Sometime over the next several weeks, most likely around Oct. 1, President George W. Bush or Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld will stride to a podium and announce that the initial elements of a missile defense system are now in place and ready for action. They will proclaim that the deployment fulfills the president’s promise four years ago to guard America against a rogue state or terrorist group armed with a ballistic missile.
The hyperbole has already begun. As the system’s first missile interceptor booster was placed into its silo in Alaska July 22, Major General John W. Holly, charged with developing the system, said it “marks the end of an era where we have not been able to defend our country against long-range ballistic missile attacks.” On a campaign stop in August, Bush proclaimed, “It’s the beginning of a missile defense system that was envisioned by Ronald Reagan.” He added, “We want to continue to perfect this system, so we say to those tyrants who believe they can blackmail America and the free world: You fire, we’re going to shoot it down.”
Yet, little evidence exists to suggest that the system could destroy a single ballistic missile fired at the United States. The last test against a real target occurred nearly two years ago and failed. In that Dec. 11, 2002, test, the two main components of the system’s interceptor—the booster and exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV)—did not separate as planned. Since then, a new high-speed booster has been developed, but it has not been tested to see if it would have any better luck with an EKV. All past intercept tests have relied on prototype and substitute components in scripted and unrealistic scenarios. Other key system elements, such as an advanced X-band radar, are still in development and will not be ready until at least late next year.
Pentagon officials acknowledge the testing limitations, but they tout the value of computer simulations and ground experiments in forecasting the system’s effectiveness. They further argue that more stressful testing only is possible after deployment. Moreover, they say, some capability, no matter how rudimentary, is better than nothing.
Rather than providing even a modest defense, as the administration claims, the system’s testing record and developmental history point to an unproven work in progress that falls far short of Reagan’s dream and Bush’s exuberant missile defense vision when he took office.
Setting the Agenda
In May 2000, then-Texas Governor George W. Bush outlined his national security agenda, promising to cut U.S. nuclear forces and build missile defenses. “America must build effective missile defenses based on the best available options at the earliest possible date,” Bush declared.
Although the Clinton administration initiated a 1996 program to build a defense against long-range ballistic missiles, Bush faulted it as “flawed.” He condemned it for consisting of a single site of ground-based missile interceptors. “Science is evolving; laser technology is evolving. There is a lot of inventiveness in our society that hasn’t been unleashed on this particular subject,” the future president argued. He added that space-based defenses also needed to be explored. Underlying Bush’s speech was a long-standing GOP belief that missile defenses had been stunted less by technological challenges than Democratic ideological opposition and fidelity to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which forbid Washington and Moscow from building nationwide defenses against long-range ballistic missiles. When accepting the Republican presidential nomination in August 2000, Bush declared, “Now is the time not to defend outdated treaties, but to defend the American people.”
Once elected, Bush wholeheartedly pursued his goal. He made missile defense the Pentagon’s top-funded weapons program. In four budget requests to Congress, Bush asked for $32 billion to support the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and its predecessor. All told, Bush has sought $5 billion more than President Bill Clinton sought in eight years. In June 2002, Bush withdrew the United States from the ABM Treaty. Six months later, he ordered the 2004 deployment of a missile defense system—the timing of which Democrats charged was politically motivated to match Bush’s re-election bid.
The Bush Deployment: Clinton Redux
Despite his criticisms of the Clinton deployment plan, Bush’s initial version differs little.
Clinton’s plan envisioned an initial 2005 deployment of 20 ground-based missile interceptors in central Alaska. Among several ancillary radars, a new X-band radar with the ability to pinpoint the real warhead from among decoys and debris was to be built on a remote Alaskan island.
Bush accelerated the initial deployment by a year. His plan calls for five ground-based interceptors to be installed at Fort Greely, Alaska, by this October. Another four interceptors are to be deployed this year at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, and 11 more are to be added at Fort Greely by the end of 2005. However, the X-band radar, which was shifted from being land-based to sea-based, will not be available until at least late 2005. Without such a radar, the system will have trouble distinguishing a warhead from other objects in the target cluster, according to a February report by the then-General Accounting Office (GAO), which prepares studies for Congress.
Bush’s deployment plan also foresaw up to 20 sea-based interceptors and an undisclosed number of Patriot Advanced Capability-3 systems to protect against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. The ABM Treaty permitted defenses against shorter-range missiles, and both systems had already been under development by the Clinton administration. Several months ago, the Pentagon halved the number of sea-based interceptors set for deployment because of problems with the component designed to seek out and collide with an enemy warhead.
To be sure, the missile system does differ in some respects from Clinton’s vision. The Department of Defense intends to deploy by the end of this year two ships with upgraded radars to try and track long-range ballistic missiles in an emergency—an action the ABM Treaty would have prohibited. The Pentagon intends to expand this force by eight additional ships next year. It also is exploring locations in central Europe for the establishment of a third ground-based missile interceptor site, construction for which could begin as early as 2006. (See ACT, July/August 2004.)
As for Bush’s interest in lasers and space-based systems, technical reality has intervened so far. The Airborne Laser program to arm a modified Boeing 747 jet with a laser has fallen some two years behind schedule. In addition, two complementary satellite constellations designed to detect ballistic missile launches and relay missile tracking data to the ground-based system so greatly exceeded cost and schedule estimates that the Pentagon ordered both overhauled.
Assessing the Bush Deployment
The ground-based interceptors are at the center of the Bush deployment plan. A successful intercept of a long-range ballistic missile ultimately comes down to these ground-based interceptors, provided the system is able to detect and track an enemy missile in flight sufficiently. Whether the interceptors are up to the task is unknown because testing to date has not come close to resembling a real-world scenario. Ground-based interceptors have not been tested against a target since the botched December 2002 experiment, which dropped the intercept record to five hits and three misses. Since that time, several tests have been altered, cancelled, or postponed.
Then-MDA Director Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish said earlier this year that the primary reason for the intercept testing falloff is that MDA was working to develop a new high-speed booster to power the interceptor. MDA originally hoped to involve the faster booster in an intercept attempt in early 2001, but it has yet to do so. As a result, a less powerful, substitute booster has been used in all the intercept tests, meaning the interceptor is traveling at much slower speeds than what would be expected in an actual attack. In addition, the interceptor and target trajectories are plotted so an intercept happens at a lower altitude than what is representative of a realistic situation. This is done to avoid creating space debris harmful to civilian and military space assets.
In addition, none of the eight intercept tests were successfully conducted at night or in extreme weather even though the interceptors being deployed must be ready to perform 24 hours a day regardless of the conditions. In December 2001, MDA delayed a test two days because of poor weather.
Another presumed challenge for the interceptor is picking out the warhead in the target cluster. Adversaries may use countermeasures such as decoys to lure the defensive system into hitting the wrong target. Although there have been tests in which a mock warhead is accompanied by decoys, none of the tests have involved decoys that closely resemble the target. Moreover, MDA provides advance data on what the target looks like to the EKV, which is a 70-kilogram mass of sensors that is supposed to separate from the booster in space to zero in on and collide with an enemy warhead.
Outside experts charge that the countermeasure problem is an inherent weakness, if not the Achilles heel, of the ground-based system. MDA responds that near-term adversaries are unlikely to deploy sophisticated decoys and that it is pursuing additional defenses to destroy enemy missiles before decoys are released. The U.S. intelligence community assessed several years ago that countries developing ballistic missiles “probably would rely initially on readily available technology…to develop penetration aids and countermeasures” in response to U.S. missile defenses. These countermeasures could be ready by the time the countries flight-tested their missiles. Neither Iran nor North Korea—the two states seen as driving the missile threat—have flight-tested missiles capable of targeting the continental United States. Iran’s most recent test involved a missile with an estimated range of 1,300 kilometers, while North Korea last flight-tested a 2,000-kilometer-range ballistic missile in 1998. Both are believed to be working on longer-range missiles.
Before the interceptor can distinguish between a warhead and any decoys, it must first be guided to the general location of the target cluster. In testing to date, MDA equips the target with a C-band transponder. Data from this transponder is fed into the missile defense system, which then initially launches an interceptor to a point in space where the EKV is released. The Pentagon defends this practice as necessary because it does not have radar properly located to track the target’s early flight path.
Yet, Philip Coyle, who headed the Pentagon’s office in charge of weapons testing for six years, noted May 13 that, for a deployed system to be able to fire an interceptor to as precise a point in space as done in testing, the X-band radar and the two delayed satellite constellations would all need to be operational, which will not be the case for several years.
Coyle’s Pentagon successor, Thomas Christie, also has voiced concerns about the limited nature of the testing program. Christie, who supports the Fort Greely deployment for testing purposes, advised in a January report, “Demonstrations of EKV performance are needed at higher closing velocities and against targets with signatures, countermeasures, and flight dynamics more closely matching the projected threat.”
Several GAO reports have hit on the same theme. In April, GAO summed up system testing as being “constrained by range limitations…developmental in nature and…executed with engagement conditions that are repetitive and scripted.”
MDA downplays the significance of flight testing. Kadish told lawmakers March 11, “It is important to understand that in the missile defense program we use models and simulations, and not flight tests, as the primary verification tools.”
Neither Christie nor GAO agrees. “Due to the immature nature of the systems they emulate, models and simulations of [missile defenses] cannot be adequately validated at this time” Christie wrote. GAO reported, “Without sufficient test data to anchor MDA’s analyses, models, and simulations, the predicted effectiveness of the system will remain largely unproven when [it] is available in September 2004.”
Full Speed Ahead
From the Pentagon’s perspective, the lack of testing does not warrant holding off deployment, but argues for it. Rumsfeld mused Aug. 18, “I think there are any number of things that you benefit greatly by getting it out there, playing with it, working with it, testing it, evolving it, learning about it, showing people what it can do, learning what it can do and what it can’t do.”
Meanwhile, Pentagon officials have not shied away from making fantastic predictions about the system’s future performance. Kadish stated two years ago that he would have “high confidence” in the system’s ability to destroy a single North Korean ballistic missile launched at the United States by 2004. The following year, Edward Aldridge, then-undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, predicted the system would have a 90-percent chance of success in the same scenario. Christie, however, said this spring that the outcome is uncertain.
When exactly the Pentagon, which is still hashing out how to manage a system that is both on alert and undergoing testing, will declare the system operational is unclear. Rumsfeld denied setting Oct. 1 as a deadline. “I can’t imagine anyone who’s dumb enough to set a firm date,” the secretary said. However, Global Security Newswire reported Aug. 20 that Maj. Gen. William Shelton of Strategic Command said that was the notional date driving work. Further, The Washington Post reported a day earlier that Holly said he is aiming to make a “final” report on the system’s readiness by mid-September. Rumsfeld and both generals were attending a U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command conference at the time.
Deployment or Development?
The administration and its allies have followed a missile defense strategy that allows it to tell one thing to the American people and another to its congressional and scientific critics. While publicly claiming that the system affords an initial defense against ballistic missile attacks, it staves off Democratic pressure to subject the system to legally required testing of operational weapons by declaring that the system is evolutionary and must be deployed in order to be tested. In a June debate on the defense authorization bill, Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) advocated deploying the system but fended off a Democratic initiative to subject it to rigorous testing by citing a letter from Christie stating that it was “premature” to challenge the system with realistic tests. Democrats, including presidential nominee Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, claim to support the general notion of missile defenses but charge the administration is hastily deploying a system that has not been properly tested and is misallocating money and time dealing with a threat that is less urgent than a terrorist attack using means other than a ballistic missile.
Certainly, the administration’s strategy is not designed simply for a domestic audience. It also aims to enhance U.S. security by planting seeds of doubt in the minds of potential foes that a missile attack might be successful. Rumsfeld has further argued that the lack of any defense will invite an attack. “The longer the delay in deploying even a limited defense against these kinds of attacks, the greater the likelihood of an attempted strike,” he said.
Even if making other countries think twice about their options might influence their behavior to the benefit of U.S. national security, a deployed defense might affect U.S. strategic calculations or decision-making for ill as well. An unintended consequence might be that U.S. policymakers begin to believe that the United States has a certain degree of invulnerability to long-range ballistic missile attacks and act more rashly in the face of danger.
Rumsfeld confidently declared at the missile defense conference, “By the end of this year we expect to have a limited operational capability against incoming ballistic missiles.” But the only empirical measure of any weapon’s capability until it is used in combat is its testing record. Over five years, the system has amassed a 60-percent record of success in scripted tests when the time of the missile launch, target trajectory, and target characteristics were all known in advance and the intercepts occured at a fixed point at lower altitudes and slower speeds than what would be expected in a real attack. Moreover, the interceptor model being deployed has not participated in a single flight or intercept test. These testing results do not add up to a defense but a system that is still in the early stages of development.