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More Testing Urged for Missile Defense

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Wade Boese

A trio of outside experts commissioned by the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has warned that the nascent ground-based strategic missile defense system is bound for additional test failures and may not function properly if its testing regime is not revamped and made a higher priority.

Tasked last February with evaluating the system’s last three test flops (See ACT, March 2005.), the experts provided their findings to MDA head Lt. Gen. Henry Obering in a Mar. 31 report, a copy of which was obtained by Arms Control Today. The Independent Review Team included former NASA administrator William Graham; Maj. Gen. Bill Nance, a former program manager of the ground-based missile defense system; and William Ballhaus, president and chief executive officer of The Aerospace Corp.

The three experts found that development of the missile defense system, which is intended to protect the United States from long-range ballistic missile attacks, has been driven by a White House schedule rather than performance benchmarks. Administration officials say that schedule is based on a growing missile threat.

The experts noted that MDA “met the challenge” of providing an initial groundbased system in accordance with President George W. Bush’s December 2002 directive to begin deploying a defense in 2004, but added that “[t]he next challenge is to verify the system’s operational performance and reliability.”

In a June 17 interview with Arms Control Today, MDA spokesperson Rick Lehner defended the agency’s focus on meeting the president’s timetable as justified by the “urgency” of deploying a defense capable of protecting against a limited ballistic missile attack. Aside from Russia and China, no other country has successfully flight-tested a ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the continental United States. However, some U.S. officials claim North Korea has that capability. (See ACT, June 2005.)

By the end of 2004, MDA had stationed six ground-based missile interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska. The Pentagon, which has yet to declare the Alaska deployment as up and running, is continuing to put these interceptors and supporting elements through a “shakedown” to assess the system’s capabilities and develop procedures for its operation. MDA plans to field 10 more interceptors at Fort Greely before 2006.

“There is a need to validate the design and reliability of the system as currently deployed,” the experts concluded. They warned, “[H]ardware and software may not accomplish [the] mission with predictable performance and reliability.”

During congressional testimony this year, Obering has maintained confidence that the system can work as intended, citing several past successful intercepts in rudimentary tests and extensive simulations and modeling experiments. But the experts reported, “[M]odels and simulations have not yet been sufficiently validated and require additional flight data to improve confidence.”

To better ensure the system will perform as intended, the experts made several recommendations. They urged MDA to prepare more rigorously for tests, establish more standards and specifications for the system, boost ground testing, increase accountability, and put quality assurance ahead of meeting planned schedules.

Democratic lawmakers who have criticized the pace of the missile defense deployment saw some vindication in the report. Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) told Arms Control Today June 21 that the report’s emphasis on verifying the system’s effectiveness and reliability is “an important recommendation, which has been self-evident to those of us who have long been critical of deploying an untested and unproven system.”

Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) told Arms Control Today June 17 that the experts’ “prediction that continuing with business as usual would likely result in additional test failures leads me to believe that missile defense testing must be shifted to the office of testing and evaluation.” This office is an independent Pentagon entity responsible for testing weapons systems.

Lehner reported that the experts’ recommendations are currently being evaluated by Rear Adm. Kathleen Paige, who Obering recently appointed as MDA’s director of mission readiness. (See ACT, April 2005.) Paige is expected within weeks to provide Obering with proposals on how to implement the experts’ recommendations, as well as her own recommendations for improving testing. The next system flight test has not yet been scheduled.