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"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
Pentagon Split on Missile Defense

Wade Boese

Two top Pentagon officials gave lawmakers disparate appraisals of the administration’s deployed long-range ballistic missile defense system during congressional testimony March 15. The general overseeing the system’s development contended it could already provide limited protection to the United States, while the official in charge of weapons testing said the defense is unproven.

In prepared remarks to the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, Missile Defense Agency (MDA) Director Lieutenant General Henry Obering stated, “For the first time in its history, the United States today has a limited capability to defend our people against long-range ballistic missile attack.” Obering’s remarks pertained to the current deployment of six long-range, ground-based missile interceptors in Alaska and another two in California. Various missile-tracking radars and a satellite system that detects ballistic missile launches worldwide support the interceptors.

David Duma, acting director of the Pentagon’s office of operational test and evaluation, offered a less sanguine assessment. “I don’t think that you can say the system is operationally ready today,” Duma said. He added, “We don’t have a demonstrated capability from detection through negating the incoming threat.”

For much of last year, senior Pentagon officials and President George W. Bush predicted that the United States would soon have a limited missile defense system ready for use. Although the initial components were deployed last year, the system was never put on alert. The system is currently going through a “shakedown” in which military operators are familiarizing themselves with how the system functions and devising guidelines for running it.

In its latest flight tests last December and in February, the system’s interceptor, which is comprised of a high-speed booster and an exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV), did not leave the ground. The booster is supposed to lift the EKV into space. At that point, the maneuverable, lightweight EKV is designed to use radar data updates and onboard infrared sensors to zero in on an incoming target for a collision.

The interceptors deployed in Alaska and California combine booster and EKV models that have not been successfully flight-tested together. The last two experiments were intended to be the first such flights.

Obering described the last two test failures as “disappointing” but said they did not undermine his confidence in the system. “We have demonstrated the basic functionality of the system,” the general asserted.

Using a slower, substitute booster and a prototype EKV, the ground-based interceptor system scored five hits in eight intercept attempts during rudimentary tests between October 1999 and December 2002. In an April 2004 report, the Government Accountability Office, which conducts studies for Congress, characterized these trials as “developmental in nature, and, accordingly, engagement conditions were repetitive and scripted.”

Obering said MDA plans to continue to test, making the experiments more challenging and realistic. Two more ground-based interceptor tests are scheduled for this year.

Aiming to turn the system’s recent testing record around, Obering has created a new position—director of mission readiness—to better prepare the ground-based system for testing and to fix quality control issues that might bungle a test.

On March 10, Obering appointed Rear Admiral Kathleen Paige, director of the ship-based Aegis ballistic missile defense program, to the new spot. Paige will retain responsibility for the Aegis system, which is designed to counter short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. In its latest test Feb. 24, the ship-based system destroyed a short-range target missile, improving its intercept testing record to five hits and one miss.

At the hearing, Duma praised Obering for his “prudent” approach to developing various missile defense systems. “I applaud his commitment to a ‘test-fix-test’ philosophy that results in an event-driven test program,” the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester said.

In addition to the ground-based intercept tests, MDA is planning two more Aegis intercept tests this year and the resumption of flight testing for the medium- to intermediate-range Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor, which has not flown since 1999. THAAD’s first shot at a target in flight is set for 2006, and the system is slated for initial deployment as early as 2008.

The navy currently has four Standard Missile-3s (SM-3), the Aegis system’s interceptor, available for emergency deployment. MDA’s goal is to have 28 SM-3s spread out among 11 ships by the end of 2007.

A key objective for the coming year is fielding a sea-based X-band radar in December to help missile interceptors discriminate between a warhead and any decoys or debris that might be surrounding it. No radar currently exists to perform this mission.

Outside critics contend that, even with an X-band radar, enemies could still employ decoys and other countermeasures to cloak a warhead and trump anti-missile systems.

To address this alleged vulnerability, MDA is also working on two systems to destroy missiles in the first few minutes after their launch, a period known as the boost phase, when decoys and countermeasures are less likely to be a problem. One program, the Airborne Laser (ABL), involves equipping a modified Boeing 747 with a powerful laser to heat up and explode rising missiles. The other, the Kinetic Energy Interceptor, calls for developing a very high-speed booster for ramming missiles early in their flight.

Obering said ABL is the primary boost-phase system now but “[w]e will not know for two or three years, however, whether either of these programs will be viable.”

Obering asked lawmakers to be patient with missile defenses. “We may stub our toe here or there, but for the most part the program is on track,” the general testified.