In Congress last week, Representative John Tierney, Chair of the House National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee, convened the latter in a series of hearings to examine the US missile defense program: “What are the Prospects, what are the Costs? Oversight of Missile Defense (Part II).” Here’s the short answer – the costs are open-ended, the prospects suck, but the Bush Administration is still hell-bent on spending over $10 billion per year and compromising our national security in the process.

Three extraordinary expert witnesses were on hand to help sort through the smoke, mirrors and deception that defines the missile defense program – a weapons system Rep. Tierney pointed out that has already cost us $120 billion to $150 billion or more, and that the Congressional Budget Office estimates will cost a staggering additional $213 billion to $277 billion between now and 2025.

“In a time of economic hardship, budget deficits, and many pressing and expensive challenges – both foreign and domestic, we need to all ask ourselves… are we wisely spending the taxpayer’s money here; is there a real threat we are trying to guard against; and are we actually going to have something useful at the end of the day?” Rep. Tierney asked in his opening remarks.

Want an insider’s view? How about Dr. Philip Coyle III, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense and Director of Operational Test and Evaluation in the Department of Defense from 1994-2001, the longest-serving Director in the 20-year history of that office. He oversaw the testing and evaluation of over 200 defense acquisition systems and is currently the Senior Advisor to the Center for Defense Information.

Coyle testified that there’s no operational criteria whatsoever established to determine if the system is successful; the White House, Pentagon and Missile Defense Agency (MDA) give misleading information about the performance and perceived threat; the tests that have been done don’t demonstrate effectiveness against the most basic decoys and countermeasures or realistic operating conditions; the costs are “open-ended and there is no end in sight”; and the system undermines diplomacy as well as arms control and non-proliferation objectives.

“Decoys and countermeasures are the Achilles Heel of missile defense,” Coyle said. “If an enemy uses decoys and countermeasures, missile defense is like shooting a hole-in-one when the hole is going 17,000 mph and the green is covered with black circles the same size as the hole. The defender doesn’t know which target to aim for.”

Coyle and other panelists pointed to the 1999 National Intelligence Estimate that said both North Korea and Iran would soon know how to field such decoys and countermeasures if they didn’t know how to already. In addition, China and Russia were believed to already possess such technologies and were willing to sell them.

The second witness was Dr. Richard Garwin, one of the world’s most eminent physicists and a longtime scholar on missile defense. After working on the creation of the hydrogen bomb, he joined the IBM Corporation in 1952 where he remains a Fellow Emeritus at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center in New York. He received the nation’s highest honor for the fields of science and engineering – the National Medal of Science – in 2003. Garwin concurred completely with Coyle’s testimony. He also focused on the lack of ability to operate against a realistic enemy – and misleading statements from the MDA on that issue.

“The MDA claims now to be able to handle decoys on a few ICBMs launched from Iran or North Korea but its director in a 2007 article writes, ‘And the Multiple Kill Vehicle system is a generational upgrade to the… interceptors that will allow us to handle decoys and countermeasures.” Garwin noted that this system isn’t available until 2015. “How does a system potentially available in 2015 allow us to ‘handle decoys and countermeasures’ now? This is not reality. [We need] some assessment of the realistic performance of the system.”

Garwin described just how easy it would be to thwart our $150 billion Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system (that’s the one that is supposed to stop the rogue nations and terrorists, and protect Europe and America). “You don’t need to know much about the defense system… [just] a dance of little balloons… and everything could be a warhead, everything could be a decoy” from the perspective of an interceptor missile.

Joining Coyle and Garwin on the panel was Dr. Lisbeth Gronlund, Senior Scientist and Co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and a Research Affiliate at the Program on Science, Technology and Society at MIT. She spoke of the compelling vision President Ronald Reagan outlined for missile defense 25 years ago.

“[President Reagan’s] famous ‘Star Wars vision of a ‘shield that could protect us from nuclear missiles just as a roof protects a family from the rain’ was very compelling to many people. I think it’s a vision that remains compelling today,” she said. “However, the United States is no closer today to being able to effectively defend against long-range ballistic missiles than it was 25 years ago.”

Gronlund also agreed that countermeasures and decoys are the core reason why the missile defense system will not work. She pointed out that tests of the mid- and long-range defense system in the past 5 years have actually gotten simpler, rather than more difficult. In the past there was some attempt to use at least primitive decoys. She pointed to testimony before Congress by the Director of the MDA, Lieutenant General Henry Obering III, claiming that the MDA “conducted an integrated flight test last September involving a realistic target launched from Alaska.”

“The target included no countermeasures,” Gronlund said. “General Obering is apparently defining a ‘realistic target’ as one without countermeasures. [He] went on to say, ‘While the [GMD] System is developmental, it is available today to our leadership to meet real world threats. If MDA believes the GMD system has the ability to intercept targets with countermeasures then it should demonstrate it…. Until then, Congress should provide no more funding to purchase and deploy additional interceptors or radar.”

The witnesses noted that even with the MDA designing simpler tests for the GMD system, 6 of 13 have failed since 2000, and 3 of 5 have failed since 2003. (In fact, there was a proposal for less testing because the failures might make “the shield” less of a deterrent.) Nevertheless, as Chairman Tierney pointed out, we are rushing to deploy interceptors and radar, the most recent in the Czech Republic and Poland where the citizens don’t want them. The three panelists recommended a return to a “fly before you buy” policy.

“What we have with GMD and several other Missile Defense programs is a procurement program masquerading as a Research and Development program,” Coyle said. “We’re buying massive amounts of equipment and deploying it all over the world without knowing how effective it is.” He said of the Eastern European-based system, “[It] has alienated Russia and upset the strategic balance to a degree not seen since the height of the Cold War. But for no good purpose. The proposed US system has no demonstrated operational effectiveness to defend Europe or the United States. Americans have a tendency to over-rely on technology as the first best hope to solve our problems, with Missile Defense the United States has been trying for 60 years without success. Other approaches are needed…. Diplomacy has been our most effective missile defense… effective diplomacy is hard to beat.”

Gronlund also pointed to the need for diplomacy. “People talk about the monetary costs. I think while those are large, the more significant costs are those to United States security.”

But facts be damned, Republican Representative Trent Franks was there demonstrating just what proponents of a sane and rational approach to missile defense are up against. He’s not a member of the subcommittee, but Chairman Tierney allowed him to make a statement. Here are just some of the whoppers Franks offered:

“Since man first took up arms against himself or his fellow human beings, there has always been offensive weapons, and the effort has been to build a defensive response to those. Unfortunately, that matrix continues forward,” he said. “If [an ICBM] lands in one of our major cities 100,000 people will die in a blinding moment, 4 or 500,000 more will die within a week or two or three…. We are now able to provide a limited defense against a threat from North Korea…. 26 of the last 27 flight tests for missile defense have been successful….Jihadist terrorism cannot be deterred by the threat of response and some of their leaders call Armageddon a good thing…. I believe it’s always a bad bet to bet against the innovation of the American people…. Mr. Coyle mentioned [the golf analogy] – he’s precisely correct. But that is also precisely what we did with the satellite…. I’m reminded of two airplanes hitting two buildings in New York, cost this economy nearly $2 trillion. And I don’t even know how to begin to estimate what one ballistic missile from Iran hitting New York would [cost]…. Iran and other countries and terrorist groups may be able to come up with something that would change our concept of freedom forever.”

After doing his damndest to make Rove, Cheney, Bush et. al. sound subtle, Franks thanked the panel and left, rather than sticking around to hear some smart responses.

As for 26 out of 27 tests, Gronlund said, “I think there is some confusion about short-range missile defenses and long-range missile defenses. The numbers he cited must include a lot of short-range missile defenses… citing 26 out of 27 is a deliberate muddying of these two very different technologies… it has nothing to do with [GMD] missile defense, neither does shooting down our satellite.”

“Not so hard with a satellite,” Garwin explained. “Because it’s highly visible, highly predictable… very different from striking down a warhead that does not want to be destroyed.”

“Look at how we test a nuclear armed missile to be sure they are accurate, it’s close to 100 times per missile,” Grunlund said. “And a missile is simple… there’s nothing compared to a missile defense system where it has to react to data coming in. An honest testing program… [would involve] hundreds of tests. All the different conditions that could apply, kinds of countermeasures, angles of attack, nighttime, angles of the sun…. [We are] fielding a system that we have no evidence works. Nothing else that we do follows those rules.”

“Mr. Franks spoke about terrorism, and that’s something we should be concerned about,” Coyle said. “But of course missile defense is useless against terrorism. It doesn’t work against terrorism. So as much as we might worry about terrorism and want to do some things about it, missile defense is not the solution.”

Chairman Tierney said he wished Rep. Franks had waited around to hear some of these responses. But Franks didn’t need to. Because the next day he was back among his friends where Rep. Ellen Tauscher, Chair of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee, held a hearing on the FY 2009 Budget Request for Missile Defense Programs.

“In six short years, a real missile defense shield has been developed, tested and fielded to protect the American people and our deployed forces,” Ranking Republican Terry Everett celebrated.

“[MDA] has already fielded a limited capability to defeat a limited ballistic missile threat from rogue nations,” Under Secretary of Defense, John Young, Jr. wrongly asserted in his written testimony.

“2007 was the best year we’ve ever had in Missile Defense,” MDA Director, Lt. Gen. Obering, claimed. “One of the things I want to point out is our increasingly complex and realistic test program…. We [did] the satellite shoot down in February with just six weeks notice…. The authorities given to the Missile Defense Agency over these past several years are why we were able to move this capability out so very quickly.”

Where were the opponents of this madness at this hearing? This subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) seems to accept false testimony of the missile regime without question. Since the HASC is the committee that authorizes the funds, it looks as if it will approve a budget that’s much larger than the testing justifies – unless members are speaking to each other behind the scenes.

Some who attended both hearings might have been left thinking about Coyle’s wise statement regarding oversight: “Congress does not have the information it needs to do oversight. If you don’t have the information, and the Pentagon just says ‘trust me’, you can’t really do oversight,” he said.

The Friends of Missile Defense might not use decoys and countermeasures to test their missile defense system, but they sure do use them when it comes to protecting their own budget and this inane course.

With reporting from Capitol Hill by Greg Kaufmann, a freelance writer residing in his disenfranchised hometown of Washington, DC.