Politics & Policy


How missile defense can learn from failure.

I have a theory about the enemies of missile defense. Whenever one of the Pentagon’s ABM tests doesn’t go according to plan, they give a prize to the first one who shouts “nanny-nanny-boo-boo!” in the popular press.

The most recent winner may be Fred Kaplan, for this article in Slate. It was certainly the most mocking assessment of an Aegis missile-defense test that went awry last week. The headline said it all: “The Pentagon’s Laughable Weapons Test.”

Let’s set aside the question of why missile-defense critics are so happy when military technology that means to protect us from weapons of mass destruction doesn’t live up to its promise. For now, we’ll focus on Kaplan’s gleeful outrage over how the Missile Defense Agency described what happened — and in particular, its reluctance to label the test a “failure.”

Indeed, the MDA’s press release oddly resorts to the passive voice in describing the test: “an intercept was not achieved.” I have no idea why the agency doesn’t just say the thing “missed its target.”

But this is a minor point of semantics. Kaplan wants to make a major issue of missile-defense failure. He quotes MDA spokesman Chris Taylor: “I wouldn’t call it a failure,” said Taylor on CNN, “because the intercept was not the primary objective. It’s still considered a success, in that we gained great engineering data. We just don’t know why it didn’t hit.”

Kaplan sneers: “Oh, it’s hard to be a satirist these days.”

This is grossly unfair, and Kaplan knows it. Taylor’s point is a rather simple one: Just as a test in school can have dozens of questions, a missile-defense test has many parts. The ABM may have missed its target, but that doesn’t mean nobody will learn anything from what happened. Researches will study how the rocket motors and directional thrusters performed, whether the radars and heat seeker picked up its prey, and so on. We may soon know precisely why the interceptor missed its target. Then we’ll be able to fix the problem and move on. If nobody ever learned from failure — I’ll go ahead and use the word, even if Taylor avoids it — we wouldn’t bother to figure out why the Columbia Space Shuttle disintegrated in February.

It’s disappointing that the Aegis system didn’t operate as well as we might have hoped. In a way, it’s even more disappointing to hear the cackles of Kaplan and others echoing in the background. These guys seem like modern-day Luddites, judging from their delight at technology letting us down.

At least Kaplan is honest enough to write these words in his last paragraph: “Of course, the Pentagon’s standard of success in testing is not entirely ridiculous. In the early stages of a weapon’s R & D, especially if the program involves advanced technology, there is real value in learning practically anything about its performance. If one part of the test fails but the other parts work fine, it might legitimately be called a success.”

Those three sentences almost retract the snickers that come before them. Yet Kaplan just couldn’t hold his fire — or keep himself from giggling — at last week’s test.

Maybe we supporters of missile defense should set up our own awards program. The first critic to emit joyful howls at a missile-defense setback wins a framed map of Los Angeles with a big red bull’s-eye drawn on it.

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.


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