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– Frank von Hippel
Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
Missile Defense Under Scrutiny
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Wade Boese

Top U.S. defense officials were honored recently for activating a rudimentary anti-ballistic missile system last year. But a key lawmaker says more testing is needed to prove the system can work, and a Pentagon advisory task force also has questioned the system’s utility.

Defying criticism from Moscow and many Democrats, President George W. Bush moved resolutely after taking office to abrogate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and order deployment of the system. It currently comprises 14 land-based missile interceptors with up to another 36 on the way, including possibly 10 destined for Europe.

Administration officials claim the interceptors would defend the country against the growing missile capabilities of Iran and North Korea. Despite recent testing, neither country has a missile in service that could strike the United States from their territory.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld oversaw deployment of the U.S. interceptors until Dec. 18, 2006, when Robert Gates was sworn in as his successor. At that Pentagon ceremony, the president applauded Rumsfeld for taking “ballistic missile defense from theory to reality.”

Four days earlier, Rumsfeld had awarded a Defense Distinguished Service Medal to Lieutenant General Henry Obering, the head of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA). The citation hailed Obering for erecting a system that U.S. leaders had “confidence” to put on alert prior to several North Korean missile test launches last July. (See ACT, September 2006.)

Some do not share that faith. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters last November that the Pentagon has “not done the operational testing yet that is convincing that [the system] will work.” Operational testing refers to experiments resembling real attacks.

Levin pressed Gates at his Dec. 5 confirmation hearing on whether he supported operational testing of weapons before their deployment. Gates said he did, but he also noted earlier in the hearing that “my instinct would be that if we have something that has some capability, it’s better than having no capability.”

The existing strategic anti-missile system has scored six intercepts in 11 trials since October 1999, but the tests have not been “operationally” realistic, and only one of the successes followed Bush’s December 2002 deployment order. That hit took place last September and marked the first intercept for an interceptor design matching those stationed in Alaska and California. (See ACT, October 2006.)

MDA intended to conduct another intercept attempt before the end of 2006, but the earliest it will now occur is April. Agency spokesperson Rick Lehner told Arms Control Today Dec. 14 that MDA needed time for Raytheon Corp. to make some software changes to the interceptor’s exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV). This roughly 60-kilogram component rides atop the interceptor’s boosters and is released in space, where it is supposed to hone in on and collide with its target.

Lehner said there has been no decision whether the upcoming test will involve trying to intercept a mock warhead alone or one with decoys, which would demand the EKV discriminate between multiple targets. Some past tests involved decoys, but the last experiment did not. Critics maintain real foes will use decoys and other countermeasures to trump the system.

A task force of an advisory board to the secretary of defense, the Defense Science Board, implied in an unclassified December 2006 report that MDA is not sufficiently addressing the countermeasures problem. Consequently, the group warned, “fielding the current systems in larger numbers will not lead to a robust [defense].”

Lehner disputed this criticism, citing the Multiple Kill Vehicle program. This effort aims to make kill vehicles small enough—about the size of a loaf of bread—so several can be outfitted on an interceptor. The concept is that each kill vehicle would destroy a separate object in a target cluster, mitigating the challenge of singling out an incoming warhead. Current MDA plans call for intercept testing of the miniature kill vehicles to begin in 2012.

Whether MDA can keep this nascent program on schedule is highly uncertain. Even more established missile defense projects are susceptible to delays and setbacks.

Indeed, according to an MDA press release, an “incorrect configuration” forced the agency to abort a Dec. 7 intercept test of its ship-based Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system, which is designed to counter shorter-range missiles. The system’s next chance to improve on its record of seven hits in nine attempts, including the December mishap, will come this spring.