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Reports Raise Missile Defense Concerns
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Tom Z. Collina

As the Obama administration moves ahead with its missile defense plans in Europe, the Middle East, and the Asia-Pacific region, questions are being raised about the military effectiveness of planned missile interceptors and sensors, such as the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) system deployed on Navy ships.

In particular, three recent reports point to concerns about the Department of Defense’s high-risk acquisition strategy, shortcomings of the system’s radar, and the system’s inability to discriminate real warheads from fakes.

In September 2009, the Obama administration announced its plan for missile defense in Europe, called the Phased Adaptive Approach, and NATO is expected to announce at its May 20-21 summit in Chicago that the first phase of the system has established an “interim capability” involving SM-3 IA interceptors deployed on an Aegis-equipped cruiser in the Mediterranean Sea and a radar in Turkey. (See ACT, April 2012)

One of the most significant challenges to a successful intercept of a target warhead in outer space, known as midcourse intercept, is that the attacker can add numerous decoys or other countermeasures to confuse and overwhelm the defense. If the defense cannot distinguish a real warhead from a fake, then it must shoot interceptors at all of them. Interceptor missiles would be in limited supply and are much more expensive to produce than decoys.

The Defense Science Board, an advisory group to the Pentagon, addressed this issue in a little-noticed September 2011 report, saying that “the importance of achieving reliable midcourse discrimination cannot be overemphasized.” Missile defense is “predicated on the ability to discriminate” real warheads from other targets, “such as rocket bodies, miscellaneous hardware, and intentional countermeasures,” the report said.

One way to pre-empt this challenge is for the defense to try to intercept a target missile before it has released its warhead and decoys. Intercepting missiles in their boost phase, while the rocket booster is still firing, is “currently not feasible,” according to the report. Instead, the report considers “early intercept,” defined as the interval between boost and warhead release. That phase, according to the report, lasts about 100 seconds.

The report concludes that early intercept “requires Herculean effort and is not realistically achievable, even under the most optimistic set of deployment, sensor capability, and missile technology assumptions.” The main problem is that defensive missiles would not be able to reach the target quickly enough. “[I]n most cases 100 seconds is too late” to prevent the release of decoys, the report found, and “intercepts would have to be achieved well inside this timeline.”

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) responded to the report in November, saying that the early-intercept phase actually would last about 500 seconds and that the report ignored the benefits of forcing an adversary to deploy countermeasures earlier than “their optimum deployment timeline.”

‘Shooting at Missile Junk’

The Defense Science Board report goes on to say, “If the defense should find itself in a situation where it is shooting at missile junk or decoys, the impact on the regional interceptor inventory would be dramatic and devastating!” If the defense cannot prevent the release of decoys, it must be able to distinguish real targets from fakes. However, according to the report, “discrimination in the exo-atmosphere [i.e., space] is still not a completely solved problem.”

J. Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s director of operational testing, seemed to confirm that point when he testified before the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee on March 6 that “complete quantitative assessments” of the SM-3 system, the centerpiece of U.S. plans for Europe and other regions, “are still a number of years away.” The last test of the SM-3 IB missile, in September 2011, failed against a simple target with no decoys.

Gilmore testified before the same subcommittee last year that the closest the MDA has come to conducting a test against decoys was the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system test in December 2008, which was labeled FTG-05. “Although simple countermeasures were planned for FTG-05,” he said, “a malfunction prevented deployment.” The next two tests, FTG-06 and FTG-06a, successfully deployed simple countermeasures; but the “kill vehicles malfunctioned before they could complete their intercepts in the countermeasures environments,” he said. Both the GMD and the SM-3 systems are designed to intercept targets in space.

MDA spokesman Rick Lehner told the Associated Press on April 21 that identifying warheads is a difficult task but the current technology is adequate to address the threat from “rogue nations” and will improve over time.

Buying Before Flying

In an April report focusing on a different aspect of the missile defense effort, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which produces nonpartisan reports for Congress, found that the MDA undertakes “highly concurrent acquisitions,” meaning the agency often has started to produce key hardware before “critical technologies were fully understood” and before it completed flight tests to verify performance.

For example, the GAO found that, in order to meet “challenging deadlines” such as the 2015 target date for SM-3 IB missile interceptor deployment in Europe, the MDA is planning to buy additional SM-3 IBs in 2012 before the cause of the September 2011 flight-test failure has been confirmed. This practice can result in “performance shortfalls, unexpected cost increases, schedule delays, and test problems,” the GAO found.

Another GAO report, released in January, found that a planned sea-based radar upgrade that is central to the regional missile defense approach is not powerful enough to meet program needs, but the planned next generation of Arleigh Burke-class destroyers cannot accommodate a larger radar without substantial redesign. The GAO found that depending on the extent of the redesign, “the Navy may need at least $4.2 billion to $11.4 billion more” than the current estimate of $60 billion to procure the new ships with the new radar, called the Air and Missile Defense Radar. The Navy plans to start buying the new radars and ships in fiscal year 2016.