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– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
Pentagon, Levin Dispute Missile Defense Success, Testing

Wade Boese

Top Pentagon officials testifying in March on U.S. missile defense programs assured senators that the Pentagon intends to thoroughly test an anti-ballistic missile system to be fielded next year and never intended otherwise, despite concerns to the contrary voiced by long-time missile defense skeptic Senator Carl Levin (D-MI). Although having seemingly assuaged Levin’s concerns, one official sparked a sharp exchange with the senator by claiming the system would have a 90 percent chance of shooting down a ballistic missile launched from North Korea next year.

Before Pentagon witnesses had a chance to speak at a March 18 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Levin assailed the Pentagon’s fiscal year 2004 budget request for including a provision that he said would exempt the Pentagon from having to subject its ground-based midcourse missile defense system to testing that would be representative of a real-world situation, officially referred to as operational testing. (See ACT, March 2003.)

Fielding of the ground-based system, which is designed to launch interceptors into space to collide with enemy warheads, is set to begin next year with four missile interceptors at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, and six at Fort Greely, Alaska. Another ten interceptors are to be added at Fort Greely during 2005.

The Pentagon officials, led by Undersecretary of Defense Edward Aldridge, acknowledged the language in the budget request that raised Levin’s concerns but said the purpose was not to avoid operational testing. They said operational testing would be conducted after the system’s elements are in place. Operational testing typically takes place prior to a system’s deployment, but the Pentagon contends that such testing in the case of missile defense cannot be done until after it is deployed.

Of the four officials testifying, only one—Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish, director of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency—claimed he knew of the budget provision before it was sent to Congress, and he told Levin that it could be changed to allay the senator’s concerns.

Although it appeared that Levin had been placated, the senator’s ire rose again when Aldridge predicted that the proposed system, if deployed next year, would perform with 90 percent effectiveness against a missile launched by North Korea. Aldridge replied “Yes, sir” when Senator Evan Bayh (D-IN) asked that, if “there’s the possibility of the North Koreans hitting Los Angeles or San Francisco with a nuclear warhead, you are advising [the president] that we would have a 90 percent chance of taking that down before it could get there…and if millions of lives depend on it, that’s your answer?”

Levin rebuked Aldridge for providing an estimate at an unclassified hearing, and then he suggested it was wrong. “I am surprised at your answer because I know the classified number,” Levin stated.

Aldridge’s estimate also appeared at odds with statements by the other witnesses. Kadish said the Pentagon had confidence in the “basic technologies” and that the “approach we are using is a sound one,” but he also admitted that testing to date has been “very scripted.” In the system’s eight intercept attempts, five of which succeeded, the interceptor’s kill vehicle was preprogrammed with information on the target, and the initial intercept plan fed to the interceptor was calculated by tracking a beacon attached to the target.

Thomas Christie, director of the Pentagon’s office of operational test and evaluation, noted that the Fort Greely site “may have some capability to defend against an actual threat and a real attack, depending, of course, on certain assumptions about intelligence of an imminent attack and the positioning of sensors to acquire, track, and target the threat.” At this time, the Pentagon possesses a limited radar capability to provide the tracking information needed for a successful intercept, although it plans to upgrade an early-warning radar in Alaska by next year to provide an improved capability and hopes to build a more advanced radar on a sea-based platform in 2005.

Two days later at a House Armed Services Committee hearing, Aldridge explained that his projection of 90 percent effectiveness was for a specific scenario of a single missile launched at the United States and was predicated on the U.S. ability to fire multiple interceptors at the target. An MDA spokesperson would not comment on Aldridge’s estimate in a March 21 interview.