"[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
Anti-Missile System Scores Test Hit
Share this

Wade Boese

The Pentagon’s strategic ballistic missile defense intercepted a test target Sept. 1 for the first time since President George W. Bush ordered the rudimentary system deployed nearly four years ago. The success comes on the cusp of a U.S. decision to extend the system to Europe, although nongovernmental missile defense proponents vigorously advocate a different destination: space.

Just hours after the test, Lieutenant General Henry Obering, director of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA), declared the experiment a “total success” and a “huge step” for advancing missile defenses. He also said the outcome gave him confidence that the system had a “good chance” of destroying a missile in a real attack. Nonetheless, the flight test fell short of resembling a realistic scenario, and in one respect, it was less difficult than past tests.

Still, the experiment involved several firsts. It involved the first launch of an interceptor of the same make as the 11 currently deployed at Fort Greely, Alaska, and the two stationed at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. In another departure, both the test interceptor and target missile were launched from new locations.

The test interceptor was launched from Vandenberg. Prior testing involved firing the interceptor from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The target missile was launched from Kodiak, Alaska, rather than Vandenberg in order to generate a different trajectory.

Instead of shooting the target missile west over the Pacific Ocean toward Hawaii, the new launch point enabled MDA to fire the target south. That allowed the target missile’s flight to more closely resemble the path that a North Korean missile might take. For some time, the Pentagon has postulated that North Korea represents one of the key near-term threats that the rudimentary defense must be prepared to stop. That premise only appears to have been reinforced after Pyongyang in July conducted a partly successful spate of missile tests, even though the longest-range system failed shortly after takeoff. (See ACT, September 2006. )

In the Sept. 1 flight test, an early-warning satellite detected the target missile’s launch and relayed coordinates to the ground-based midcourse (GMD) system’s fire control center at Colorado Springs, which cued an early-warning radar located at Beale Air Force Base, California, to start tracking the target. Once the radar started tracking the missile, trajectory data was sent back to Colorado Springs, where a “firing solution” was formulated and then electronically fed into the test interceptor at Vandenberg.

The interceptor blasted out of its silo roughly 16 minutes after the target’s launch. After the interceptor’s final booster rocket burned out, it released an exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV) in space. This roughly 60-kilogram mass of sensors then received a target update from Colorado Springs and maneuvered into a collision with the mock warhead from the target missile. The collision occurred approximately six and one-half minutes after the interceptor’s launch.

“What we saw today was a very realistic trajectory for the threat…and a very realistic trajectory, a very realistic intercept altitude, and intercept speeds for the…interceptor against the target,” Obering told reporters afterward. In addition, the system’s fire control center was manned by an actual crew of the 100th Missile Defense Brigade, instead of private contractors. Obering concluded that “this is about as close as we can come to an end-to-end test of our long-range missile defense system.”

Still, key elements of the system did not participate in the test. Although tested separately on other occasions, the Cobra Dane radar located at the western tip of the Aleutian Islands could not be used because it is permanently oriented away from the recent experiment’s location. Cobra Dane would be the primary radar for relaying early tracking data on a missile fired at the United States from the direction of Asia.

Another sensor, the sea-based X-band radar, also did not contribute tracking data for the intercept, although MDA reported it operated in a “shadow mode.” The radar is supposed to help the system discriminate between an enemy warhead and any decoys that might accompany it.

Previous systems involved up to three decoys with a mock warhead, but the latest test had none. Roughly one-third of the Sept. 1 EKV’s software and hardware were different from those of previously tested models, so the test scenario was simplified to check if the revamped EKV could perform its basic functions. Indeed, MDA did not officially characterize the test as an intercept attempt, but as a data collection flight test.

A former director of the Pentagon’s independent weapons testing office, Philip Coyle, wrote a Sept. 11 commentary for Neiman Watchdog, a Harvard University online journalism publication, calling the latest test “the simplest flight intercept test ever” because of the lack of decoys. Many scientific critics of the Pentagon’s strategic missile defense say that adversaries will be able to use decoys and other countermeasures to thwart the system.

Obering said he was “confident” that the system could “handle simple countermeasures” and that future tests of the system will add them. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld also said in a Sept. 1 statement that the tests will become “more challenging.” Neither specified whether the next intercept test scheduled tentatively for December will involve decoys.

All told, the GMD system has achieved six hits in 11 tests involving targets. Prior to the latest trial, the defense had not scored a successful intercept since October 2002.

Following a December 2002 miss, the system went into a testing hiatus as the Pentagon concentrated on fielding interceptors to comply with Bush’s order that month to deploy an initial system in 2004. (See ACT, January/February 2003. ) MDA resumed testing in December 2004, but technical malfunctions caused the first two attempts to be aborted before the interceptor launched.

This meager testing record was becoming a source of discontent for some lawmakers. Seven Democratic members of Congress, including the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, Ike Skelton ( Mo.), sent Rumsfeld a letter Aug. 29 pressing for more realistic testing. Similarly, the Senate Appropriations Committee also contended in July that MDA was devoting too many resources to researching futuristic concepts instead of focusing on “adequate testing and fielding of currently available technology.”

Obering told Arms Control Today Sept. 15 that the Pentagon “will continue to request funding that is adequate for both near-term and future missile defense technology development and deployment efforts.” He described both as “essential for current and future national security needs.”

One deployment option that MDA is preparing to embark on is to Europe. The Bush administration contends that Europe-based interceptors are needed to counter a growing Iranian ballistic missile threat. Tehran’s longest-range missile, the Shahab-3, can reach as far as Turkey.

Washington has approached the Czech Republic and Poland about hosting the site, but no agreement has yet been reached. During a visit to Washington, Polish Defense Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said Sept. 13 Poland would want some additional bilateral security arrangements with Washington in return for hosting interceptors.

U.S. lawmakers have not fully embraced the European deployment plan. The House earlier completely eliminated the $119 million requested for the site by the Bush administration as part of the fiscal year 2007 budget, while the Senate fully funded it. In a Sept. 22 compromise, the two chambers agreed to provide $32.8 million for the site and $63 million to begin work on the base’s proposed 10 interceptors, which lawmakers also said could be deployed elsewhere. This amounts to a $23 million cut from the original request.

Meanwhile, a group of nongovernmental missile defense advocates called the Independent Working Group on Missile Defense, the Space Relationship, and the 21st Century is urging limited deployments of ground-based systems and more work toward stationing interceptors in orbit. The group includes Ambassador Henry Cooper, who headed a predecessor organization to MDA that, during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, focused on developing space-based systems to protect against a presumed onslaught of Soviet ICBMs.

In a report released this summer, the group argued that the Bush administration’s system “provides extremely limited coverage” and leaves unaddressed potential threats from “strategic competitors such as Russia and China,” as well as from surprise missile launches by ships off U.S. coasts. As a remedy, the group advocates the deployment of up to 1,000 space-based interceptors beginning with an initial capability in 2010. Testing of space-based interceptors, they recommend, should start in three years.

MDA has plans to explore placing interceptors in orbit, but at a much slower pace and smaller scale than proposed by the nongovernmental group. The agency intends to start requesting funding in next year’s budget for establishing a “test-bed” around 2012 of less than a “handful” of interceptors, Obering told Arms Control Today last year. (See ACT, November 2005. )

On Sept. 15, Obering told Arms Control Today that MDA still has “plans to conduct technical demonstrations to determine the technical viability of space-based defenses.” But he also noted that space-based missile defenses require “a significant policy debate.”

China and Russia for the past several years have sought to block U.S. missile defense plans for space by getting the 65-member Conference on Disarmament to negotiate an agreement on the prevention of an arms race in outer space. But the conference operates by consensus, and the United States has consistently opposed the Chinese and Russian initiative, arguing that there is no arms race in space. The conference ended its 2006 session Sept. 15 without having started any negotiations, including on the outer space issue.