Missile defenses defeat ‘the science’ and ‘the experts’

If someone says “Trust the science!” these days, it’s usually an effort to short-circuit debate over weighty policy issues.

“Trust the science” has been deployed in the past five years to prevent debate over COVID school closures and mask mandates, over electric-car subsidies, and over sex changes for boys and girls.

For my entire time in Washington, though, “trust the science” has been used to oppose a missile defense system for the U.S. For my first 20 years as a journalist, I was told that a missile defense system simply cannot work, and that anyone who disagreed was a fool. All the experts agreed, and science proved that you can’t “shoot down a bullet with a bullet.”

That third tweet linked to an article in Scientific American—so it must be SCIENCE!—called missile defense “a dangerous illusion.”

Liberal blogger Matt Yglesias wrote, back in the Bush years:

“This is madness….  The defense system doesn’t work and never has. At best, it occasionally kinda sorta passes rigged tests. I’m a “never say never” kind of guy, but the odds of it ever working seem bad. The technical challenges are daunting: Building a missile that can reliably hit another missile is simply very difficult. Missiles are small, move very quickly, and are difficult to launch within the time frame necessary to intercept one that’s already in the air. What’s more, unlike, say, computers or telecommunications, the general field of aerospace engineering hasn’t seen any significant advances in decades. Even if we do manage to build a system that could identify a missile launch, track the object, and fire a counter-missile missile, nothing in the current plans is prepared to deal with any possible countermeasures or decoys.”

Noah Smith, a liberal economics blogger who has been mugged a bit by reality in recent years, has a good piece that includes that Yglesias quote and plenty of other folks with equal certainty asserting that a missile-defense system cannot work.

Smith puts these very certain expert scientific opinions in the light of recent reality:

“A couple of days ago, Iran launched a major attack against Israel, in retaliation for Israel killing one of Iran’s military commanders. The attack included about 170 drones, 120 ballistic missiles, and 30 cruise missiles. But something pretty incredible happened — almost all of the drones and missiles were shot down before they could hit Israel, by a combination of Israeli, U.S., Jordanian, French, British, and possibly Saudi forces. Only a few ballistic missiles made it through, wounding one Arab Israeli girl severely and causing minor injuries to a few other people.”

Missile defense works. Amazingly well. The experts and THE SCIENCE were wrong.

How was everyone so wrong?

Smith has a very specific explanation: “The information about how good America’s weapons systems are gets kept behind closed doors, unveiled in secret Congressional briefings and whispered between defense contractors. Meanwhile, everyone who wants to criticize U.S. weapons systems is on the outside, squawking loudly to the press.”

I think that’s too narrow. Often, the press just goes along with industry insiders and powerful politicians—think of vaccine mandates and transgender treatments and light-bulb bans.

I think that what happened here was simple: ideology and partisanship determined the judgment of the “experts” and the media.

The experts and their friends in the media were on the foreign-policy left. They rejected American exceptionalism and kind of liked the idea of the U.S. and its allies living under the same threat of attack under which U.S. enemies lived.

I never really understood why anyone would oppose a missile-defense system unless they actually supported nuclear slaughter. I had a left-wing friend who likened the U.S. setting up a missile shield to a guy walking into a bar and punching someone in the face. I thought, “No, bombing someone is punching someone in the face. Becoming unpunchable is not aggression.”

But slowly I realized that some people fear an America unleashed. I think these people are overrepresented in academia and the news media. These people wanted to discourage the U.S. from pursuing missile defense, and so they did it by abusing their position and their supposed authority.

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