"[Arms Control Today] has become indispensable! I think it is the combination of the critical period we are in and the quality of the product. I found myself reading the May issue from cover to cover."

– Frank von Hippel
Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
June 1, 2018
New Delays in U.S. Missile Defense

Wade Boese

Amid a final push to deploy several long-range, ground-based ballistic missile interceptors this fall, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) again postponed a much-delayed inaugural test of two crucial components comprising the interceptor. Pentagon officials said the test delay would not upset deployment plans. Meanwhile, MDA confirmed that tentative plans to develop space-based interceptors have slipped behind schedule.

Nearly two years ago, President George W. Bush set 2004 and 2005 as the goal for erecting the first elements of a system to defend the United States from long-range ballistic missile attacks. To fulfill the president’s order, MDA is fielding up to six ground-based missile interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska, and two additional interceptors at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, before the end of the year. A dozen more interceptors will be added in 2005.

The interceptors consist primarily of a high-speed booster and an exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV). The booster carries the EKV into space and releases it in the path of an oncoming enemy warhead. The EKV is then supposed to zero in on and collide with the warhead.

The high-speed booster and EKV have not been flight-tested together, and MDA’s director, Lieutenant General Henry Obering, recently pushed back the first such test from September to at least November because of an unresolved computer glitch on a test interceptor. Some recent physical modifications done to the interceptor outside the facility normally tasked with doing such alterations also concerned Obering.

In all the intercept tests to date, slower, surrogate boosters and prototype EKVs have been employed. These substitute components scored five hits in eight tests widely recognized as highly scripted and unrealistic. (See ACT, September 2004.)

Missile defense officials originally planned to test the high-speed booster with an EKV in an intercept test in early 2001, but problems in building the booster kept delaying the test. Now it will not take place until at least 60 days after the November flight test, which MDA is not billing as an intercept test even though there will be a target and an intercept is possible. MDA spokesperson Rick Lehner stated in a Sept. 14 e-mail to Arms Control Today that the November test’s “goal is to come as close as possible to target warhead for data collection and evaluation of [the EKV] performance, but if it is on an intercept path we’ll obviously do nothing to prevent the intercept.”

The uninterrupted deployment has drawn the scorn of some Democrats. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), ranking member on the Senate Armed Services’ Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, said Aug. 18, “The continuing delays indicate the immaturity of this system, which is still untested, unproven, and problem-prone.” A day later, Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) declared that “the system has not been realistically or consistently tested.”

But Lehner said in a Sept. 15 interview that the latest test delay should not diminish confidence in the interceptors being deployed and would not affect the deployment schedule. He said Obering’s concerns pertained only to “test-unique equipment,” which are not part of the interceptors being installed in Alaska. Lehner added that deployment of the interceptors and any decision to put them on alert was never tied to completing any specific test, but to determinations by military commanders on the military utility of such actions.

Pentagon officials are soon expected to announce that the Fort Greely system is up and running. MDA noted in a September report that “[t]he first components to be activated are referred to as the initial defensive capability (IDC) and will be available on September 30, 2004.”

That statement was included in a draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement that MDA published Sept. 1. Release of a final report is set for December following a public comment period on the draft ending Nov. 17.

The environmental assessment revealed another schedule delay: a four-year slip in plans to deploy three to five space-based interceptors for testing purposes. Last year, MDA said that such a deployment could take place as early as 2008. Yet, in its latest report, MDA put the date at 2012 and described the concept as “too speculative” to warrant a thorough environmental impact assessment at this time.

Lehner said that the space-based interceptor schedule has been moved back due to more urgent priorities and a lack of funding support from lawmakers. As part of the fiscal year 2005 Defense Appropriations Act, Congress cut $163 million from a $511 million request to develop the interceptor that might be placed on a space-based platform.

Although MDA said that determining the environmental impacts of deploying space-based interceptors would require further study, it came to a preliminary finding that the deployment of space-based weapons would lead to an increase in space debris because more objects would be stationed and destroyed outside the Earth’s atmosphere during testing. However, the agency predicted the extra debris would not cause any significant problems because it would not stay in orbit long and would typically burn up on re-entry into the atmosphere.

Debris that does not burn up could harm aircraft, people, and property due to its unpredictable path and fast speed, but MDA downplayed the negative possibilities. “The fact that orbital debris re-enters the [E]arth’s atmosphere on a daily basis, and that this debris has not caused injury or significant property damage on [E]arth indicates that orbital debris produced by [missile defense] space-based sensors and potential exoatmospheric intercepts would not pose significant impacts upon re-entry,” the agency stated.

Some have already made clear they do not agree with MDA’s optimistic outlook. During preparation of its draft report, MDA said it received 285 public comments, mostly negative, about its missile defense efforts, particularly the prospect of putting weapons into space.