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– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
NEWS ANALYSIS: Missile Defense Five Years After the ABM Treaty

Wade Boese

Five years after President George W. Bush orchestrated the June 13, 2002, U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty to build an “effective” missile defense, the system remains unproven or insufficient in the eyes of many.

Yet, Bush administration officials say that their fledgling strategic missile defense system proved its worth when North Korea fired several ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan last July. Right before the tests, the Bush administration activated the system as a precaution.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates penned an April 26 Daily Telegraph piece claiming that the defense had helped “promote stability” by allowing U.S. leaders “to consider a wider, more flexible range of responses to a potential attack.” John Rood, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, declared in a Feb. 27 speech that the system’s activation had “heartened” him.

North Korea’s missile launch preparations were no secret last June and had been reported generally as being for testing purposes. Still, Rick Lehner, a spokesperson for the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA), told Arms Control Today May 29 that North Korea’s intentions were not known and, therefore, the “system was brought to alert status in case it was needed to defend the country.” As it turned out, the system was unneeded because North Korea was conducting flight tests, and the Taepo Dong-2, the missile of greatest U.S. concern, flopped approximately 40 seconds into its inaugural flight.

The MDA asserts the defense would have stopped the Taepo Dong-2 had the test been a real attack. Lieutenant General Henry Obering, the head of the MDA, told the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee April 11, “I am confident [the system] would have worked.”

Not everyone has such confidence. Skeptics and critics point to what they say is skimpy and rudimentary testing of the system, which has components stretching from radars in Japan and the United Kingdom to 18 interceptors deployed in Alaska and California. On the other hand, some missile defense supporters criticize the administration for not being ambitious enough after pulling out of the ABM Treaty, which barred Moscow and Washington from developing nationwide strategic ballistic missile defenses.

Although Russia initially had a muted reaction to the U.S. treaty withdrawal, Russian leaders now more strongly assert that U.S. missile defenses, particularly a plan to base interceptors in Poland, are provocative. They imply that if Washington continues to proceed, it could trigger another arms race, which is what Bush and other senior administration officials said would not result from a U.S. ABM Treaty exit.

No Consensus on Capability

Despite its proclaimed confidence in the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD), which was the system activated last summer, the administration has had trouble convincing others to share the same view, largely because it has performed few visible tests over the past several years. Indeed, since Bush’s December 2002 decision to deploy the GMD system, only one successful intercept test has been conducted.

The MDA hoped to double this tally with a May 25 test, but the experiment was scrubbed when the target missile failed to fly properly. Obering said the agency would try again this summer.

The sole, recent success came Sept. 1, 2006, when a GMD interceptor fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, obliterated a mock warhead launched south from Kodiak Island, Alaska. (See ACT, October 2006.) The interceptor is comprised of powerful boosters that lift into space an exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV) that detaches from the boosters and, using radar updates and onboard sensors, hones in on and collides with a target at a combined closing speed of 35,000 kilometers per hour.

MDA officials heralded the test as proof that the system works. Speaking Jan. 29, Brigadier General Patrick O’Reilly, MDA deputy director, contended there is “very little more we can do to make [tests] more operationally realistic.”

The test differed significantly from its 10 predecessors, five of which ended in intercepts. The September experiment involved an interceptor model that was the same as those currently deployed and also involved operational crews and radars, as well as a target trajectory more closely resembling one that a North Korean missile might travel. Previously, targets were shot away from California west over the Pacific Ocean toward the Marshall Islands, from where the test interceptors were fired.

Some critics dispute the claim that the recent test was realistic. In a May 23 Arms Control Today interview, Philip Coyle, former director of the Pentagon’s Office of Operational Test and Evaluation, said the latest test was “the simplest” to date and “less challenging than tests that I oversaw,” highlighting the absence of decoys in the recent test. Previous tests included one to three decoys, although they did not closely resemble the target.

Coyle, who is currently a senior adviser at the nonprofit Center for Defense Information, contends that the Achilles’ heel of the system is countermeasures, including decoys, because the system cannot discriminate between real targets and fake ones. He contends that adversaries capable of launching a long-range ballistic missile would employ decoys or other countermeasures to penetrate the system.

That assertion is based on U.S. intelligence. Robert D. Walpole, a national intelligence officer, informed lawmakers Feb. 9, 2000, that North Korea and Iran “could develop countermeasures based on [readily available] technologies by the time they flight-test their missiles.” Neither Iran nor North Korea has successfully flight-tested a missile with a range greater than approximately 2,000 kilometers.

Obering defends the MDA testing strategy. At the April 11 hearing, he argued, “We think that there are many situations where we will not be faced with complex countermeasures.” At an April 25 Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee hearing, the general stated, “Just because you do not have countermeasures does not mean that [tests are] not realistic.”

The MDA has deployed a sea-based X-band radar, which would have been prohibited by the ABM Treaty, that the agency claims will help with target discrimination. The agency also is working to miniaturize EKVs so that a single interceptor can carry several at a time to engage separate objects in a target cluster. Flight testing of this Multiple Kill Vehicle program is set to start in 2012.

The current head of the Pentagon’s testing office, Charles McQueary, testified April 11 that the current system has “demonstrated a capability to intercept a simple foreign threat.” Meanwhile, his office’s annual report, released earlier this year, stated that a lack of flight-test data “limits confidence in assessments” of the defense. It recommended that future program decisions should “stress reliable and repeatable performance in integrated system testing.”

Similarly, a March report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which conducts investigations for Congress, concluded the system “has not completed sufficient flight testing to provide a high level of confidence that [U.S. missile defenses] can reliably intercept ICBMs.” It applauded the MDA for generally reducing missile defense test failures and improving quality control procedures but reported that previous shortcomings may have permitted “less reliable or inappropriate parts” to be incorporated in the deployed interceptors, raising questions about their “reliability.” According to the GAO, the MDA plans to spend $65.5 million to retrofit the interceptors beginning in fiscal year 2009.

Stable of Programs Remains Similar

When running for president, Bush derided the Clinton administration’s ground-based system as too modest. (The ABM Treaty permitted Moscow and Washington each to field up to 100 strategic ground-based interceptors at one site.) He suggested that if the United States truly wanted to shield itself against ballistic missiles, it had to break free from ABM Treaty rules against air-, sea-, space-, and mobile land-based systems as well as foreign deployments. This position reflected decades-long complaints of missile defense advocates that the only thing blocking effective defenses was treaty limits making certain technologies and basing modes off-limits.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal a day after the U.S. treaty withdrawal took effect, then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz hailed the possibilities that the MDA could now exploit. “We can now move forward with the robust development and testing program that the Department of Defense has designed to take advantage of new technologies and basing modes,” he stated.

Yet, five years after the administration shed the treaty constraints and spent some $41 billion on the MDA, the U.S. inventory of systems has changed little (see table 1). Air-, sea-, space-, and mobile land-based systems to counter strategic long-range missiles or ICBMs have not materialized.

The MDA has programs that fit these basing modes, but they are systems geared toward stopping shorter-range missiles and were under development prior to the treaty withdrawal. To be sure, the MDA contends some of the programs have an inherent capability against longer-range missiles or that they can be upgraded for the mission, but such claims remain unproven.

The Airborne Laser (ABL) is a prime example. Initiated under the Clinton administration, the ABL program called for arming a Boeing 747 with a powerful laser to destroy shorter-range ballistic missiles shortly after their launch. Following the U.S. treaty withdrawal, program officials announced the system also could shoot down longer-range missiles. Prolonged development delays, however, have postponed the first ABL intercept attempt from 2003 to at least 2009. Not yet armed with its main laser, the aircraft recently tracked a target, but Obering noted in the April 25 hearing that the program is not “out of the woods.”

Some ABM Treaty antagonists also saw great promise in fielding ship-based strategic interceptors, pointing to the then-Navy Theater Wide program as a possible model or starting point. Now known as Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense, the program has recorded eight intercepts in 10 tests involving shorter-range missiles, and MDA officials are seeking to expand its capabilities. As with the ABL program, however, the schedule has slipped. Whereas a first attempt to hit a long-range target had been predicted for as early as 2007, now it is set for 2014.

The MDA’s only mobile land-based system nearing deployment is the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), which is supposed to collide with missiles during their last minute or so of flight. Intercept testing of the system resumed last July after completion of an interceptor redesign that started in 1999. In the three intercept tests since then, THAAD has not missed. The system is designed to destroy missiles below the strategic threshold.

A mobile land-based strategic system, the Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI), is in the works, but it has suffered frequent budget cuts from lawmakers who question the program’s utility. As a result, the MDA has pushed back possible deployment of the system, which has yet to be flight-tested, from 2010 to at least 2014.

Space-based interceptors remain just a gleam in Obering’s eyes. “Space offers a lot of flexibility, and it offers a lot of attraction,” he testified April 25. But his agency has requested relatively modest sums to explore the option. Congress, particularly Democratic members, have signaled strong reservations about basing interceptors in orbit. In its defense authorization bill passed May 17, the House of Representatives cut nearly $800 million, including all $10 million for the space project, from the MDA’s fiscal year 2008 $8.8 billion budget request. The Senate has yet to pass its version of this bill, which will have to be reconciled with the House measure.

For some missile defense doubters and opponents, the administration’s failure to bring any new systems to fruition might be bittersweet vindication of their arguments that it was premature on technical grounds to withdraw from the ABM Treaty.

A number of missile defense supporters, however, knock the administration for not being aggressive enough. Daniel Goure, vice president of the nonprofit Lexington Institute, contended in an April 23 paper that the administration “went on to squander the opportunity” presented by scrapping the ABM Treaty. He suggests the KEI program be ramped up and put on ships.

Other missile defense proponents such as Ambassador Henry Cooper, who headed one of the MDA’s predecessors, issued a 2006 report criticizing the administration for sticking with the ground-based system. They recommended limiting work on that system and devoting more time and effort to sea- and space-based interceptors. The report noted that the current approach ignores defending against Chinese and Russian missiles.

Russian Reactions

A major point of contention when the Bush administration was maneuvering to withdraw from the ABM Treaty was how other states, particularly Russia and China, would respond. The possibility that either country might build up its arsenal in reaction to a U.S. treaty withdrawal and construction of a nationwide defense induced anxiety within Washington and worldwide.

The Bush administration dismissed such concerns as exaggerated. It argued that future U.S. defenses would not be aimed at China or Russia and that the withdrawal would help usher in a new era of better relations between the United States and Russia by removing an irritant and a vestige of Cold War competition. White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer noted Dec. 12, 2001, that the president often remarked that withdrawing from the treaty would “lead to a strengthening of U.S.-Russian relations.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin characterized the withdrawal at the time as “mistaken,” and the Kremlin has grumbled ever since. But a U.S. proposal to nullify a potential Iranian missile threat by stationing 10-ground-based U.S. interceptors in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic now has Russia growling. (See ACT, April 2007. )

Putin set the tone in a Feb. 10 speech, saying the U.S. plans “cannot help but disturb us.” He asked, “Who needs the next step of what would be, in this case, an inevitable arms race?”

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also suggested May 15 that an arms competition was certain. “In questions of military-strategic stability, there are its own immutable laws: actions, counteractions, defensive, offensive systems,” he explained, adding that “these laws operate regardless of how somebody would like to see this or that situation.”

Although 10 interceptors would clearly pose no threat to Russia’s roughly 530 ICBMs, Russian officials indicate their concern is that the deployment is just the tip of the iceberg. The Russian news agency Itar-Tass May 14 published a Russian Foreign Ministry statement that “one cannot ignore the fact that U.S. offensive weapons, combined with the missile defense being created, can turn into a strategic complex capable of delivering an incapacitating blow.”

How seriously Russia fears such a scenario and how it would really respond is difficult to gauge. Moscow is seeking a new arms reduction agreement with Washington (see ACT, May 2007 ), but it also regularly speaks of retaining older weapon systems with multiple warheads and tripling the warhead capacity of its new class of Topol-M ICBMs.

Bush administration officials say Russia is overreacting and that a difference exists between the Kremlin’s private and public comments. They speculate that Russian officials might be trying to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe or engaging in electoral politics at home. Regardless, Rice said May 15 in Moscow that the United States would not give Russia “a veto on American security interests.”

U.S. officials have made a pitch to soften Russia’s rhetoric by proposing cooperation on missile defenses. Moscow so far has shunned the offers, perhaps recalling that nothing much came of Bush’s June 13, 2002, pledge to Russia to “look for ways to cooperate on missile defenses, including expanding military exercises, sharing early warning data, and exploring potential joint research and development of missile defense technologies.”

Estimated to have an arsenal of approximately 20 ICBMs capable of reaching the continental United States, China has stayed relatively silent about U.S. missile defense developments, even though it would appear to have greater reason than Russia to be concerned. Beijing has had a secretive, yet slow strategic modernization program underway for years, and there is little evidence that its pace or scope has changed. Chinese unease with U.S. plans, however, is viewed as stoking Beijing’s push for negotiations on the prevention of an arms race in outer space at the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament.

Washington has gained some greater international acceptance of missile defenses. In addition to winning consent from the United Kingdom and Denmark to upgrade and integrate U.S. radars on their territories into the U.S. GMD system, the Bush administration also deployed a mobile radar to Japan and is cooperating with Tokyo on improving the ship-based Aegis defense. The ABM Treaty barred any of these actions. Other countries with ongoing projects with the United States include Australia, Germany, Israel, Italy, and the Netherlands.

Still, some governments, including a few U.S. missile defense partners, are uneasy with the seemingly deteriorating U.S.-Russian relationship, of which missile defense appears partially responsible. In a March 18 article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier cautioned that, in protecting against a possible Iranian threat, “the price of security must not be new suspicion or, worse still, fresh insecurity.” He also wrote, “[W]e cannot allow a missile defense system to be either a reason or a pretext for a new arms race.”