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

Wade Boese

Is the fledgling ground-based midcourse defense (GMD) system deployed nearly 18 months ago by the Pentagon capable of destroying an incoming long-range ballistic missile? In March, lawmakers discovered that the answer depends on who you ask.

Pentagon officials responsible for the system say the answer is yes. But the Pentagon’s independent weapons tester says insufficient proof exists to draw a conclusion. A March report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which conducts studies for Congress, comes down on the side of the weapons tester.

The GMD system currently comprises eight missile interceptors embedded in Alaska and another two in California. They are designed to collide with enemy missile warheads in space and are primarily supported by an aging missile-launch-detection satellite system, two upgraded early-warning radars, and an extensive battle-management command and control system. By the end of this year, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) hopes to add to the sensors mix a sea-based X-band radar; an upgraded early-warning radar based in Fylingdales, United Kingdom; and a forward-based X-band radar in Japan (see page 36).

Despite the system’s evolving status and the fact that it has yet to be declared operational, top Pentagon officials indicated March 9 to the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee that it is ready to perform its mission. In his prepared testimony, MDA Director Lieutenant General Henry Obering described the initial 2004 deployment as making “history by establishing a limited defensive capability…against a possible long-range ballistic missile attack.” At a March 20 briefing with reporters, the general asserted that the system’s ground and flight testing gave him confidence that it could “shoot down an incoming missile” and that testing had not revealed any problems that would be “showstoppers.”

Similarly, Peter Flory, assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, told the lawmakers that, “today, the United States has all of the pieces in place that are needed to intercept an incoming long-range ballistic missile.”

David Duma, who heads the Pentagon’s Office of Operational Test and Evaluation, concurred that “we have all the pieces in place” to try to intercept an incoming missile. But, he added, “the testing to date has not confirmed that you could count on that.”

Back-to-back tests at the end of 2004 and the start of 2005 saw the GMD interceptor fail to leave the ground. After a nine-month flight-testing hiatus, MDA conducted a successful interceptor flight test Dec. 13, 2005. This experiment, which did not involve an intercept attempt, marked the first flight of the interceptor model currently deployed in Alaska and California.

GAO Weighs In

Reviewing the entire gamut of missile defense programs, GAO assessed MDA as making progress on several of them. However, the congressional investigative body criticized the agency for rushing systems into the field “at the expense of cost, quantity, and performance goals.”

GAO described the 2004 GMD deployment as particularly egregious. It implied that President George W. Bush’s December 2002 order to deploy a system by 2004 resulted in hasty and possibly shoddy work as MDA switched focus from developing an experimental system for testing purposes to fielding an operational capability. “Time pressures caused MDA to stray from a knowledge-based acquisition strategy,” GAO reported.

The GMD interceptors might have been negatively affected as a result, according to GAO. It found that “the performance of emplaced GMD interceptors is uncertain because inadequate mission assurance/quality control procedures may have allowed less reliable or inappropriate parts to be incorporated into the manufacturing process.” Some GMD officials, according to the re port, have called for the deployed interceptors to be removed from their silos and any “questionable parts” replaced as part of a service upgrade scheduled to begin as early as this fall.

Any assessment of the GMD system’s performance capability is further complicated by the lack of an “end-to-end flight test…using production-representative components,” GAO concluded. The report observed that the five successful GMD intercept tests, the last of which occurred in October 2002, “used surrogate and prototype components.”

MDA plans this year to conduct three GMD flight tests, two of which will be intercept attempts against targets, using operationally deployed components. In his testimony, Duma labeled these three tests as “operationally realistic.”

GAO concluded that MDA is working to reform some of its management practices but reported that more needed to be done. In general, GAO found the agency has “unusual flexibility to modify its strategies and goals, make trade-offs, and report on its progress.”

Obering said March 20 that, although he has the “utmost respect” for GAO, he thought the latest report was “unfortunately not their best work.” The general said the report ignored important progress made on the sensor side and used outdated baseline goals for measuring progress. He also emphasized that the approach for proceeding with missile defenses is to deploy a minimum capability as soon as possible and improve it over time.