next 10 years. For one they are apparently not close to having a missile that can reach the US and even if they did, they can not put a nuke on it any time soon. Yes missile defense would be good if there was unlimited funds and we could attempt to protect ourself against any eventuality, but this is not the case. The military budget is limited and priorities need to be set. I think missile defense should be well down that priority list.

We can't spend money on everything that might be a threat. As it is missile defense is expensive when compared to things like improved intelligence capabilities and the actual threat of a missile attack is quite low when compared to things like terrorism. If I was North Korea and decided I was going to attack the US with a nuke, not something that i see happening, I would attempt to sneak it through are admittinlgy weak port security not with a missile that keeps blowing up before it goes anywhere.
7.7.2006 6:10pm
Jimmy (mail):
Here's something I don't understand - every time we talk about the missle being launched, it's been explained that the interceptor would need to be fired off extremely quickly before the icbm would be going too fast to hit. So, has anyone heard about us sending an interceptor as soon as the NK missle was confirmed off the pad and in the air? Curious if the news was suppressed due to the NK missle blowing on its own... Is it maybe b/c the NK missle died less than a minute into flight and so the fire order for interceptors was never given? I am very curious about that...
7.7.2006 6:11pm
Jimmy - I suspect that the military made a decision not to intercept when NK first announced that it would test. They knew that the NK missle wouldn't be armed, and if the interception failed it would destroy the deterrent effect of our system. Since there was no immediate threat, it made more sense to wait and either find a way to perfect our system or at least be able to maintain publicly that our system might work.
7.7.2006 6:15pm
Kierkegaard (mail):
I find it rather amusing that in this case, North Korea touts its ability to fire missiles and we tout our ability to shoot them down. In fact, all of the tests have shown that neither country can do what they claim. The result, however, ends up being exactly the same as if they both could though.
7.7.2006 6:33pm
Kevin L. Connors (mail) (www):
Word in the news at this moment is that the gov'mint is saying trajectory information acquired before failure indicate the Taepodong-2C missile was targeted for US sovereign territory in the vicinity of Hawaii. This gives political cover for shooting down the next such missile on the launch pad.

However, use of any ABM capacity is a tricky matter.

Japan is strengthing its reentry phase interceptor (our Patriot, or Israel's Arrow) program. Both of these systems are far advanced from what we saw in 1991. But this is of questionable utility for our domestic defense, as targeting and intercepting an ICBM warhead, coming in from space, is a much harder problem than targeting and intercepting a SCUD.

Then there's the matter of boost, or mid-phase interdiction. And here we have the problem of tipping our hand before everyone's all-in. In the case of our mid-course missile interceptors, there is the strong chance that they will fail. There has yet to be a successful test.

The MTHEL laser (which is fundamentally intended to supplant the Patriot system) has been successfully tested - and the results made public. Information on it's close cousin, the ABL system, is far more closely guarded.

The information I've been able to garner indicates to me that the ABL is currently a limited success, but not yet "up to spec.," as it is unable to deal with multiple launches, as one would expect when facing a REAL military power, in a REAL war.

However, I am reasonably confident an ABL, flanking the DPRK, could reliably knock down a single Taepodong, "like magic," seconds after launch. And it would be an impressive display of "shock and awe."
7.7.2006 6:51pm
"Shouldn't that be "an anti-ballistic" in the last sentence of Bush's quote or is this a [sic] quote? "

I listened to it and GW didn't include "anti-" at the end of his response so the quote is accurate.
7.7.2006 6:51pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Permit me to display my ignorance:

Why can't a manned fighter jet shoot down an ICBM?
7.7.2006 7:01pm
llamasex (mail) (www):
Anderson Missiles go alot faster than jets.

I haven't been keeping up with the page, is Jonathan Adler taking Bush seriously or laughing at him?
7.7.2006 7:18pm
A more interesting question, perhaps, is what exactly the U.S. would do if NK fired one or two actual, armed ICBMs at Seattle (or Honolulu, or wherever), which happened to fail, and then announced that they had no more such missiles (or we ascertained this through intelligence sources). Traditional MAD would say that the U.S. would, automatically, launch a massive nuclear retalatory strike which would destroy either all of NK or all of its military-industrial complex, with unknown consequences (i.e. fallout, radiation) on the rest of the KP and nearby areas. But I'm not sure if that would actually happen; I could see public support for more limited conventinal strikes, or even a selective invasion/regime change, but not necessarily for a wholesale destructive retaliation.
7.7.2006 7:25pm
BGates (mail) (www):
From Wiki, an ICBM reaches speeds of 7km/sec and altitude of 150km + within 5 minutes of launch. By way of comparison, the next generation F-22 has a top velocity of 0.7 km/sec and a ceiling of 18km. If a plane was in the air and within about 50km of the missle when it launched, it might be close enough to get a shot off. Which would miss, because the pilot was shooting at something going fast enough to circle the earth in under two hours.
7.7.2006 7:26pm
volokh watcher (mail):
There's a "reasonable chance," if we spy on everyone in America, read their e-mails, listen to their calls, monitor their movements -- and conduct midnight raids on their dwellings -- that we'll stop a terrorist attack.

We should be spending every last dollar of the federal budget not spent on a missle shield on spying.

Hell, "reasonable chance" is a far more demanding standard than the Veep's "1 Percent Doctrine." No?
7.7.2006 7:39pm
Ron Hardin (mail) (www):
Anti-missle systems are easy to defeat but you do have to implement the defeating mechanism, and that adds to the unreliability and complexity of the offense, which is already complex enough that it's likely to fail on its own.

So it puts everybody that much further from a successful offensive system, and it's something we can do today.

As to hitting a bullet with a bullet, that's not the hard part. A lot of stuff has to work is the hard part.
7.7.2006 8:09pm
Paddy O. (mail):
Seems to me that the only sure thing in this whole situation will be the re-militarization of Japan, which I'm sure very few other countries in Asia are wanting to see happen.
7.7.2006 8:34pm
Richard Gould-Saltman (mail):
Hmm, "reasonable chance" of hitting a SINGLE missle, the intended launch of which was ANNOUNCED IN ADVANCE, launched from a LAUNCH LOCATION KNOWN IN ADVANCE,with no counter-measures or decoys of any kind? My limited knowledge of how information and aerospace systems work leads me to think that, short of our using a missle defense system to shoot down a balistic target we ourselves launch, this is about the simplest problem we could pose for an anti-missle system to solve. If we only had a "reasonable chance" on this one, I must infer that presently we have NO serious expectation that we could address somebody actually trying to start a war with this stuff.
7.7.2006 9:41pm
KeithK (mail):
Richard, wNK didn't announce the trajectory of the missile they were planning to launch. Unless you shoot the thing down right at the pad, tracking and getting a fix on the missile is a big part of shooting it down. We didn't have that information.

Again though, if I were President I wouldn't want to say categorically that we could shoot down any NK missile. It's well known that our system is far from perfect, so why make claims that it isn't. Provide the NK with some doubts and the American people with some comfort by saying we had a good chance of shooting it down. But encourage more funding by making the limitations clear in the context of a "real" danger.
7.7.2006 9:58pm
Frank Drackmann (mail):
I still think the best ABM defense is exploding a hydrogen bomb near the NK missile prior to launch. Its been 61 years since the last nuclear detonation in Asia and its clear theyve forgotten what its like. We could probably make it look like an accident with their own bomb but why bother. The rest of the world will blame the US and Israel even if it was a NK accident, so why not get the benefits of it.
7.8.2006 7:50am
C. Owen Johnson (mail):
Regarding what a reasonable chance is, the Probability of Kill, P(k), of a missile system is classified, but speaking as an engineer who's worked with similar programs, it safe to say for ABM systems a P(k) of much less than 95% would not be not considered good for much. So given that the standard doctrine is shoot-shoot-look, that implies a "reasonable chance" could be about 99.75%. If Bush was intending to acknowledge that the system wasn't quite up to spec yet [which might well higher than P(k)=95% for the scenario in question], the floor on a "reasonable chance" would better than 85%, since no one would consider a missile with a single shot P(k) of less than 60% even remotely reasonable, even under a much more stressful scenario.

Regarding the comment about shooting down an ICBM from an aircraft, that simply depends on the weapon used. Recall that we did a succesful test of an ASAT lauched from an F15 way back when. The problem with aircraft is not the lack of a effective weapon, it's the the loiter time; it's not practical to have aircraft flying around waiting for a launch. Ships and ground-based systems are much better at that.
7.8.2006 10:17am
Hamilton Lovecraft (mail):
Our missile systems are modest

Wow. Who knew 6000 nuclear warheads was "modest"?
7.8.2006 3:19pm
markm (mail):
"I find it rather amusing that in this case, North Korea touts its ability to fire missiles and we tout our ability to shoot them down. In fact, all of the tests have shown that neither country can do what they claim."

OTOH, if we did have a way to shoot down just one missile at a time and could keep it secret, secretly knocking down Nork test shots 30 seconds after launch would be an ideal solution to the problem posed by the Nork long-range missile program. Think of their engineers laboring forever to try to correct a non-existent fault in their design...
7.8.2006 4:08pm
Larry F (mail):
Maybe we can't shoot a Taepodong down, but maybe we can knock it down. I recall we sold some sophisticated electronics to the Soviet oil industry, and it worked perfectly for a time, only to go haywire and cause havoc later, as designed. Chinese missiles were notoriously inaccurate until American companies supplied the Chinese with the technology to make them very accurate. It remains to be seen whether there's some stealth built into it, but the Pentagon, after some public handwringing about sensitive technology transfers, quieted down rather quickly. If China passed that guidance system technology to their client state, and they put it on their ICBM, could it be that we ensured the failure of that launch electronically? We sure didn't crow about the failure, but why would we, if we wanted the Chinese to keep the guidance systems on their own
7.8.2006 4:34pm
pmorem (mail):
I'm assuming that our intent is as stated, to dissuade the North Koreans from testing long-range missiles. I'll go out on a limb and say that we'd really prefer to do it without pissing off the Chinese government.

It seems to me, then, that the ideal course of action is one that intimidates Kim and shows him that there is no realistic value in his course of action. In other words, create a situation that maximizes his risk and minimizes his potential reward.

Suppose we had and used some capability to destroy the missile 35-40 seconds into launch and then said nothing about it afterwards. How would that be distinguishable from recent events?

The North Koreans would either know how we did it, or not. Either way, they couldn't say anything about it. How stupid would they look complaining about us downing their missile when even we hadn't claimed to do so? What's more, not bragging about it is far more intimidating than bragging. It says, "We beat you, and it wasn't even worth mentioning".

The Chinese would likely breathe a sigh of relief at our courtesy, though they'd be somewhat concerned about their own capabilities.

The world at large would go on its merry way, happily ignoring the rumors of what had happened.

Even operational security would only need to be maintained for a few days afterwards. The rumors would float regardless, and the truth would be covered by the predictable noise. Those who would be angry about it would look nearly as silly as the North Koreans. Those who would be pleased about it would be dismissed as delusional.
7.8.2006 5:05pm
Zach (mail):
You know, the whole North Korea situation reinforces the idea that an ABM system could be a valuable and useful addition to our toolbox. That's even at the current level, which has relatively low capabilities, and can probably only handle a few targets on a previously identified set of trajectories.

Those are extremely limited capabilities, but they match up well against the extremely limited capabilities that North Korea will have in the near future. Remember, ballistic missiles follow very constrained trajectories between source and target. An unstable rogue state with limited capabilities which has shown little capacity to be deterred in the past is exactly where deterrence works worst and an ABM system works best. If you had some capacity to shoot down ballistic missiles, you could offer a lot of peace of mind to a prospective ally.

Remember, deterrence isn't actually what people and countries want. What they want is to be safe from WMDs. Deterrence is just an indirect way of providing that, and it's not entirely clear that it works in all cases. A country that had a capability to provide that safety directly -- even in a limited capacity -- would have a lot it could offer to allies.
7.8.2006 5:05pm
Zach (mail):
anonassociate hits the nail on the head as to why deterrence doesn't work that well at deterring one or two warheads. There's enough political uncertainty that a potential rival could persuade himself that he could escape retaliation. Like maybe the North Korean leader in his scenario persuades himself that the US could never attack his country conventionally because he has an alliegance with the Chinese, who would deter the Americans back!

Or maybe a Saddam-like figure who thinks that, if he could successfully hit the Americans, all of the Middle East would rally to his side. With the enormous power of oil, America's allies would force them into quiescence.

The scenarios don't have to be true in order for deterrence to fail. They just have to persuade a sufficiently unstable leader that things will work out that way. Bin Ladin was quite convinced that the Muslim world would rally to his side after September 11th, after all.
7.8.2006 5:13pm
Freder Frederson (mail):
It's well known that our system is far from perfect, so why make claims that it isn't.

Far from perfect? It isn't even operational. Simply putting prototype missiles in the ground and saying, "there, we have an operational system", doesn't make it so. There has not been a successful intercept of anything that approaches operational conditions. Unless we can convince the Koreans to put a homing beacon in their missile "reasonable chance" really means no chance at all.

The President is simply lying or incredibly ignorant. This is a "nobody anticipated the breach of the levees" moment.
7.8.2006 8:41pm
pmorem (mail):
Freder, if your understanding of the status of US ABM systems is as accurate as your understanding of the the difference between "topping" and "breaching" levees, that speaks to the value of your opinion on the subject at hand.
7.9.2006 1:00am
Freder Frederson (mail):
Freder, if your understanding of the status of US ABM systems is as accurate as your understanding of the the difference between "topping" and "breaching" levees, that speaks to the value of your opinion on the subject at hand.

Actually, this is exactly the same situation, a distinction without a difference. When the president says "we have a reasonable chance of shooting it down" he is either lying or being wilfully ignorant just as when he saide "nobody anticipated the breach of the levees" he was lying or being wilfully ignorant. You can decide which is worse.

Both statements are untrue on their face and if the President doesn't know they are untrue then he shouldn't be president. We don't have a "reasonable" chance of shooting down the missile by any military definition of the term "reasonable". And if he had bothered to ask in that conference prior to the landfall of Katrina "what exactly are the consequences of 'overtopping' the levees" he would have quickly learned that as far as the Corps and NOAA are concerned "overtopping" and "breaching" are practically synonomous, and overtopping is actually a far worse scenario than a breach without overtopping. If the levees had been overtopped, their design was such that it would have led to the water scouring the landside soil of the levees, leading quickly to a breach. So the President would have been told (and should have known) that overtopping inevitably leads to breach.

So if your understanding of the difference of the Lake Ponchartrain Levees in New Orleans is as accurate as the status of the U.S. ABM system, that speaks to the value of your opinion (and apparently the President's) on the subject at hand.
7.9.2006 11:43am
Kevin L. Connors (mail) (www):
C. Owen Johnson: Nice to see there's another engineer with some related experience (although mine is somewhat dated) here. My personal background was in tracking and guidance systems.

While I would agree that a land or sea based system would be superior, the big advantage (in the case of directed energy weapons), is that you have the real estate to implement multiple-target systems. Loiter time isn't a big stumbling block. With multiple crews, and in-flight refueling, an ABL system can stay on station indefinitely.

Of course, in this day and age, that seems like a massive waste of resources. But consider that, pre-START, we had 1/3 of our B-52 fleet airborne at any given time.
7.9.2006 1:53pm
Frank Drackmann (mail):
1/3 of the B-52 fleet airborne at any given time? Even in the Dr. Strangelove days when there was a true 24 hr airborne alert in place it wasn't 1/3 of the total B-52 force. The 24 hr airborne alert ended around 1965 after several mishaps of B-52s carrying nuclear weapons. After 1965 the alert force consisted of loaded aircraft on the ground ready to launch . Simple math shows that with the last B52 coming out of Seattle in 1962 and START being signen in 1991, the youngest B52 would have accumulated some 87,000 flight hrs flying such an alert schedule. Which is why they stopped flying it in 1965.
7.9.2006 4:22pm
Kevin L. Connors (mail) (www):
Oops, I was thinking SALT not START.

None the less, further research leads me to believe that the 1/3 of the fleet on "airborne alert" was only maintained during highest threat levels, and then when even higher numbers were called for:

* SAC claimed they achieved the one-third alert level by May 1960. In March 1961, US President John F. Kennedy raised the alert level to half the force, and SAC claimed they met this goal in October 1961. In reality, it appears that some "imaginative accounting" was used to claim compliance, with the actual number of aircraft immediately available for combat falling well short of the stated goals. Given the logistical difficulties involved, the alert system was still impressive.

In the spring of 1959, SAC leadership had proposed an extension of the ground alert system, the "airborne alert" system, in which a number of bombers were kept armed and in the air at all times. While SAC proposed that a sizeable percentage of the B-52 force be kept on airborne alert, in practice the expense and complexity of the scheme meant that only a handful of aircraft were assigned this duty. Formally, SAC described it as a "training effort" in this timeframe.

The airborne alert system was greatly expanded during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, with alert status raised to a "threshold of war" level. Bombers orbited outside of Soviet airspace, the crews prepared to attack the instant they received the order. After the crisis the airborne alert force was reduced to a much more modest level, with about a dozen B-52s kept in the air with a load of nuclear weapons.

The reason for the shortfall seems to be a lack of resources. So, Drackmann, point taken.
7.9.2006 11:50pm