In an annual report to Congress, the Pentagon’s top official in charge of ensuring that U.S. weapons perform properly said he could not offer a final verdict on a proposed layered U.S. ballistic missile defense system because it has been only minimally tested.
The Bush administration is currently working to deploy the system’s initial elements—up to six missile interceptors in Alaska and four more in California—starting this June and ending in January 2005. The interceptors, part of the Pentagon’s ground-based midcourse missile defense (GMD) system, are intended to knock out a long-range ballistic missile warhead traveling through space after being fired from Northeast Asia.
Thomas Christie, director of the Pentagon’s Office of Operational Test and Evaluation, told lawmakers in January, “At this point in time, it is not clear what mission capability will be demonstrated prior to [initial defensive operations].”
Christie indicated that his uncertainty about the system’s future capabilities stemmed from the sparse testing conducted by the Pentagon over the past year. “Due to immature [missile defense] elements, very little system level testing was performed by the close of [fiscal year 2003],” Christie reported.
The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has not conducted a GMD system intercept test since a Dec. 11, 2002, intercept test failed. That failure dropped the GMD record to five hits and three misses.
MDA is planning a GMD intercept test in May or June and another in July or August. Christie warned, however, that, “[e]ven with successful intercepts in both of these attempts, the small number of tests would limit confidence in the integrated interceptor performance.”
No intercept test has been conducted of the proposed interceptor’s two key elements—the booster and the exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV)—together. The booster lifts the EKV into space. The EKV is then supposed to separate from the booster and home in on an enemy warhead for a destructive collision.
In all eight intercept tests to date, MDA has used a slower surrogate booster after nearly three years of setbacks in developing a more powerful booster. Yet, MDA may have turned the corner on its booster development with successful, nonintercept flight tests of two different booster models in January. Although MDA plans to keep both models as part of the program, only the Orbital Sciences Corporation model will be used in this year’s intercept tests and deployment because of a shortage of the Lockheed Martin Corporation model due to accidents at a plant involved in its production. (See ACT, December 2003.)
The lack of a more powerful booster has resulted in previous intercept tests being done at lesser speeds than what would be expected in a real scenario, Christie indicated. He also stated that all the tests have followed the same pattern and that the system knows what the target looks like in advance. In a real attack, the system may not have such details.
Christie further reported that the Pentagon has no current plans to test a radar located on a remote Alaskan island against an actual target to see if it can track an incoming warhead. The radar, Cobra Dane, is intended to gather information to help pinpoint an enemy warhead for the ground-based interceptors.
Senator Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a member of the Armed Services Committee and an outspoken critic of the administration’s deployment plan, seized on Christie’s report, saying his findings “makes it clear that in a rush to win an ideological victory, President [George W.] Bush risks prematurely deploying a missile defense system by 2004 that is technologically unproven and will drain resources from other essential priorities.” Bush campaigned on the need for robust missile defenses and ordered the June 2002 U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in order to pursue a nationwide defense that would have violated the accord.
MDA spokesman Rick Lehner defended the pace of the GMD program following the release of Christie’s report. He said that, by the time deployment is underway, MDA will have proven that the system can detect, track, and hit a target. He added that the agency has “a great deal of confidence [in the interceptor], most of which comes from the many hundreds of modeling and simulation exercises we’ve completed as well as ground testing.”
Christie also assessed other U.S. missile defense systems. Although asserting that testing of a sea-based system against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles had become more challenging, Christie said the system will not have proven itself against separating or multiple targets before deployment of five of the sea-based interceptors scheduled for this year. The system’s five intercept tests to date involved a single target that stays in one piece.
The Patriot-3 (PAC-3) system, which saw action during the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, requires “significant improvements” to distinguish effectively between friendly and enemy targets, Christie wrote. While knocking out nine Iraqi missiles, Patriot systems—both PAC-3 and older versions—destroyed two friendly aircraft and targeted a third. Christie observed that his recommendation applies to all U.S. defense systems, not just the Patriot.