and Miles A. Pomper
President George W. Bush has made fielding missile defenses a priority. In pursuit of this objective, he withdrew the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, has requested nearly $38 billion in missile defense funding since taking office, and last year ordered the deployment of the initial elements of a defense against long-range ballistic missiles. On Sept. 29, Arms Control Today interviewed Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, who oversees the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA), about the current status of and future plans for U.S. anti-missile systems.
ACT: We appreciate you taking the time to talk to us. Could you provide our readers with a snapshot of the current status of ballistic missile defense efforts, particularly the ground-based midcourse system?
Obering: First of all, I want to make a couple of points. The ground-based system is of course the most visible and one of the more complex components of our missile defense system. But it is part of a larger capability that we are building, and that is an integrated ballistic missile defense system. It will consist of space-based sensors, sea-based defenses, land-based defenses—along with sea- and land-based sensors—tied to command and control centers. So, we are building an integrated and layered system.
Now, specifically to the ground-based midcourse system, it is the part of the system that is capable at this point of protecting against long-range missile threats. We attack them in the midcourse phase.[1
] Since the summer of 2004, we have been emplacing interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska, and at Vandenberg, California. We currently have seven interceptors placed at Fort Greely and two in California. They are supported by the Defense Support Program satellites, which we have had for years for early-warning purposes, and the Cobra Dane radar in the Aleutian Islands, which we just had a very successful test of. In that test on [Sept. 26], we launched an actual long-range target out of the back of a C-17. It comes down in parachutes and then ignites and comes on a threat trajectory into the defended area across the radar. We proved in that test that we were able to detect, track, classify, and generate a fire-control solution against that missile with the interceptors and the actual hardware and software that we have in an operational configuration today.
ACT: Let me ask you a question on the interceptors placed at Fort Greely. Last October, the appropriate military commands began putting the system through a “shakedown.” Initially, this was described as a process that would last several weeks, but it has now been underway for nearly a year, and the system is yet to be declared operational. Why is that?
Obering: Well, I do not know who classified that as only being for several weeks. I am unaware of that. What we decided to do was what you would do with any system of this complexity, much like taking a ship on a shakedown cruise. That is what we have been doing since last October.
Let me get to a broader point here for just a second and then come back. We live in a different world then when we signed the ABM Treaty during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The way that we acquired, produced, developed, and tested [weapons] systems grew up in that Cold War environment. And, to be very frank, there was not a sense of urgency then that we have developed in this day and age. So, we felt we were totally defenseless against a country that would develop a long-range or even, for that matter, a medium-range threat against the United States. We had no defense against that. In [missile defense] testing we did from 2000 to 2002, we successfully intercepted targets. We did that with a prototype of the [exoatmospheric] kill vehicle (EKV) that we have in the ground today. That gave us enough confidence that we had a capability that we ought to start getting out the door, again, because we had no defense at all. Had we been attacked, I would have been hard-pressed to say why I did not try to start getting that capability into the field. So, that was the rationale behind starting to put out a defensive line of capabilities. Is it perfect? No. Is it what we are going to have for the future in terms of this idea? No. We are going to continue to improve this.
In fact, we have already had at least two major configuration changes to the system with respect to updated software in the fire control system of the command-and-control and battle management system. We continue to develop and wring those out. We have demonstrated that we can take the system from what we would call a developmental state, where we are upgrading this software or upgrading a configuration, into an operational alert state and then back. We will continue to do this as we improve and upgrade the system. But the point is that, when we are in this development mode, we can come out of that into an operational mode, should we have to, for real world purposes. That is something that is important. You can continue to build a system and improve it while having that inherent capability.
ACT: Is there going to be a point when you are going to declare the system operational?
Obering: Well, first of all, I do not make that call. I am responsible for developing the system and getting it out there. There are a lot of factors that go into what you declare in terms of the capability, not the least of which, obviously, is the technical readiness or the maturity of the system. From a technical and performance perspective, we have a capability that we can use. Had we followed that classic [development] model that I talked about in the Cold War era, we would just now begin to probably start some of our testing to support a fielding decision, meaning that we would be three or four years away from having any operational defensive capability. We would be launching targets and interceptors in our test bed in the South Pacific, but in terms of a real live operational capability against a real world threat, we would not have anything.
This idea of concurrent development and test, development and test, development and test, with inherent capability, is a model that we need to pursue for today’s environment. We have used it on other programs. We used it on Global Hawk and on Predator. In this particular instance where you do not have anything, I think it is very appropriate.
ACT: Two years ago, then-Undersecretary of Defense Edward Aldridge predicted the [ground-based] system would have a 90 percent chance of successfully taking out a North Korean ballistic missile. A few months ago, you noted that the system has a “better-than-zero” chance of hitting an incoming missile. What accounts for this seemingly large discrepancy, and how do you rate the current system’s ability to intercept a ballistic missile warhead?
Obering: What I meant by “better-than-zero” is that, if you do not have anything in the field, you have zero. The specific percentage of the system’s effectiveness is classified. That is why I do not articulate what that is. Now, Undersecretary Aldridge made a comment in testimony, and I do not know the context of that in terms of how he made or why he made that remark. But I can tell you that not only is it better than zero, which is what we had a year ago, it is much, much better than zero. I just cannot get into what those details are. Nor, I think, would the American public expect that because we do not typically go into those kinds of details for our systems.
ACT: What is that assessment of “much, much better than zero” based on?
Obering: The testing that we have done to date. It is based on the confidence that we have continued to build in the system. I want to go back and iterate a little bit about that. A lot of times, critics say, “it is untested, it is unproven, etc.” The fact of the matter is the basic functionality of the system—the ability to intercept a target traveling at the speeds that we are talking about, the ability to engage in a terminal engagement and destroy the target—we have seen that in intercepts that we have done in the 2000-2002 time frame. We took the kill vehicle that accomplished those intercepts, and we improved it by making it more producible and making it a more robust design. The booster that we have in the ground today, we have actually flown successfully in the current configuration twice before and in a similar configuration another time. Is the system designed for a very, very complex threat suite? The answer is no. But what it can handle is what we anticipate the threat to be in the near term. We will evolve and improve the system over time to handle what we think the threat is going to evolve to.
ACT: You mentioned testing. There has not been a successful intercept test since October 2002. The interceptors that are deployed now in Alaska and California are comprised of boosters and kill vehicles that have never been flight-tested together. What gives you confidence that these interceptors will work?
Obering: Good question. I want to be a little specific about why we have not had a successful test since 2002. A large measure of that time was to stand down because we thought we had learned as much as we could learn from those tests. We had basically wrung out those configurations as much as we could. A large measure of that stand-down was to take the money that we would have had in further testing of that design and put it into the development of the [interceptor] configuration that we have in the holes today.
When we came back up online last year to begin our flight testing again, we ran into a problem in December and a problem in February. Those problems had nothing to do with the basic functionality of the system. They were basically technical glitches.
In December, we had a software timing issue in the booster; we actually flew with that twice before. It was easily fixed. It was one parameter in one software line of code.
In terms of the February test, we had a ground support arm in a silo that did not clear out of the way. That turned out to be workmanship and a quality control issue. Let me explain. We have two silos down in the South Pacific that we test out of. The particular configuration of the silo that we were testing out of in February happened to be for a booster configuration that is no longer in the program, and there had to be some modifications done to that silo to accommodate the booster that we now have in Alaska and California. It was the workmanship surrounding the modifications to that test silo that led to this failure. This was not the rocket science part. We determined that, based on workmanship, there was some salt air fog that got into the silo. It corroded a hinge and that is what [led to the failure]. We do not have that problem in Alaska or in California with respect to the silos.
Since we had the failures in December and in February, I wanted to make sure that we had wrung everything out. Because when you have two failures in a row like that, even when they are peripheral to the basic functionality of the system, you want to make sure that you do not have any other problems lurking, especially when you talk about quality-control, workmanship, and that type of thing. I established the Independent Review Team to take a look at the program and review every aspect of it, basically soup-to-nuts, and to tell me where we needed to pay attention. They made some great recommendations. Since May, we have been going through the items that they have recommended, and we have laid out a systematic test program that we plan to get back into here in a couple of months. In the meantime, we have been taking components of the booster and the kill vehicle and putting them through qualification testing. We have been doing full qualification testing on the booster’s software. So, those have been the pacing items to get us back into flight testing.
ACT: You mentioned the Independent Review Team. Their conclusion was that there was not enough flight data to validate [testing] models and simulations. Once again, how do you have confidence that the interceptors will work?
Obering: Well, the major conclusion that they had is that there were no design flaws that they could tell in the system. That was one of the primary [findings] they made. You almost never have enough flight-test data to validate all the simulations and models that you need. However, I can tell you, for the booster configuration that is sitting in the silos in Alaska and California, we have flown that. And those models for the flight test have very accurately predicted the performance of those boosters, including the launch environments and everything else. We have to have more flight-test data. There is no doubt about that. But we can now get that data as part of our flight-test program and, at the same time, have at least some type of capability, should we need it, to counter an operational, real world threat. This is not a game. It tends to be a game sometimes, I think, inside the beltway.
ACT: If I may, what’s the reasoning behind conducting the next two flight tests without a target and then waiting to go back to intercept testing next year?
Obering: First of all, any time that you go through that type of systematic exhaustive review of your program, you want to go back and make sure that you minimize the variability when you resume testing. We want to take this a step at a time now. We are being very conservative to make sure that we have thought through everything.
The rationale for not flying against a target in the next flight test is we want to make sure we can take the kill vehicle through its paces. We are going to be able to do some things with that kill vehicle now that we would not be able to do if we were flying against a target. For example, if there is no target when the kill vehicle opens its eyes, it is going to do some maneuvers that we have not had to do in the recent test program.
The reason we are going to fly the second flight test without a target is because we are going to start launching the interceptor out of an operational site, which is Vandenberg. You do not do that overnight. You have got to make sure that you have tested the crews, that they are ready. Moving to a new site means you have new aspects of range safety and everything else. Therefore, you want to make sure that you have got that right before you go against a target.
Then we introduce targets for the third test and the fourth test.
ACT: Our readers, as I am sure you are not surprised, have closely followed the debate over missile defenses and the ABM Treaty. As you know, in December 2001, the president announced that the United States would withdraw from the treaty. How has that withdrawal benefited U.S. missile defense programs?
Obering: Tremendously. Absolutely tremendously. It also benefited arms control because, let’s face it, we are the ultimate in arms control. When all else fails, we have to have something between us and a weapon. When attempts to diplomatically disarm other countries fail, we have to perform.
At the time the ABM Treaty was signed in 1972, it was appropriate for the environment that we were in. It was a very good thing because our primary threat at that time was the Soviet Union, which had missiles capable of reaching the United States. The concept of mutually assured destruction was evident; it was stabilizing between the two countries. The lesson learned from the ABM Treaty is make sure that you have the right treaty with the right nation. In 1972, there were about eight nations around the world that had ballistic missiles or ballistic missile technologies, and most of those were friendly to the United States. Today, there are more than 20 countries around the world that have ballistic missiles and ballistic missile technologies, and many of those countries are not friendly to the United States or, at least, could be considered hostile to some of our intents and interests. For us to have abided by the ABM Treaty with a country that no longer existed, while the rest of the world were arming themselves with these weapons, flies in the face of responsible defense for the American people. I could not honestly look an American in the face and say that we are providing for the common defense if we are not addressing a threat that was growing around the world.
ACT: Were there specific actions that you would not have been permitted to do under the treaty that you have done since the withdrawal?
Obering: You bet. We could not have built an integrated capability, which you are going to have to do against these types of threats. The ability for us right now to take an Aegis radar and tie information [that it gathers] into a fire control system for a ground-based weapon located in Alaska or California would have been a violation of the treaty. We could not mix strategic and tactical or theater weapons systems together to achieve the capability that we now have and that we will continue to improve. This idea of mixing and matching sensors and interceptors and command-and-control elements to expand your detection and engagement capability over a single, autonomous system would have been prohibited by that treaty. So, the ability to even develop and field a capability, other than the one site that was allowed in the treaty, would have been prohibited.
Again, the treaty was a recognition of the environment in which it was written. It is not the environment that we have today. We had to take very realistic steps to address today’s environment and today’s threats. I do not view this as a zero-sum game like some people do. We have to continue diplomatic efforts to try to encourage countries not to invest in weapons of mass destruction. One of the ways you can do that—and I think historically speaking it has always been the case—is through strength. You show them that it is not worth the investment. The ultimate missile defense is if we can dissuade a country from ever investing in ballistic missiles to start with. That is one of the primary objectives. If we cannot do that, we have to find ways to deter them from ever using them and, if they do use them, to destroy them before they harm the American people, our interests, or allies.
ACT: Recently, you have endorsed exploring the possibility of space-based interceptors. MDA has plans to possibly begin testing and exploring these systems as early as 2012. When will the United States start having to deploy hardware to create this space-based test bed, and why do you think this is necessary?
Obering: That is a great question. Let me preface it this way: Twelve years ago, if you had asked me if we were going to be fighting in Afghanistan, I would not have predicted that. If you can tell me where we are going to be fighting 12 years from now or what threat countries we have to deal with or what those threats will look like and where they are coming from, then I could lay out very precisely a terrestrial-based system that could handle that. But we do not know. We know what we know today, and we will continue to evolve that.
There are a lot of things about a space-based interceptor that we do not know that we need to explore from a technical perspective. I think it is also a proper debate to have with the American public and in Congress as to whether we want to do this. But speaking from a military perspective and from somebody who is charged with protecting the American people, deployed U.S. forces, allies, and friends against all ranges of missiles in all phases of their flights, it makes sense to explore a space-based interceptor layer. And, it would be nothing more than that. It would be a layer to the system that we have evolved and will continue to evolve terrestrially. There is a lot that needs to be answered, and there needs to be an active debate about whether we want to do this. One of the things that I want to make sure is that it is an informed debate and that is why we think it is prudent to do some experimentation with respect to whether you can even achieve [a space-based layer]. Can you build the responsiveness to command-and-control? Is it affordable? If you have interceptors that are unaffordable in terms of their mass, size, weight, or whatever, there is no use in starting down the path. So, what we have proposed is not that we are going to actively build a space-based layer. What we have proposed is a very modest and moderate test-bed approach to launch some experiments. We have a very modest amount of money beginning in the 2008 time frame to begin to do this experimentation. The debate can take place in parallel to that, and hopefully it will be a much more informed debate than we have today.
ACT: What about those who would point out that initially the Fort Greely site started out as a test bed site and then it was turned into an operational site, so why couldn’t a space-based test bed become a deployment site just by changing its name?
Obering: Well, when we took the Fort Greely site as a test bed and it became basically a site with an operational capability, it was done for a good reason. There was a recognition that we had an emerging threat. We had a threat from North Korea, and we had to do something about that. I would anticipate that we would not have an operational space-based interceptor layer unless we needed it. But these defenses take time, so being able to go from a test bed into an operational status in a very short amount of time is something that is an advantage, not a disadvantage.
ACT: What about the concerns of Russia, China, and others that this could set off an arms race in space?
Obering: The Russians and the Chinese understand, or at least should understand, that the scale of what we are doing nowhere near matches what they can amass in terms of attack profiles and quantities. We are not talking about a massive Brilliant Pebbles or a massive space-based interceptor constellation that would come anywhere near close to countering a Russian or Chinese threat. We are not talking about that. We are talking about a modest layer to help us engage emerging threats that could occur around the world over the next decade. Now, some people also describe this as the weaponization of space. That is a term that we do not do enough examination of. What we are talking about doing, if this pans out, is putting very small-scale interceptors into space that would be defensive weapons. They would have no offensive capability. They would have no ability to attack anything on the ground. They would not have the survivability to come back through the atmosphere.
ACT: They could attack satellites in space.
Obering: It depends on how we design them. It depends on what their intent and their use are. A warhead traveling through space and a satellite traveling through space are very different. These have to be considered defensive weapons because, again, just by design and by the nature of what we are talking about. But I am not the one to decide that. All I am charged to do is to try to make sure that we have thought through the technical aspects and that we have got an informed debate. This is a decision that needs to be made by the American people and, obviously, debated in Congress.
ACT: How many interceptors, in general, are we talking about for a test bed in space?
Obering: Not even a handful to start with. We are talking about onesies, twosies in terms of experimentation. That is all we are talking about.
ACT: Back on Earth, could you update us on U.S. plans to deploy long-range interceptors in Europe?
Obering: We have money that has been budgeted beginning in the 2006 time frame for this, and we think it is important for a variety of reasons. Part of our strategy is not only to protect the U.S. homeland, but also to protect our deployed forces, our allies, and friends. We are concerned about threats that may emerge from the Middle East. Having another interceptor site in Europe would greatly [complicate] not only an attacker’s problem with respect to the United States in terms of how many interceptor sites they have to deal with, but it also primarily provides coverage to our allies and friends. There are several nations in Europe that are very interested in hosting a third interceptor site, and we will continue to pursue that over the next year.
ACT: Is there a general time frame? You said the money begins in 2006, but when might interceptors be deployed to Europe?
Obering: Well, we are going to have to have a fairly sound, solid foundation of agreement in the next several months so that we can begin to move out with the program.
ACT: You have already addressed it somewhat, but for decades, missile defense and efforts to limit offensive missiles were viewed as competing against one another. How do you see the two as being complementary, or how do you achieve that?
Obering: First of all, you have to recognize that arms control assumes rational actors. Arms control assumes adversaries that can be deterred. It assumes that there are people who have something to lose and that you can actually deal with in terms of negotiation and in terms of being able to come to an accommodation over a mutual disarmament, or even unilateral for that matter. What we are finding out today in this world is we have folks that are not like that. We have folks that are willing to sacrifice not only themselves but hundreds of people for a particular cause. If those people get their hands on these types of weapons—and there are hundreds and hundreds of missiles out there; many, many, many that are unaccounted for—they are almost undeterrable. Certainly, they are non-negotiable when it comes to something like arms control. That is why I see us as being very much a collaborative effort. There are countries that can be deterred. There are countries that we can enter into arms control agreements with. I think that is very wise, and that is something that we need to do. On the other hand, we have seen in the last several years that there are organizations and countries that just are not deterred in that manner.
ACT: Is there anything we have not asked about that you would like to add?
Obering: Just one of intent and one of what I will call trust. Many times, you can get the feeling, if you read a lot of the critics of missile defense, that we are trying to pull the wool over somebody’s eyes or that we are trying to fool people or we are trying to build something that is unreliable or that is foolhardy. I wish that more people would give us the benefit of the doubt. We have thousands and thousands of dedicated Americans that are working very, very hard to build a defensive capability where there was none before. They are doing it for a very good reason. When you walk though some of the factories that we have that are producing these components and these systems, what you see on the walls are pictures of American cities. In many cases, they are aerial photographs of the hometowns of the workers that are crafting the system. They understand what they are doing is very important. I wish more people would give us the benefit of the doubt. We are on the side of trying to prevent weapons of mass destruction from being used against the American people and our interests. I think that is something that I would like to see emphasized much, much more.
ACT: Thank you very much for your time.
Click here for a complete transcript of this interview.
1. Ballistic missiles have three stages of flight: the boost phase, the midcourse phase, and the terminal phase. The boost phase begins at the missile’s launch and lasts until its rocket engines stop firing. Depending on the missile, this phase lasts between three to five minutes. The midcourse phase starts after the rockets finish firing and the missile is on a ballistic course toward its target. For ICBMs, this phase occurs in space and can last up to 20 minutes. It is during this stage that the missile’s warhead or warheads separate from the delivery vehicle. The terminal phase begins when the missile’s payload re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere and it continues until impact or detonation.
2. General John W. Holly, who oversees development of the ground-based midcourse defense, told a Washington audience Oct. 14, 2004, that the shakedown would take place over six to 12 weeks. Wade Boese, “Missile Defense Still on Hold,” Arms Control Today, December 2004, pp. 33-34.
3. From October 1999 to December 2002, the Pentagon conducted eight missile intercept tests using the ground-based system. The system tallied five hits and three misses in these developmental tests.
4. The ground-based interceptors deployed at Fort Greely and Vandenberg Air Force Base are comprised of two main components: a high-speed booster and the EKV. The booster lifts the EKV into space, where the two then separate. Using radar updates and its own onboard sensors, the 70-kilogram EKV is supposed to maneuver into the path of an oncoming warhead and destroy it through a collision.
5. Global Hawk and Predator are unmanned aerial vehicles.
6. The ground-based midcourse system is currently focused on intercepting targets traveling five to seven kilometers per second.
7. In these two tests, the interceptor failed to launch. Wade Boese, “Ground-Based Interceptor Fails Again,” Arms Control Today, March 2005, p. 29.
8. The Aegis radar is part of a broader, ship-based system originally intended to track and counter short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. In recent years, MDA has claimed the system can also help track a long-range ballistic missile. The concept is to use the ship-based radar to relay tracking data to a ground-based interceptor to help locate and engage a target.
9. Strategic systems are those designed to engage long-range ballistic missiles. Tactical or theater systems are those designed to counter short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. Different capabilities are needed to intercept missiles with different ranges because they all fly at varying speeds, trajectories, and altitudes.
10. North Korea ’s last ballistic missile flight test was an August 1998 test of its medium-range, 2,000-kilometer-range Taepo Dong-1. Although the U.S. intelligence community has assessed that North Korea is developing a longer-range Taepo Dong-2 capable of reaching the United States, Pyongyang has not flight-tested such a missile.
11. Brilliant Pebbles was an initiative of President George H. W. Bush that envisioned up to 1,000 space-based interceptors.
12. At least the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland have all held discussions with the United States about hosting missile interceptors. Wade Boese, “ U.S. Eyes Missile Defense Site in Europe,” Arms Control Today, July/August 2004, p. 39.