Report Critiques U.S. Missile Defense

Tom Z. Collina

Arguing that the U.S.-based ballistic missile interceptor system is “very expensive” but has “limited effectiveness” against potential attacks from Iran, a September report by the independent National Research Council recommends replacing the current system with a revamped but largely similar system and expanding it by adding a new site in an East Coast state.

The panel of experts said, however, that its proposed system might not be effective against likely threats, saying “it depends” on how the United States and potential attackers design their systems and how much they know about each other’s technology.

The 260-page report, requested by Congress and organized by the National Academy of Sciences, proposes to build faster missiles, more-maneuverable interceptors, and additional sensors to “fix” the U.S. Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system now deployed in Alaska and California. The proposed system, like the current one, would seek to intercept incoming warheads while in space, or in the “midcourse” of their trajectory.

The expert panel considered alternatives to midcourse interception, such as striking enemy missiles while still in their early “boost” phase, but found these options impractical. A missile’s boost phase is simply too short—just a few minutes—for an interceptor to reach it in time, the report said. Moreover, airborne lasers would have to fly near enemy airspace and would be vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire, while space-based interceptors would require hundreds of satellites and cost as much as $500 billion over 20 years, the experts estimated.

The midcourse approach provides significantly more time for the intercept, but has its own drawbacks, according to the report. Most notably, it must confront the “discrimination problem” of telling the difference between real warheads and decoys, also known as countermeasures.

The Discrimination Problem

One of the main conclusions of the report is that no practical missile defense system “can avoid the need for midcourse discrimination,” which “must be addressed far more seriously if reasonable confidence is to be achieved.” Until that reality is accepted, they say, “there will be no end to the poorly thought[-]out schemes proposing to avoid the need for midcourse discrimination.”

The report finds that, “at some point, countermeasures of various kinds should be expected.” Initial decoys may be unintentional, such as debris from the booster rocket that would be traveling along with warheads through space. Yet, “as threat sophistication increases, the defense is likely to have to deal with purposeful countermeasures,” that adversaries may use to “frustrate U.S. defenses.”

At the same time, the report says that it is not clear if its own proposed system would be effective against decoys. On this central question, the panel says that its plan “offers the greatest potential for effective discrimination” but “it is by no means a certain solution” and “there is no unequivocal answer” to the question of whether missile defense can work against countermeasures.

The effectiveness of any defense against decoys “inevitably will vary with time” as the offense adapts to the defense’s fielded system and the defense seeks to respond to fielded countermeasures, they said. The report notes that confidence in U.S. defenses can only be established through “operational tests that are realistic.”

Many experts say that the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) never has conducted tests against realistic countermeasures, in part because the systems have had enough trouble against targets without decoys and in part because planners assume that countries such as Iran and North Korea would not initially deploy countermeasures on their missiles. The report said the MDA has canceled research programs that would try to deal with countermeasures and that the committee “could not find anyone at MDA” who could explain much of the past research in this area.

Philip Coyle, director of the Pentagon’s operational testing office during the Clinton administration, said in a Sept. 21 e-mail to Arms Control Today, “Discrimination is the Holy Grail, but no one really knows how to find it or how to get there. And like Monty Python [in the British comedy group’s movie, Monty Python and the Holy Grail], the Missile Defense Agency has only pretend solutions, banging coconuts together to make the sounds of horse’s hooves, when what America needs is real horses.”

Current U.S. System ‘Fragile’

The report, called “Making Sense of Ballistic Missile Defense: An Assessment of Concepts and Systems for U.S. Boost-Phase Missile Defense in Comparison to Other Alternatives,” is sharply critical of the current 30-interceptor system deployed on the West Coast, which it describes as “fragile” and ineffective against “any but the most primitive attacks.”

The system was first deployed in 2004 by President George W. Bush “before its development was complete in order to meet what was considered an urgent need to get a system deployed quickly,” according to the report. The report was referring to the effort to field a system to counter a feared long-range ballistic missile threat from North Korea, which has yet to materialize. Iran, the other potential threat often cited to highlight the need for missile defense, has yet to test a ballistic missile that could reach the United States.

The Bush administration withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 to allow for the West Coast deployment. According to the report, the system has cost $34 billion through fiscal year 2009, the last year for which the study cited cost figures. According to the MDA, five of the eight intercept tests that have been conducted since December 2004 have failed, and there have been no successful intercept tests since 2008. The next intercept test is planned for 2013.

The report finds the West Coast system’s “shortcomings” so serious that it recommends the technology be completely redesigned, rebuilt, and retested, with a faster two-stage missile booster based on the canceled Kinetic Energy Interceptor program; a heavier interceptor, or “kill vehicle”; and more-capable sensors, including “stacked” X-band AN/TPY-2 radars. The report suggests that the current interceptors, which cost $70 million each to build, could be used as test targets for the new system.

Once this development work is complete, the report says that 30 new interceptors should be deployed on the East Coast, possibly at Fort Drum in New York or an unspecified site in northern Maine, and then used to replace the missiles deployed at the West Coast sites. The report’s co-chairs, former Lockheed Martin Missile Systems chief L. David Montague and former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Walter B. Slocombe, said at a Sept. 11 press briefing that their redesigned system would take at least six to eight years to deploy.

East Coast Site by 2015?

After the report’s conclusions were partially released in an April letter to Congress, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted to build a third strategic missile interceptor site on the East Coast by the end of 2015. After the research council released the full report, Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, issued a Sept. 11 press statement saying that the report “validates, and informed, the provision of the [fiscal year 2013] National Defense Authorization Act which calls for the development of an East Coast site to improve the defense of the United States.”

That legislation, passed in May, would increase spending on the U.S. GMD system by $460 million above the $903 million requested by the Defense Department. Of that additional amount, $100 million would be used to study the deployment of missile interceptors on the U.S. East Coast by late 2015. The research council estimated that this new project would cost $19-25 billion over 20 years. The Defense Department has said a third interceptor site is unneeded, and the Senate version of the bill does not support a third site. (See ACT, June 2012.)

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is building a different interceptor system for NATO, known as the European Phased Adaptive Approach, to handle potential future attacks from Iran against Europe. The system’s fourth phase, to be deployed around 2021, is intended to be able to intercept long-range missiles that could reach the United States.

The report states that its plan for an East Coast site would make Phase 4 of the European approach redundant and thus argues for cancellation of that phase. The report finds that the Standard Missile-3 IIB interceptor planned for Poland and Romania in Phase 4 would not be able to fly fast enough to catch missiles launched from Iran on “lofted,” or high, trajectories.

The expert panel notes that its proposed interceptor for the U.S. East Coast could be placed in Europe and would be fast enough, at 6 kilometers per second, to intercept missiles launched from Iran over Europe, but does not recommend this path. Such a move would “clearly exacerbate political tensions in the region” as such a missile would be able to intercept Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) based in southwestern Russia. “The committee does not advocate introducing an interceptor with fly-out velocity greater than about 4.5 [kilometers per second] into Europe,” the study says.

Moscow has made clear its concerns that Phase 4 of the European system could be used against Russian ICBMs, although U.S. officials have repeatedly said that the interceptors would not be aimed at Russia.

Meanwhile, on Sept. 17, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced during a trip to Asia that the United States and Japan had agreed to field a second X-band radar in Japan as part of joint missile defense deployments in the region to protect U.S. troops and “the U.S. homeland from the North Korean ballistic missile threat.” Chinese experts, however, told The New York Times they feared the system was really aimed at China, and that Beijing’s relatively small nuclear deterrent could be undermined by U.S. missile interceptors. Panetta said that the system was not aimed at Beijing.