Like with many things in life the Pentagon’s latest taxpayer-funded boondoggle started off with the best of intentions. At the heart of the scandal is the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, or MDA for short. In the wake of 9/11 one of the persistent fears the U.S. has faced is a missile attack by a rogue nation like North Korea. Defense hawks maintained that countries like Iran and North Korea were close to developing long range missiles capable of striking the United States and we needed a new government agency to address that threat.
Instead of an active and useful missile defense system what the taxpayers got instead were a hodge-podge of ineffective systems, some inherited from the Clinton years, but most developed from scratch from the MDA’s own contractors.
The one system they inherited was the Airborne Laser Test Bed, or ALTB, an airborne chemical laser and targeting system in the back of a specially modified 747. The ALTB was the stuff of science fiction, a massive laser in the belly of a modified airliner capable of shooting down enemy missiles. The only problem was the aircraft had to be close to the missile launch sites, leaving the airplane vulnerable to ordinary anti-aircraft missiles. The fuel that powered the laser was also dangerously volatile.
The 16 year program that started in 1996 ran $4 billion dollars over budget and was finally scrapped in February of 2012. The one working airborne laser has been moved to an Air Force facility jokingly referred to as “The Boneyard.” The program ended up setting taxpayers back $5.3 billion over the life of the program.
Another massive waste of taxpayer dollars was the Sea-Based X-Band Radar, or SBX. This was envisioned as a powerful floating radar that could protect the west coast of the U.S. by guiding missile interceptors to incoming warheads and was supposed to be able to distinguish real warhead from dummy loads designed to fool intercept vehicles. If North Korea fired a missile at the west coast of the U.S. SBX would spot it and guide interceptor rockets to destroy it. That was the theory anyway; it didn’t work out in practice.
In reality the radar was too narrow to be any use as an early warning system and its expensive components were subject to corrosion by salt air, a real problem for an ocean-going radar platform. Instead of a viable missile defense the SBX was a $2.2 billion dollar flop that was hugely expensive to operate, even for short periods of time. Not only did SBX spend the bulk of its time in a shipyard in Hawaii but the money wasn’t available to develop a land-based early warning radar system that would actually work.
The other two boondoggle programs were the Kinetic Energy Interceptor and the Multiple Kill Vehicle, which were supposed to be the weapons that destroyed the incoming warheads. One was too big to launch from the ships that were supposed to carry it and the other was too complex to ever work. The price tags for those were $1.7 billion and $700 million respectively.
How these programs came to be such a massive waste of taxpayer money is much easier to understand and boils down to a powerful combination of fear and greed. The nation was scared in the wake of 9/11 and spared no expense when it came to the potential threats from hostile nations. Congressional representatives from districts that benefited from these programs fought fiercely against any changes or cuts. Anyone who dared suggesting cutting these programs was mocked as “leaving America vulnerable to attack.”
It wasn’t until after extensive analysis and reviews by experts indicating these systems would never work that the programs were finally scrapped. The analysis alone, some of which took years to develop, was another massive expense and it cost taxpayers millions just to gather evidence to cancel the programs.
Any time the nation is pushing science to the limits there will be setbacks but MDA’s track record is so bad that one can legitimately question its usefulness to the nation.