Bunker Mulligan "Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry." ~Mark Twain

February 25, 2005

Missile Defense System Test

Filed under: Military — Bunker @ 5:11 pm

How many of you were aware that the Ballistic Missile Defense System has been anything but a failure?

The Feb. 24 mission — the fifth successful intercept for SM-3 — was the first firing of the Aegis BMD “Emergency Deployment” capability using operational versions of the SM-3 Block I missile and Aegis BMD Weapon System. This was also the first test to exercise SM-3’s third stage rocket motor (TSRM) single-pulse mode. The TSRM has two pulses, which can be ignited independently, providing expansion of the ballistic missile engagement battlespace.

We hear immediately when such tests “fail”. And at least one of those “failures” was an intentional shutdown by the launch team.

Remember Gulf War I and the Patriot missile systems? More than a decade ago. They “failed”, too. Except when they didn’t.

There is some phenomenal technology out there that most of us cannot even comprehend.


  1. You do realize that’s a corporate press release from the company that built the system, right? How objective and complete do you expect that to be?

    Comment by Bogey — February 25, 2005 @ 5:57 pm

  2. Well, actually, yes. I saw that. If it is fact, objectivity doesn’t even come into play, does it? My point is that we’ve heard about failures. And we’ve heard aborted launches called failures. Yet we must depend on the manufacturer to tell us about a successful test.

    Comment by Bunker — February 25, 2005 @ 6:54 pm

  3. It is simply another example of the core nature of ‘Bad News Sells’. A story about death and destruction has to be above the fold, but a story about equal or greater success is buried inside.

    Comment by Barb — February 25, 2005 @ 10:17 pm

  4. Yet we must depend on the manufacturer to tell us about a successful test.

    Well, no, we mustn’t. There’s a link to a Reuters piece on the same subject in the right column of the press release page to which you linked. The Reuters piece largely regurgitates info from the press release, though it does mention points out that the sea-based system is 5-for-6 and the land-based system is 5-for-8. So there were some “failures” that of course Raytheon has no motivation to mention. Still, those figures show a 71% success rate that could not be readily portrayed as a “failure,” and so the article doesn’t say anything to that effect. The headline is US downs dummy ballistic missile in successful test.

    Now, does this 71% success rate make it worth investing $50 billion over the next five years on more missile defense research and construction? That’s still 100% subjective, even if they’d been 100% successful.

    The technology is definitely phenomenal. The need for it, at its present cost, is still quite questionable.

    Comment by Sunsangnim — February 26, 2005 @ 12:19 am

  5. Gotta take credit and/or blame, that last comment was me, not Sunsangnim — I just happen to be on her computer.

    Comment by Bogey — February 26, 2005 @ 12:21 am

  6. And the Reuters piece was picked up by which news organizations? Wire services throw out all kinds of info which is often not published. This is a single example. If you don’t follow those feeds regularly, you don’t see them.

    I linked the item because I recall that the last test, covered by print and television, has heralded as a failure. In fact, the target had problems and the launch was aborted to prevent wasting a test article.

    I understand your feeling that the cost may not be worth the results. My view is that such a system is a deterrent, and valuable in potentially preventing loss of life.

    Secondarily, technology advancement such as this produces many spin-offs. The manned space program accomplished little of direct value, yet our lifestyle was improved tremendously through the changes in technology driven by the program.

    Comment by Bunker — February 26, 2005 @ 8:20 am

  7. The primary argument that Missile Defense wasn’t possible was always a bogus argument, in my opinion. It was always a clever and persuasive metaphor, but also a bald-faced lie.

    That primary argument — used by many missile defense opponents to “win” arguments — was: “‘Missile defense’ works like this. I stand in the back yard and shoot a bullet over the house. You stand in the front yard, see it coming, shoot another bullet, and hit my bullet.”

    And sadly, that stupid quote HAS settled the matter in many minds. If anyone wants to argue missile defense, I’m open to the debate. But if someone seriously puts forth the “shoot a bullet with a bullet” argument, he’s a liar or a moron, and the debate is over. This argument is based on cartoon logic, not science.

    Bullets are tiny, inexpensive little bits of metal, with no guidance capabilities and no intelligence. You point them, pull a trigger, and that’s the end of it. No way to change course.

    In cartoons, missiles are really just glorified bullets launched out of a really large barrel. But in reality, missiles are incredibly expensive and sophisticated pieces of electronics, with propulsion and guidance control capabilities throughout most of their trajectories. A missile can recognize a course error or a change in direction by its target, and can change course accordingly. We can argue whether a missile can do this successfully; but the bullet metaphor isn’t an argument, it’s a deceit.

    Except in particularly long range shots, a bullet travels from barrel to target nearly instantly, in a fraction of a second. Even a really long range shot is effectively instantaneous.

    In cartoons, missiles travel from launch tube to target in under a second. In reality, short-range, tactical missiles (such as SAMs) are almost that fast. But the ballistic missiles that are the focus of missile defense take a LONG time to travel, at least compared to a bullet. That gives a lot of time for detection, course analysis, target acquisition, and interception. And remember: the goal at this point is BALLISTIC missile defense. In other words, defense against missiles that are traveling in ballistic arcs dictated by Newton and gravity, with limited flexibility in their courses. We can’t absolutely predict the course of such a missile, but we can usually predict the range of likely courses and targets. We can argue whether a missile defense team can do this successfully; but the bullet metaphor isn’t an argument, it’s a deceit.

    If people want to debate this issue, let’s debate it. But when some decide to demagogue the debate, I immediately assume it’s because they don’t think they have the facts on their side.

    Comment by UML Guy — February 26, 2005 @ 11:47 am

  8. Wire services throw out all kinds of info which is often not published. This is a single example. If you don’t follow those feeds regularly, you don’t see them.

    But in this day and age, it is published, by the wire services themselves, and it is picked up by the aggregators like Yahoo! News and Google News — the very fact that you blogged the story is just more proof that we do hear about this stuff.

    Barb’s point in comment #3 sound compelling until you remember that this principle has been in effect since news media were invented, and it’s not something you can use to indict the media of today with any real meaning. It’s a problem with human nature and the consumers of news much more so than those who sell it.

    I won’t get into an argument of the “missile defense: deterrent or not,” it’s just too far off our original topic. We can bicker about that next time we hang out. (Actually, I’m not sure to what extent I disagree; it’s more of an at-what-cost issue.) But to try to end on a lighter note:

    Secondarily, technology advancement such as this produces many spin-offs. The manned space program accomplished little of direct value, yet our lifestyle was improved tremendously through the changes in technology driven by the program.

    I know in my heart and head that this is 100% true, no arguments here… but my funny bone insists on pointing out that nearly every time I’ve heard the above argument made, the example cited is the same: Velcro. The space program led directly to the development of Velcro. One shudders to think where humanity would be without it, right?

    Comment by Bogey — February 26, 2005 @ 11:48 am

  9. And no, I’m not accusing anyone here of making the bullet argument. But it came up in an offline conversation, recently, and the steam’s still coming out of my ears.

    Comment by UML Guy — February 26, 2005 @ 11:51 am

  10. UML Guy, your post would be much more compelling to me personally if I’d ever heard anyone actually use the “bullet metaphor,” but I haven’t. I’m sure there are folks out there using it, of course, but with all due respect (I visit your site pretty regularly too), I think that in this case you might be making a big show of stomping down an illogical fringe argument to sway attention from the more valid (and I hope more widely held) opposing view that missile defense has been an extremely slow, expensive road, and it’s just too difficult to prove that it’d be a genuine deterrent to anyone stupid/crazy/evil enough to want to shoot a missile at us.

    I have no doubt that given unlimited time and money our contractors can build a truly amazing system, but the line has to be drawn somewhere…

    Bunker, sorry I barfed on some blockquote tags in my previous comment. Could you please change the open-blockquote tag to a close-blockquote tag after “technology driven by the program.” and remove the double close-blockquote at the end of the comment? I have a very good excuse for my sleep-deprived HTML incompetence.

    Comment by Bogey — February 26, 2005 @ 12:08 pm

  11. …I’m not accusing anyone here of making the bullet argument. But it came up in an offline conversation…

    Just wanted to clarify that I was pounding out my response to UML Guy’s initial comment before I saw that follow-up…

    Comment by Bogey — February 26, 2005 @ 12:10 pm

  12. Bogey,

    There’s always room for debate. Not a problem. I just get really frustrated by certain debating tactics — particularly when I’ve been taken in by them. I used to find the bullet argument persuasive, until someone pointed all the flaws out to me.

    But as for how widely held your opposing view is: there, I fear you’re wrong. I think you’re right among scientists, engineers, technologists, and military folks. But in broader public debates — and especially in celebrity speeches, often in media proclamations, and sadly sometimes from elected officials who should know better — what I hear is always, “IT WON’T WORK!!!” Then, if they’re challenged to prove that, the opponents will switch to, “OK, it MIGHT work — and I might win the lottery tomorrow — but it’s useless. The next attack will be a suitcase nuke brought into downtown Manhattan by a terrorist. (And it will be all our fault for getting them poor terrorists all riled up.)” And while I agree that the suitcase nuke is an important concern, that’s like saying, “I don’t need to wear a seat belt, because I might get killed by heart disease.” If you want to argue which is a bigger risk, ballistic missiles vs. suitcase nukes, we can have that debate. Or we could have the even more complicated cost-benefits analysis on both sides: X dollars in missile defense reduces risk by Y; while X dollars in antiterror forces reduces risk by Z. But in the public debate, I don’t see that. I see “suitcase nukes, so shut up.”

    And THEN, if you actually stomp them on their fallacious arguments on bullets and suitcases, they’ll fall back on, “Yeah, but can we afford it? Is the gain worth the cost?” And then numbers start flying around, and the mass audience gets bored and walks away (or changes the channel, as the case may be). I just don’t usually see cost/benefit as the starting point in the argument. The starting point is usually, “It can’t work!”

    Comment by UML Guy — February 26, 2005 @ 12:36 pm

  13. Oh, and Bogey: yes, I know you visit our site regularly. Sometimes I think Blog o’RAM is just one prolonger conversation between the folks at RAMMER’s place and the folks at Bunker’s place, since you folks are practically our only regular commenters. So I respect your opinions and appreciate your visits.

    Comment by UML Guy — February 26, 2005 @ 12:40 pm

  14. I’m always amazed at which posts generate discussion and which ones don’t!

    I’ve heard the Velcro argument many times myself. My thoughts always turn to things like PLCs and computers–and Velcro!

    When I wrote about wire services putting out the information and it being left to lie around, I wondered myself about the news aggregators. But since I’d seen it nowhere else, I thought it worthy of comment. The indictment is in regards to “good news/bad news” discriminators. Unfortunately, the arguments on this topic hinge on its impossibility, and when major media outlets tout the failures, they are doing us all a disservice by ignoring the successes. It becomes a “false negative” if you will.

    In situations like this, bloggers pick up the slack–which is what I attempted to do.

    Comment by Bunker — February 26, 2005 @ 3:41 pm

  15. Bogey – You’ll get no argument from me on the onset of the ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ mentality. I know that the advent of the internet and the blogosphere did not create the situation. The internet has, however, given us the tools to research for ourselves, or to benefit from the scanning of others. Still, it makes me wonder sometimes what else I don’t know about.

    The best part of the blogs, for me, is not only that I can access other information. It is the chance to hash it out with other reasonable people. As Bunker said, it sometimes fascinates me which topics lead to fervent discussions.

    Comment by Barb — February 27, 2005 @ 1:48 pm

  16. I worked on the original anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system back in the 1960’s. The two missiles — Sprint and Spartan — initially had a lot of problems with controls, radars, etc., but eventually worked well enough that the mere threat of SAFEGUARD was enough to get the old soviets — Brezhnev, in particular — to demand and get a treaty. Reagan did essentially the same thing 20 years later, and the threat of it drove the soviets over the brink to economic ruin — according to their own admissions.

    Did they actually work well back then? In 1973, one of our (Bell Labs/McDonnell Douglas) Spartan missiles, launched from Kwajalein Island, the Marshalls, physically hit and knocked out of the sky, a hundred miles up, a test (not “dummy”) warhead incoming from Vandenberg.

    We didn’t even have intgegrated circuits back in those prehistoric days, and we could still do that. I would think that technology has gotten a lot better in the intervening three decades.

    The basic argument for ABM defense is often lied about by most liberals: for some reason, they want the US to be vulnerable to potential nuclear attack and possible extinction by enemies. Otherwise, why did they, back then, as now, demand that we stop any attempt at defending ourselves from mass murder?

    The arguments go like this:
    (1) It won’t work
    (2) Well, maybe it will work, but it is too expensive
    (3) Well, then it will de-stabilize detente. (As if their comrades in the USSR were still around.)
    (4) Wah-wah-wah! — Daddy Teddy, Daddy Bill, make them stop!

    The Left has not progressed since the ’60s, either politically or technologically. Their new ideas died after the Civil Rights movement began and Vietnam ended.

    This is the ultimate test: an incoming warhead (launched on purpose or accidentally) is headed for a large American city. If it detonates, five to ten million Americans will die. The President will be forced to retaliate.

    Do you want the President to be able to order it shot down, so that he/she saves those millions? So that he/she does not have to retaliate and murder millions of people in the nation that launched it (i.e., Russia, China, N. Korea, France, Iran)?

    Of do you want absolutely no defense at all, which is what we have now?

    If you want no defense, then I suggest you also tell the fire department and police that you can handle your own home security, too. Because that is what you would be choosing for all of us.

    Grow up, people! It’s a nasty world out there.

    Comment by Arlan — February 27, 2005 @ 5:55 pm

  17. Arlan, you really hit the mark in your “ultimate test” paragraph and the one following it — definitely an important way for me to look at the issue that I haven’t faced up to personally — but there’s such an angry quality to the rest of your comment that it’s hard to be taken in entirely.

    …when some decide to demagogue the debate, I immediately assume it’s because they don’t think they have the facts on their side.

    UML Guy,comment #7

    Comment by Bogey — February 28, 2005 @ 12:41 am

  18. Demagogue? Moi? I ask you to specify exactly which words constitute the basis of your accusation. I have had the same opinions and observations for nearly 40 years, whilst it appears as if yours were threatened by the simplest of questions, just yesterday. Who is the demagogue? What did I state that was not a fact?

    Angry? Moi? After enduring three or more decades of the self-appointed technical elites (cf. Scientific American)and intellectual elites (NY Times, Wash. Post, et nauseum) proclaiming that my nation’s survival is not worth protecting? That we must needs leave our very existence to the whims of insane Marxists, Islamics, and Frenchmen?

    Angry? Not moi. Just a bit smug, now, that after all these years, people on my side are running things and beginning to protect us all from the dark side.

    My side despised the USSR. They are gone. We despised the Dimocrat Party. They are going. We despise Islamofascism. Wanna bet on this outcome?


    Comment by Arlan — February 28, 2005 @ 10:14 pm

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