via NATO

You’re probably aware the U.S. has a missile defense system, and the thought alone makes you feel (relatively) safe and cozy here in the states. But do you know how these systems work? Or how effective they can be? They’re not the impenetrable shield you think they are.

So are we safe from a missile attack here in the U.S.? It’s hard to say, but we’re probably not as safe as you think. The U.S. military has a history of claiming success rates much higher than reality. During the Gulf War, the U.S. Army claimed a 96% success rate against Iraqi modified Scud missiles, then later reduced that claim to 61%. Further analysis from experts suggested the success rate was very low and possibly 0%. After the recent missile attack in Saudi Arabia, President Trump was quoted as saying:

“Our system knocked the missile out of the air… That’s how good we are. Nobody makes what we make, and now we’re selling it all over the world.”

But further evidence analysis suggests the Patriot missile system failed, and that the warhead nearly hit the airport it was targeting where people heard and witnessed an explosion. In regards to our home front GMD defense, Lewis points out that U.S. officials have overstated those success rates as well:

Statements from U.S. officials suggest, however, that a system intended to counter nuclear-armed missiles could be considered effective if its predicted effectiveness is greater than about 90%. On June 16, 2009, just a week after Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told Congress that the current GMD NMD system was “fully adequate to protect us against a North Korean threat,” General James Cartwright, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate committee that he assessed the effectiveness of the GMD system against a North Korean missile as “ninety percent, plus.” A year later, amid continuing statements by U.S. officials about their confidence in the effectiveness of the GMD system, MDA Director Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly told the House Armed Services Committee that the probability that the system could counter a single ICBM launched by Iran “would be well over into the high nineties.”

But here’s the rub: even if the GMD and Aegis BMD systems manage an 80% to 90% success rate down the road, that still might not be good enough. After all, a failure rate of 10% to 20% is not adequate against a small barrage of nuclear-armed missiles. As the U.S. has proven in the past, it just takes one to decimate an area. But to improve these defenses and even get that far would require a lot more testing (ideally real-scenario testing), and that requires more focus and money. These tests aren’t cheap—the recent test in May cost $244 million—but they’re necessary if we’re going to rely on these systems. Though, perhaps we’re better off trying to avoid any conflicts where we’d need such defenses to begin with.

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