"I want to thank the Arms Control Association … for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war."

– Joseph Biden, Jr.
January 28, 2004
Missile Defense Program Under Excessive Pressure, Pentagon Report Says

Wade Boese

IN AN ANNUAL report covering the operational and live-fire testing of 161 military systems, the Defense Department called the current national missile defense (NMD) program high-risk and described the planned deployment readiness review as an "artificial decision point." In the report, released February 14, Philip Coyle, director of the Defense Department's office of operational test and evaluation, assessed the NMD program as being under undue pressure, as well as being driven by "schedule" rather than "event." While evaluating program officials as doing an "excellent job," Coyle warned that schedule-driven pressure has historically resulted in "a negative effect on virtually every troubled DoD [Department of Defense] development program."

Despite the program's January 18 test failure, which the Pentagon now believes resulted from a coolant leak, other high-level officials had contended the program remained on track. President Clinton, weighing such factors as the missile threat and arms control considerations, is scheduled to decide this summer whether or not to approve NMD deployment.

An intercept test—the third of a total 19—is scheduled for mid-May. Noting that the last intercept test failed and that the successful October 2 test was aided by a large decoy balloon deployed with the target, Coyle recommended the readiness review allow for a thorough analysis of the upcoming test.

A complete test analysis consists of three stages and takes 90 days, according to Lieutenant Colonel Richard Lehner, spokesman for the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO), which oversees U.S. missile defense programs. However, Lehner said BMDO is "confident that there should be more than enough information" from the May test and previous tests to conduct the review as scheduled.

However, according to Coyle, review "information based on a few flight tests with immature elements will be limited." The report noted that the next test will be the first to integrate all NMD prototype or surrogate elements together except for the "objective booster," which will be integrated in an intercept test in 2001.

Current testing relies, in part, on data from a Global Positioning System (GPS) beacon on the target ICBM to help plan the intercept, as well as assist in mid-range tracking. Though deeming use of GPS data suitable for early developmental testing, Coyle asserted that such methods do not "stress the NMD system in a realistic enough manner to support acquisition decisions."

Coyle assessed the flight tests as being limited in "operational realism and engagement conditions." Intercept velocities safely permitted during tests, Coyle observed, are "on the low end of what might occur in a real ICBM attack." Coyle also suggested testing targets "may not be representative of threat penetration aids, booster, or post-boost vehicles" that the real system would face, but he attributed that shortcoming to insufficient information about the real threat. Coyle also recommended re-evaluating use of a large decoy balloon during testing and noted that no flight tests against multiple targets are planned.

The NMD program will rely heavily on computer simulations and ground testing to measure the system's capability against more demanding threats. Yet the model for conducting the simulations is unlikely to be completed "in time to allow for a rigorous system analysis" before the review, and the current ground testing methods to measure the EKV's lethality cannot replicate the high closing velocities expected in real NMD intercepts, the report noted.

BMDO Still Confident

BMDO Director Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish testified before a congressional joint subcommittee February 16 that the NMD program has been "executed along a high-risk schedule," though he disputed it was under any "undue pressure."

In his prepared statement, Kadish defended the system and the recent failed test, saying, "We learn a lot from our testing successes and failures." In fact, he argued the most recent test demonstrated the X-band and upgraded early-warning radar systems' and the battle management command/control and communication system's capability under "very stressful conditions."

Kadish attributed the January 18 test failure to a "plumbing problem." A leak or constriction in a plumbing line carrying coolant to the EKV's two infrared sensors is believed to have prevented the sensors, which guide the EKV to the target during the final seconds, from functioning properly. Kadish said fixing the problem should not have a "major impact" on the upcoming test.

When questioned as to how an intercept failure in May would impact the June review, Kadish first observed that "our criteria says we have to have two intercepts to proceed because that's prudent to do." He then noted that should "the leadership" still want to hold the review, BMDO would "present what we knew at the time."

Assessing the Threat

Clinton has stated that his deployment decision will rest on four criteria: the system's technological readiness, the status of the threat, financial costs and arms control considerations. Secretary of Defense William Cohen asserted his view in February that the technology is close, the costs affordable and the threat threshold crossed.

Speaking at an annual security conference in Munich, Germany, on February 5, Cohen touted the U.S. NMD to European defense officials, many of whose governments are not supportive of the proposed system, as a way to guard against being "blackmailed." Cohen explained that the United States never wanted to be in a position of not "responding to any threat to our national security interests" simply because a state has a limited ballistic missile capability. He hypothetically asked how many states would have joined the 1990-91 coalition against Iraq if Baghdad could have struck their homelands using ICBMs with nuclear warheads.

Robert Walpole, national intelligence officer for strategic and nuclear programs, testified before a Senate subcommittee on February 9 that in the coming years the United States is "more likely to be attacked with weapons of mass destruction from non-missile delivery means" than by missiles. Walpole further stated that countries working on ballistic missiles would develop "various responses" to missile defenses and could develop countermeasures by the time they flight-test their missiles.

U.S. officials most frequently identify North Korea as the greatest emerging missile threat, but J. Stapleton Roy, assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research, described the Pyongyang threat as being at a "tertiary level" to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on February 2. Roy warned that if Russia or China concluded that Washington "was pursuing interests in fundamental conflict with their own," they could respond, respectively, by halting the strategic reduction process or by adding warheads to existing ICBMs. (See news story.)

Russia and China Still Opposed

Despite administration efforts to convince Russia that the proposed NMD system will not undercut the Russian deterrent, Moscow has refused U.S. proposals to amend the 1972 ABM Treaty, which bans both countries from deploying national missile defenses. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told reporters in Moscow after meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on January 31 that it would be a "grave mistake" to amend the ABM Treaty.

Though Albright claimed to be "encouraged" by her first meeting with Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin regarding arms control issues, including the ABM Treaty, she subsequently told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on February 8 that "to date, Russian leaders have opposed any modification in the ABM Treaty." Most recently, Russia told the 66-member UN Conference on Disarmament on February 24 that Moscow wanted to "unambiguously state" that ABM Treaty adaptation negotiations with the United States were not being held and that this position would not change.

During a February 17-18 trip to Beijing, U.S. officials, led by Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, made no headway in convincing China, which has only some 20 ICBMs, that the missile defense is directed at so-called "rogue" states. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson told reporters after the talks that China viewed the NMD system as harmful to global stability, as well as U.S. interests.

NATO allies have also withheld endorsement of the system. French Minister of Defense Alain Richard told a Washington think-tank in a February 22 speech that France fears a U.S. NMD system could "fuel a new arms race" and that the United States should not commit to deployment without first reaching a "satisfactory outcome" with Russia.

British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and Defense Secretary Geoffrey Hoon both stated in recent trips to Washington that the British share the U.S. threat assessment. While Hoon said on January 27 that Britain "will want to be helpful," he cautioned that "there are issues that have to be addressed." The United Kingdom and Greenland, a territory of Denmark, are viewed as sites for two of the NMD's five planned upgraded early-warning radar systems.