Panel Criticizes U.S. 'Rush' To Deploy Missile Defense Systems

March 1998

By Craig Cerniello

A new study by an independent panel of experts has warned that U.S. ballistic missile defense programs suffer from a "rush to failure" as a consequence of efforts to rapidly deploy such systems before they have been thoroughly flight tested. The study, which was chaired by retired Air Force General Larry Welch and completed in late February, cautioned that there is "very high risk" involved in the Clinton administration's national missile defense (NMD) program schedule and recommended that the program would benefit from the "earliest possible restructuring." The Report of the Panel on Reducing Risk In Ballistic Missile Defense Flight Test Programs was prompted by a series of flight test failures by U.S. missile defense systems under development.

Despite the panel's warnings, the Clinton administration has no plans to abandon its "3+3" schedule, which calls for the development of the elements of an NMD system by 2000, with the option of deploying the system three years later if the ballistic missile threat makes it necessary. The panel report is also unlikely to significantly influence the views held by congressional critics of the administration, who claim that the United States is moving too slowly on NMD deployment.

The Welch panel was "composed of members who have extensive experience in the development, testing, and operational employment of complex systems." The 16-member panel was appointed last year by the director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO) and two other senior Defense Department officials to evaluate the risks involved in the flight test programs of four "hit-to-kill" missile defense systems: the Army's Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) systems; the Navy's Theater Wide Defense (NTWD) system; and the NMD program. The primary goal of the study was to apply lessons from the development of theater missile defense systems to the NMD program.

The report concluded that hit-to-kill missile defense systems continue to pose "a difficult technical challenge" and that the "flight test record to date has not demonstrated that the technology has reached the state of maturity needed for operational systems." In support of this view, the report noted that both THAAD and the Lightweight Exo-Atmospheric Projectile (LEAP) to be used in the NTWD system have failed in each of their four intercept attempts.

Moreover, the report argued that the "urgency" for the early deployment of ballistic mssile defenses has resulted in "less-than-minimal or highly compressed planned flight testing."

For instance, the study pointed out that THAAD had originally been scheduled for 20 flight tests in a period of only two years, but that schedule has now been scaled back to 13 tests in order to avoid further delays in deployment.

Referring specifically to the NMD program, the report stated that "the schedule and cost pressures inherent in the 3+3 formulation and the system requirements are inherently even more severe than those for the TMD programs that have experienced excessive flight test failures." It said, "successful execution of the 3+3 formulation on the planned schedule is highly unlikely." The panel recommended that BMDO take measures to restructure the NMD program to reduce these risks, such as allowing for more time between flight tests to correct for deficiencies.

BMDO is currently in the process of evaluating the recommendations of the Welch panel. Lieutenant General Lester Lyles, director of BMDO, informed Congress in his March 24 testimony that he has ordered a review of U.S. missile defense programs in the wake of the panel's findings.