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"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."
– Senator Joe Biden
January 28, 2004
Missile Defense Technologies Still a Work in Progress
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Wade Boese

A year before the Pentagon is scheduled to field the initial elements of the ground-based midcourse missile defense (GMD) system in Alaska, a majority of its critical technologies remain unproven, a recent U.S. government report found. In addition, the Sept. 23 report from the congressional watchdog General Accounting Office (GAO) chided the Bush administration for failing to plan a test of the radar tasked with tracking incoming ballistic missiles before the system is to become operational.

The GAO report said that only two of 10 critical technologies for the proposed GMD system were ready for integration into a working system, though the other technologies were appraised as “nearing completion.” However, GAO warned that, in general, hurrying to put systems together before all the technologies are demonstrated “increases the program’s cost, schedule, and performance risks.”

There are essentially three main elements of the proposed GMD system: the missile interceptors; radars; and the battle management command, control, and communications center. Satellites will also aid the system.

The Pentagon’s current plan calls for six missile interceptors to be deployed at Fort Greely, Alaska, and four at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, by Oct. 1, 2004. Initial radars will be located in Alaska, California, and on a mobile sea-based platform, and the battle management center is in Colorado. The satellites envisioned to detect and track an enemy missile launch are behind schedule, so the Pentagon will initially rely on existing, older-model satellites to fulfill that role.

Cued by satellites to a hostile missile launch, the radars are supposed to track and relay data on the missile’s trajectory to the battle management center, which then formulates an intercept plan and feeds that to the interceptor. A booster powers the interceptor into space, where the interceptor’s exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV) will separate from the booster and home in on the enemy target through radar updates passed through the battle management center, as well as its own onboard infrared sensors, for a high-speed collision.

GAO rated the EKV’s infrared sensors and the battle management center’s fire control software as the most mature technologies. It assessed the radars as being the furthest behind in development.

Located on the western tip of the Aleutian Islands, the Cobra Dane radar is intended to gather and provide the key tracking data on an incoming missile, but it is currently unable to perform real-time data processing and communication. The Cobra Dane radar will receive upgraded software in 2004 so it can do these missions, but no plans exist to test the radar against in-flight targets for the next three years.

The Pentagon contends that it does not have the funding available to carry out a test using sea- or air-launched targets of the radar before next fall. If the opportunity arises, the Pentagon says it could test the radar, which is fixed to face northwest, by trying to track foreign, namely Russian, missile test launches or U.S. space and missile launches.

Even with its intended upgrades, the Cobra Dane radar would not effectively be able to separate out a warhead from decoys and from debris potentially traveling alongside it. For this mission, the Pentagon is seeking to put a more advanced X-band radar on a mobile sea-based platform, which will permit it to be moved around to meet changing threats.

The sea-based X-band radar is not yet built and is expected to become operational sometime in 2005. Though the Pentagon professes confidence that this radar will work properly, GAO suggested severe wind and sea conditions could impair its performance.

Putting all these technologies together to form a working GMD system will cost about $21.8 billion, according to the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA). That estimate covers the period 1997 to 2009 but does not include personnel, maintenance, and systems engineering costs.

The ground-based system is just one of the missile defense options being explored. MDA estimates that missile defense spending, including GMD funds, will total about $50 billion between fiscal years 2004 and 2009.