Long shot

Poland’s decision to become the latest partner in the US Missile Defence initiative provoked dark threats from Russia and marked another milestone for one of the longest running and strangest sagas of post-war military technology.


Missile defence has swallowed money, time and technical know-how for the last 50 years and shows no signs of running out of appetite.


It represents a classic case of technical reality merging with strategic desirability to create a smoke and mirrors mixture of the achievable and the illusory.


The fantasy element reached its apex with the Ronald Reagan-era Strategic Defence Initiative, otherwise known as Star Wars, which proposed a giant technological umbrella that would shield the US and its allies from an all-out nuclear attack.


While this prospect made for reassuring politics it soon became clear that the technical challenges were, to say the very least, considerable.


Since then missile defence initiatives have scaled back their ambitions and are now mainly focused on providing a shield against limited, surprise attacks from ‘rogue states’ or terrorists.


The current system, of which the Polish installation and Fylingdales in Yorkshire will form part, is about ‘hitting a bullet with a bullet’ – detecting, tracking and then knocking a missile out of the sky before it reaches its target.


It may not be the science fiction space shield of Star Wars but it remains a formidable challenge.


In July the US Missile Defence Agency gave a press conference outlining the progress it has made. On the face of it, that progress is impressive – more hits than failures during testing, with none of those failures down to a ‘showstopper’ problem with the technology.


It was also clear, however, that the shadow that has haunted missile defence programme since its inception still looms large – that of countermeasures.


The defence industry has a long history of cat-and-mouse between weapons systems, countermeasures, and counter-countermeasures.


There is no guarantee that a ‘rogue state’ ingenious enough to build a long-range weapon would not extend that ingenuity to countermeasures able to baffle a missile defence system.


It would be very difficult, maybe even highly unlikely, but the point of missile defence is supposed to be certainty of security for those being protected. Where this type of technology is concerned, certainty is in short supply.


In the absence of definitive technical answers, missile defence has instead become a political and diplomatic bargaining chip, another cause of tension in an increasingly tense world.



Andrew Lee, editor