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Test Hit, Diplomatic Flop for U.S. Missile Defense
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Wade Boese

The Bush administration scored a hit in a recent test of a U.S.-based strategic anti-missile system, but struck out in talks to ease Russian opposition to the planned stationing of a similar system in Europe. The lead U.S. negotiator said the Kremlin had shifted its attention to preparing for the Obama administration.

John Rood, acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, led a U.S. team to Moscow Dec. 15 to discuss missile defense and other security issues with Russian officials led by Sergey Ryabkov, deputy minister of foreign affairs. Briefing reporters two days later in Washington, Rood described Russia as showing "less flexibility" toward U.S. proposals to reduce tensions surrounding the proposed basing of 10 missile interceptors in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic.

Russia has reacted with incredulity and military threats to Bush administration claims that the deployments are to protect against growing Iranian missile capabilities. Moscow charges the real purpose behind the U.S. plan is to counter Russian nuclear forces.

Speaking Dec. 19 to reporters, Ryabkov disputed Rood's characterization of Russia's position as more rigid. Instead, Ryabkov accused the United States of reneging on earlier offers to alleviate Russian concerns about the proposed U.S. deployments.

During an October 2007 visit to Moscow, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who has agreed to stay in his current post for the Obama administration, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice broached a package of conciliatory steps with Russia. (See ACT, November 2007.) U.S. and Russian officials since then have quarreled over exactly what was proposed. For example, Russian officials charge the United States suggested a permanent Russian presence could be maintained at the proposed bases, but the United States denies such a promise was made. The Polish and Czech governments have spoken out against that possibility.

Russia prefers that the United States cancel the deployment and agree to conduct a joint assessment of the Iranian missile threat before proceeding with any specific defensive measures. Deploring "unilateral actions prejudicial to Russia's security," Ryabkov said Russia was ready for a "constructive dialogue and equal partnership" with the United States in countering missile threats.

Rood contended that Russia intends to "test the mettle of the new administration" and is "looking carefully at the position of the new team." President-elect Barack Obama has not endorsed or rejected the proposed European plan. His stated view is that anti-missile systems in general should be proven to work before they are fielded and should not sap resources from projects addressing more likely threats. (See ACT, December 2008.)

The interceptor model slated for installation in Poland is scheduled to be flight-tested for the first time late this summer. Current plans also call for testing it against a target twice in 2010. Congress has prohibited deployment of the interceptor model abroad until it is certified by the secretary of defense as passing operationally realistic testing.

The proposed interceptor is derived from the U.S. ground-based midcourse defense (GMD) interceptor. Instead of three rocket boosters like the GMD system, the interceptor posited for Poland is to be powered by just two rocket boosters due to the shorter time frames and distances for a possible missile intercept over Europe compared with defending the United States. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) officials express few doubts that the untested model will perform as intended given its similarity to the more mature GMD interceptor. Twenty-two of those interceptors have been stationed in Fort Greely, Alaska; another three are installed at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

Test Intercept Achieved

The agency's confidence presumably grew Dec. 5 with the GMD system's interception of a mock warhead more than 200 kilometers above the Pacific Ocean. The target missile flew south out of Kodiak Island, Alaska, while the interceptor was fired from Vandenberg about 19 minutes after the target's launch. Ten minutes later, the interceptor's exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV), a roughly 60-kilogram device that uses radar data and its own onboard sensors to hone in on its quarry, collided with the mock warhead.

Lieutenant General Patrick O'Reilly, director of the MDA, described the experiment that day to reporters as "the largest, most complex test we have ever done." Similarly, an agency spokesperson, Rick Lehner, told Arms Control Today Jan. 5 that the trial was the "most operationally realistic test to date."

The test, however, was not as taxing as originally planned. Along with releasing a mock warhead, the target missile was supposed to activate unspecified countermeasures, but it failed to do so. Countermeasures, such as balloon decoys employed in earlier anti-missile tests between 1999 and 2002, are intended to make it more difficult for anti-missile systems to strike the correct target.

Some independent experts critical of U.S. missile defense efforts contend that any adversary capable of mating nuclear warheads to long-range ballistic missiles will be technically savvy enough to design countermeasures that can trump U.S. interceptors. The MDA disputes that assertion, and Lehner pointed to the recent test trouble as proof. He said, "[I]t isn't that easy to deploy [countermeasures] when you want them." Still, O'Reilly said the agency's intention is to "use more and more sophisticated countermeasures" for future tests.

Despite the countermeasures failure, the recent test, which cost up to an estimated $150 million, set some new milestones for the agency. The experiment marked the first time that a crew based at the Fort Greely site rather than a crew at the fire control center at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, triggered the interceptor launch. Lehner said the soldiers firing the interceptor did not know precisely when the target missile would fly into space, but were only notified of a "period of interest."

In another first for the agency, four separate radars participated in the intercept mission by feeding tracking data into the system's fire control center. "What we showed today is all those sensors working together," O'Reilly told reporters.

Two of the radars contributing information were the Sea-Based X-band Radar, an advanced discrimination radar outfitted on a mobile, oceangoing oil rig platform, and an Aegis SPY-1 ship-based radar. Those radars have been involved in previous GMD intercept tests, but in a shadow mode, meaning the data they gathered was not actually used to inform the intercept.

The target's trajectory, speed, and altitude were intended to resemble those of a postulated missile attack by North Korea, which has yet to successfully flight-test a missile capable of reaching the continental United States. Similar target trajectories were used in the last two successful GMD test intercepts in September 2006 and September 2007. All told, the long-range system has hit targets in eight of 13 test attempts since 1999.

The MDA is considering a change of trajectories in its next GMD system test, which is tentatively scheduled for late spring or early summer. The plan is to fire the target, including countermeasures, on a northeast heading from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands and the interceptor from Vandenberg. Those trajectories will require the interceptor to perform over a longer distance. Lehner said there is "no possibility" that the target missile's mock warhead could land on the United States or Canada if the interceptor missed.


Posted: January 16, 2009