Pentagon officials indicated April 9 that strategic missile defense testing could start becoming more exacting and varied in early 2005, a few months after the limited ground-based midcourse missile defense system is to be deployed.
The Pentagon aims to field six ground-based missile interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska, and another four at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, late next year as the initial elements of what the Bush administration claims will eventually become a multilayered missile defense system protecting the entire United States.
Pentagon plans in 2001 described the Fort Greely site as part of a new “test bed,” which would enable the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) to conduct missile defense tests over a broad triangular area of the Pacific Ocean, stretching from Alaska to southern California and out to the Marshall Islands. But the Bush administration announced a change in plans in December 2002, declaring that the proposed test bed would become an initial deployment. MDA Director Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish explained April 9, “In other words, instead of building a test bed that might be used operationally, we are fielding an initial defensive capability that we will continue to test.”
Kadish, who was testifying before the defense subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, predicted that the first intercept test making use of the new capability would be during the first months of 2005. An MDA spokesperson said in an April 18 interview that the test would not involve firing any missile interceptors deployed at Fort Greely. “Nothing will be shot out of Fort Greely,” the spokesperson stated.
The exact details of the 2005 intercept test are undetermined. It could involve launching a target missile from Kodiak Island, Alaska and an interceptor either from Vandenberg or the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, according to the MDA spokesperson. Either scenario would be a first.
Beginning in October 1999, all eight of the ground-based strategic missile defense system intercept tests have followed the same pattern: a target missile is fired from Vandenberg; an interceptor is launched from Kwajalein roughly 20 minutes later; and, if successful an intercept takes place about 10 minutes later at an altitude of approximately 225 kilometers as both are descending. The testing tally stands at five successes and three failures, including the last test conducted December 11, 2002.
Thomas Christie, the director of the Pentagon’s office of operational test and evaluation, testified at the same hearing as Kadish that changing where the target and interceptor are fired from “will be the first time we’ve gotten away from the relatively unrealistic geometries that we’ve been using.” Christie sent a February report to Congress explaining that past intercept testing has been limited because “all of the flight tests have similar flyout and engagement parameters.”
Christie also said future tests would involve more complex and tougher countermeasures, which are decoys or other methods that a potential adversary could use to make it more difficult for a warhead to be intercepted. Critics have contended a real attack could feature much more challenging foils than the balloon decoys MDA has previously employed.
MDA has paused intercept testing while it focuses on preparing a booster for the interceptors to be deployed next year.
Intercept testing in the past has used a surrogate booster that accelerates slower than the deployed system’s booster is expected. A review panel led by retired General Larry Welch warned in November 1999 that the system’s exoatmospheric kill vehicle, which is carried into space by the booster and then separates from it to seek out and collide with an incoming warhead, might not be able to withstand the higher shock loads generated by a more powerful booster.
Earlier Pentagon plans called for having the new booster available for intercept testing by the beginning of 2001, but it has been delayed. Current planning is to select the new booster from two competing models that are both to be flight-tested twice later this year.
Assuming that one or both of the boosters prove capable, MDA is planning to carry out a minimum of two intercept tests involving a new booster before the 10 interceptors are to be fielded in Alaska and California, according to the MDA spokesperson. These tests would most likely repeat the pattern of earlier tests, although there is discussion that one of the tests could be the first to have a target launched from Kodiak and an interceptor fired fromVandenberg.
The Pentagon argues that deploying unproven or rudimentary defenses is preferable to having nothing. “I believe there is tremendous benefit in putting this unprecedented technology into the field in manageable increments to provide some defense, to learn more about it and gain experience, and improve it over time,” Kadish declared.
Democratic lawmakers have blasted this rationale. Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), a leading missile defense skeptic, criticized the Bush administration’s 2004 deployment plan a few months ago as violating “common sense by determining to deploy systems before they have been tested and shown to work.”