Top Military Brass Insists Missile Defense Ready to be Deployed

Wade Boese

Despite intense grilling from Senate Democrats and an acknowledgment that the system has yet to be fully tested, top Pentagon officials have not retreated from claims that a planned defense against ballistic missiles would be effective when it is deployed later this year.

“The analysis that has been done clearly shows that this will bring a capability, admittedly rudimentary and initial, but a capability that is of military utility,” Admiral James Ellis, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee March 11.

President George W. Bush declared Dec. 17, 2002, that the United States would begin operating the initial elements of a projected multilayered defense against ballistic missiles in 2004.

The president’s announcement came only six days after the proposed system had failed in its latest attempt to destroy a mock warhead in space. That failure dropped the system’s intercept record to five hits and three misses, and no similar tests have been conducted since.

Despite the system’s small number of intercept tests, the Pentagon is pushing ahead with plans to fulfill the president’s deployment order, which the Pentagon has since said would take place in fiscal year 2004, which ends Sept. 30.

Beginning as early as June, six ground-based missile interceptors are to be deployed at Fort Greely, Alaska, and another four interceptors at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. By the end of 2005, the ground-based force will include 20 interceptors. Another 10 ship-based missile interceptors designed to counter short- and medium-range ballistic missiles are also to be deployed by that time.

Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish, director of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and the official in charge of developing U.S. missile defense systems, told the armed services panel that the interceptors will be available for emergency use and testing purposes.

Kadish cautioned senators against predicting the proposed ground-based system’s future performance capabilities solely by its intercept record. He explained that MDA relies more extensively on models and computer simulations to gauge how the system will function and said that these tools suggest the defenses will work properly.

One Pentagon witness offered a less certain perspective under pointed questioning from Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.). Thomas Christie, the Pentagon official charged with overseeing final testing of U.S. weapon systems, said it was not clear that the system would be able to destroy a real North Korean missile because of the immature nature of existing models and simulations. A North Korean attack is what the Pentagon routinely postulates as the near-term threat that the system will face, although Pyongyang has yet to flight-test a missile capable of reaching the continental United States.

Christie defended the Pentagon’s current deployment plan as necessary so that the system could be subjected to more challenging testing. He said that system components had to be put into the field so they could be tested in ways that more closely resemble real scenarios and involve real troops as operators, or what the Pentagon calls “operational testing.”

However, when Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) asked whether the Pentagon had any operational tests planned, Christie said, “As of right now, there are no plans for that.” Both Christie and Kadish said that some tests have had operational aspects even though no dedicated operational tests have taken place or are scheduled.

Responding to questions from Arms Control Today, MDA spokesperson Rick Lehner stated March 19 that no plans currently exist to launch missile interceptors out of Fort Greely for testing purposes, although he noted such a possibility “will be considered in the future.”

In addition, a February 2004 report by the General Accounting Office, which does investigations for Congress, noted that the Pentagon has no plans to involve the primary land-based radar supporting the Fort Greely missile interceptors in a flight test scenario for another three years. The study further reported that “none of the components of the initial defensive capability to be fielded in September 2004…has been flight-tested in its deployed configuration.”

Opportunities to flight-test the system’s components have been cut back. MDA recently halved the number of intercept attempts it would conduct this year before the September deadline down to one. Since the summer of 2000, MDA has dropped seven intercept tests.

Christie admitted that he would like to see more testing done to increase confidence in the system, but he said that nothing in past testing suggests the system is bound to fail. “I see no technological issues that have jumped up that says we’re not going to be able to do this or that,” Christie testified.

At the same time, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has expressed concerns about the program’s schedule this year in a February report. OMB stated the system’s “cost, schedule, and performance targets are very ambitious and potentially carry a high degree of development risk.”

The aggressive deployment plan reflects the Department of Defense’s new thinking that it is better to put some capability into the field and improve it incrementally rather than keeping a system in development until it is perfected. Some Pentagon officials have described the rationale more simply as “something is better than nothing.”

Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.) characterized the Pentagon’s new approach as “gross negligence.” Commenting on the proposed deployment, Dayton said, “It would be unthinkable by corporate prudence, by fiscal sanity, by government oversight, and by public common sense to be undertaking this.”

Further irking some Democratic senators is that the Pentagon’s current fiscal year 2005 budget requests funding for interceptors beyond the first 20. The Pentagon is seeking $470 million to begin preparing for a third set of 10 missile interceptors to be deployed beginning in 2006 and $35 million for another 10 missile interceptors that might be stationed at an undetermined third site. In his prepared testimony, Kadish wrote the third site would be “outside” the United States.

Levin warned Pentagon officials that U.S. law prohibits building weapons systems that have not been operationally tested at a rate surpassing what is known as low-rate production. The officials claimed that current interceptor production rates do not exceed that threshold. A weapons system will generally be produced at a lesser pace than what is possible (low-rate production) until a final commitment is made to procure the system, at which time more items will be manufactured at a greater tempo known as full-rate production.