An internal Pentagon report evaluating the performance of the Clinton administration’s national missile defense (NMD) system was released June 26 by Congress. The August 2000 document, which had not been previously released to the public, was part of the Pentagon’s Deployment Readiness Review and informed President Bill Clinton’s September 2000 decision not to authorize NMD deployment. (See ACT, September 2000.)
Prepared by Philip Coyle, then-director of the Pentagon’s office of operational test and evaluation, the report suggested that “significant delays” in development and testing would likely require the Pentagon to restructure the NMD program if it was to meet a 2005 deployment date. The report assessed that the program had fallen behind schedule at a rate of 20 months every three years. (See August 2000 Pentagon Report on NMD Technology for excerpts of the report.)
Coyle noted that the next intercept attempt was scheduled for early 2001, after being rescheduled from a May 2000 testing date, and that the first test of the system’s actual booster had slipped from early 2000 to early 2001.
Those two tests have still not been conducted. The intercept test may take place in July or August, and the first booster test is now tentatively scheduled for August or September but could slip further.
Although the report said flight-test delays were the “most visible,” it said hang-ups in simulation and ground testing could have an “even greater impact” on the program because they will be used to test intercept scenarios that cannot be flight-tested. The report contended that the equipment and technology needed to conduct simulation and ground testing is “immature” and inadequate.
Coyle also described the intercept attempts themselves as not being realistic enough. The report noted that intercept altitudes are low and that the closing velocities are too slow. Also, targets are more easily tracked during tests than under real conditions because, during tests, they start close to the radar tasked with detecting them and move away from it. In a real intercept, the target missile would actually start far away from the radar and move toward it, resulting in a later detection.
Ultimately, the report stated that the “most challenging” task facing any intercept attempt during the midcourse stage would be discriminating between the target and decoys. The report found that the mock warhead and decoy balloon used in the system’s three intercept tests to date are easily distinguishable from one another. It recommended the introduction of more sophisticated decoys that better mimic the mock warhead and tests that involve multiple interceptors and targets.
In addition, Coyle noted that before the tests the exoatmospheric kill vehicle, which seeks out and collides with the target in space, had received information to allow it to discriminate between the target and decoy. In general, he recommended that the practice of conducting rehearsed intercept tests, in which the “target complex, target trajectory, and the time of launch” are known beforehand, eventually be discontinued.
Representative John Tierney (D-MA), who worked for the release of the August report, explained that he did so because the report “details serious flaws in the missile defense program which the administration appears determined to deploy years before it is ready.” He added that he believed “it is imperative that the Congress and the public be fully informed of the immaturity of the system and the serious problems encountered in testing.” The Pentagon withheld the report for more than eight months after Congress asked for it and then requested that it not be made public.