I salute the Arms Control Association … for its keen vision of the goals ahead and for its many efforts to identify and to promote practical measures that are so vitally needed to achieve them. -

– Amb. Nobuyasu Abe
Former UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs
January 28, 2004
Strategic Missile Defense

Missile Defense Post-ABM Treaty: No System, No Arms Race

Wade Boese

Last June 13, the United States withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, eliminating the treaty’s limits on the U.S. ability to develop and deploy nationwide defenses against long-range ballistic missiles and dampening three decades of contentious debate over whether the United States should pursue such defenses.

In the days and months leading up to the withdrawal, two sharply contrasting forecasts of the potential consequences had clashed. Missile defense proponents, who vilified the ABM Treaty as jeopardizing U.S. security by shackling efforts to protect the country against growing ballistic missile threats, suggested that rapid progress toward the deployment of effective defenses could be achieved once the treaty was abolished. Critics and skeptics of missile defense argued otherwise, warning that the treaty’s demise might make the United States less safe by provoking a new arms race. They asserted Russia might halt or reverse cuts to its nuclear forces and China could respond by expanding its arsenal, which would likely spur India and then Pakistan to follow suit. Those dubious of missile defense also added that the largest impediment to making missile defense work was not the ABM Treaty but the limits of technology.

To date, neither side’s prediction has proven prescient. The United States has not made great strides toward having an operationally reliable nationwide missile defense. The limited missile defense deployment plan for 2004 and 2005 that President George W. Bush announced last December is essentially the same as that proposed by the Clinton administration. Two of the three systems to be fielded under the Bush plan would have been permitted under the ABM Treaty, which barred Washington and Moscow from deploying nationwide defenses against long-range or strategic ballistic missiles but allowed limited defenses against short- and medium-range missiles. The third system to be deployed was originally designated as part of a new test site and possibly could have been legal under the treaty. On the other hand, negative repercussions from the treaty withdrawal appear minimal. Russia criticized the move as a mistake, but no country is known to have launched or expanded a weapons buildup in response to the U.S. withdrawal.

It is still too soon to draw definitive conclusions about whether the United States will derive any significant advantage from abrogating the ABM Treaty or reap more benefits than costs. Missile defense programs initiated in the withdrawal’s wake could take years to show results. Likewise, another country’s arms buildup or hostile attitude in response to the treaty’s end might take some time to become apparent. Nevertheless, preliminary assessments can be made about both sides’ claims.

Assessing the Case for Withdrawal

Since Bush’s December 13, 2001, announcement of his intention to withdraw the United States from the ABM Treaty, as well as the subsequent withdrawal, Bush administration officials have identified three main benefits of exiting the treaty. First and foremost, the United States secured the freedom to deploy any and all strategic missile defense systems that it wants, anywhere it wants. Under the treaty, the United States could deploy no more than 100 ground-based interceptors in North Dakota to protect against long-range ballistic missiles. Second, the Pentagon gained a freer hand to explore and test technologies and basing modes, such as sea- or space-based systems, that were proscribed against long-range ballistic missiles. Third, the Pentagon received greater license to pursue foreign cooperation on missile defense. Though the rhetoric has soared with the treaty’s end—J. D. Crouch, assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, described the United States as being “liberated” in a March 2003 address—measurable results have been modest.

Deploying a Test Bed

The most visible move by the Bush administration since the ABM Treaty withdrawal has been Bush’s December 17, 2002, missile defense deployment announcement. Under the plan, the Pentagon will seek to deploy a total of 10 ground-based strategic missile interceptors in 2004. Six of the interceptors are to be located at Fort Greely, Alaska, and four at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The Pentagon also aims to field another 10 ground-based interceptors at Fort Greely in 2005, up to 20 sea-based interceptors on three ships, and an undisclosed number of Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) interceptors.

With the exception of the second wave of ground-based interceptors in 2005, the administration’s deployment plan might have been permissible under the ABM Treaty. Both the PAC-3 and the sea-based missile interceptors are designed to counter short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, which is a mission known as theater missile defense (TMD). The ABM Treaty did not prohibit TMD systems. And prior to the treaty withdrawal, the Pentagon had unveiled a plan to station six ground-based strategic missile interceptors at Fort Greely as elements of a new test site. The ABM Treaty permitted the addition of new test sites, although there was uncertainty within the State Department over whether the United States simply needed to notify Russia of a new test site or gain Moscow’s approval to establish it. Pentagon statements that the test site could possibly be used in an emergency situation, blurring its status as an operational or test site, complicated the matter. Ultimately, what had been conceptualized and first described as a test site before the decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty then became a deployment following the treaty’s end. Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish, director of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA), has been frank about Fort Greely’s dual nature. He testified before a Senate subcommittee April 9 that “[i]n other words, instead of building a test bed that might be used operationally, we are fielding an initial defensive capability that we will continue to test.”

Although the ground-based interceptors scheduled for deployment at Fort Greely were a key element of the Clinton administration’s National Missile Defense (NMD) program and have been under development for years, they have not been tested in their final form yet. The interceptor’s booster, which carries the exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV) that is to collide with a warhead in space, has not been flight-tested or selected. A surrogate booster has been used in all eight intercept tests to date. Originally, the Pentagon was supposed to have a new booster for intercept testing by early 2001. However, the booster’s development has been significantly delayed. Two competing models are each to be flight-tested twice this summer. Depending on their performance, the Pentagon will choose one or keep both for future intercept testing and deployment.

In general, the strategic ground-based system to be deployed beginning in 2004 is unproven. Thomas Christie, who heads the Pentagon’s office of operational test and evaluation, reported to Congress in a February report that the proposed defense “has yet to demonstrate significant operational capability.”

The system’s eight intercept tests to date—five of which have proven successful—have not been very challenging or representative of a real-world scenario. Citing range limitations and safety considerations, the Pentagon has essentially been repeating the same test at a lower altitude and slower speeds than what a real intercept is likely to demand. The target in all the tests has been equipped with a C-band transponder, and data from that transponder is used to calculate the intercept plan guiding the interceptor into space toward the target. MDA justifies this practice as necessary due to the lack of a radar in the testing area to track the target in its early stages of flight. Information on the target is also fed into the EKV before the intercept attempt so that it can identify the mock warhead from among the other objects, including decoys, in the target cluster. The decoys used in the testing, balloons that are not vaguely similar to the mock warhead, are also largely considered unrepresentative of the foils a potential enemy might employ.

The Pentagon does not refute these criticisms but argues that such limitations and artificialities are the norm in early weapons testing. Kadish recently described the tests as “very scripted,” and Christie suggested the tests have been “relatively unrealistic.” Both officials say more complicated and stressful testing is soon to come. At the same time, documents submitted with the Pentagon’s fiscal year 2004 budget request reveal that MDA has cut several intercept tests previously planned prior to 2009. Between eight to 10 intercept tests are now planned over the next six years. One Senate Democratic staffer remarked in a May 14 interview that MDA’s testing plans have gone from “impossible to execute to anemic.” The staffer was referring to the fact that in recent years the Pentagon suggested it hoped to conduct up to four or even five intercept tests per year. A MDA spokesperson defended the schedule changes May 20, contending that a test schedule is “always notional, as it is for all weapon systems, and is adjusted to meet program needs.”

Despite the system’s acknowledged rudimentary and relatively untested nature, the Bush administration sees no reason not to deploy it. The underlying rationale is that something is better than nothing and can always be improved. In a May 20 document explaining its missile defense approach, the White House described the 2004 deployment as a “starting point” upon which it will add new systems when they become ready. The White House further contended that it is pursuing an “evolutionary approach” to missile defense and that there will be no “final, fixed missile defense architecture.” Democratic lawmakers have criticized this approach, claiming it results in systems being fielded prematurely.

New Tests, Same Uncertainty

The ABM Treaty specifically ruled out the testing, development, and deployment of strategic missile defense systems or components that were air-, sea-, space-, and mobile land-based. Recognizing that neither Washington nor Moscow would be able to verify what went on behind closed doors, the treaty’s negotiators did not bar research. Moreover, the treaty did not prohibit work on TMD systems, such as the PAC-3 that saw action in Iraq. Under the treaty, however, TMD systems and their components could not be tested or used against long-range targets.

In addition to the NMD program designed to counter strategic ballistic missiles, the Bush administration inherited several TMD programs from the Clinton administration. Many missile defense advocates inside and outside government were keen to see if some of these systems could contribute to or perform strategic intercepts. The ABM Treaty withdrawal provided the Pentagon with the opportunity to test such possibilities.

Since the treaty withdrawal, the Pentagon has conducted only two strategic missile defense intercept tests; one succeeded and one failed. In both, the Pentagon involved radars and sensors from various TMD systems to check whether they might be able to play a role in future strategic missile defenses. A ship-based radar, the Aegis system’s AN/SPY-1, was incorporated into both tests. A ground-based radar for the Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system and a sensor on the Airborne Laser (ABL) aircraft—a modified Boeing 747 that is to be outfitted with a powerful laser—were part of the second test. All three systems participated in “shadow mode,” meaning they were used to observe the target, but the data they acquired was not used to aid the intercept attempt. All the sensors performed well, according to the Pentagon, although there has yet to be a determination whether they worked well enough to support a strategic intercept. The MDA spokesperson said May 20, however, that the ship-based radar could provide targeting data to “help” the ground-based interceptor system “develop a better firing solution.”

Some missile defense supporters have suggested that THAAD, ABL, and the ship-based system, which has been renamed twice by the Bush administration and is now known as Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD), might be able to do more than just track long-range targets—that they could also shoot them down. Yet, the Pentagon has not tested this proposition largely because the three systems have not proven themselves against the missiles they were initially designed to defend against. Long-range missile warheads travel at least seven to eight kilometers per second, which is nearly twice as fast as a medium-range missile, making strategic targets more elusive. The current Aegis BMD interceptor missile is deemed too slow by half to intercept a long-range missile warhead, and it has only been tested three times against relatively big targets moving slower than a medium-range ballistic missile warhead. The THAAD system has not been tested since the summer of 1999, when it destroyed two nonstrategic targets after failing in six straight tests, and is not to be flight-tested again until late 2004. The ABL aircraft has not been equipped with its laser, and the program’s future is clouded. Kadish noted at the April hearing, “[W]e are right on the edge of making this very revolutionary technology either prove itself or fail. And we just don’t know the answer to that question yet.” If the program continues, Kadish is predicting the first ABL test against a nonstrategic target no earlier than the end of 2004. None of the three systems is scheduled to be fired against a strategic target within the next few years.

The U.S. treaty withdrawal sent the Pentagon back to the drawing board for radars and sensors in general. In his April testimony, Kadish said, “I know we’re rethinking the combination of sensors…without the treaty now.” But instead of clarifying plans, the treaty withdrawal appears to have jumbled them, at least in the short term. Kadish admitted as much. “And there is a major debate inside the community…based on affordability reasons and a whole host of other technical issues. In my view, that debate is not resolved yet,” Kadish explained.

During the Clinton administration, Pentagon plans called for the construction of an advanced X-band radar on Alaska’s Shemya Island, a desolate island at the western tip of the Aleutians, and the deployment of two satellite constellations (Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS)-low and SBIRS-high) to track and discriminate among incoming ballistic missile warheads. Now, the Pentagon is planning to put the X-band radar on a sea-based platform. It has also significantly scaled back SBIRS-low and renamed it the Space Tracking and Surveillance System, while SBIRS-high has experienced a series of delays and cost overruns, pushing back its potential availability.

The near-term implication is that the ground-based interceptors to be deployed in 2004 and 2005 will not be supported by sensors that were previously assessed as being important elements for any future strategic missile defense. An upgraded early-warning radar and older model sensor satellites are intended to support the interceptors, but they are less capable than the envisioned systems. The X-band radar and new satellites were not to be available until 2005 or later under the Clinton administration as well, but the nascent and troubled state of the programs has raised greater concern about when they might really be ready. One of the staunchest Senate supporters of missile defense, Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK), even expressed doubts about the direction of sensor programs, critically questioning Kadish in April about MDA’s plans to put the X-band radar on a sea-based platform.

In addition to re-evaluating what sensors might do the best job of supporting a strategic missile intercept, the Pentagon is also considering new interceptor systems as well. MDA is exploring conceptual designs for miniature kill vehicles to enable multiple ones to be put on a single interceptor so it can engage several targets or decoys. A kill vehicle is the part of the interceptor that separates from the booster lifting it into space and then homes in on a target for a destructive collision. MDA also intends to soon begin evaluating designs for satellites armed with interceptors to shoot down ballistic missiles within the first few minutes after their launch. MDA intends to deploy up to three or five such satellites for testing purposes as early as 2008. Both of these concepts would have eventually run afoul of the ABM Treaty. At the same time, they are both in the preliminary stages and could have been investigated under the treaty for some time, perhaps years, before running up against the accord’s prohibition against testing and development.

A Little Help From Our Friends

The White House also advocated withdrawing from the ABM Treaty so international cooperation on missile defenses could be expanded. Other countries might be invited to participate in joint research, or they could also potentially permit U.S. missile defense assets to be deployed on their territories. Although the United States has sent delegations far and wide to discuss potential missile defense cooperation, the Pentagon has few results to show for its efforts.

The most tangible accomplishment has been the British government’s February decision to permit the United States to upgrade the Fylingdales early-warning radar on British territory. A similar request to the Danish government to do the same to a radar located at Thule, Greenland, has not been answered. The Pentagon’s aim is to improve the two radars’ tracking ability against missiles fired from the Middle East and enable them to guide interceptors to potential targets. Currently, the radars are limited to spotting missile launches and tracking missiles during their first few minutes of flight.

State Department and Pentagon officials said they could not name any other new programs initiated with foreign governments, but they said discussions were underway. While claiming that there has been “a good deal of progress” on international cooperation, one Pentagon official interviewed May 13 remarked, “[B]ut in the terms of getting into the details of specific countries, specific programs, specific discussions, the status of programs and discussions, we’re not ready to do that.” A State Department official interviewed May 19 reported that no “blueprint-type data” has been shared with foreign governments—an action Kadish frequently cites as one of the key benefits of the treaty withdrawal. The official added that some European countries have volunteered their territory for the deployment of missile defense assets.

Although only London has publicly signed up for new cooperation, Washington’s treaty withdrawal has quieted most overseas criticism of its missile defense plans. The State Department official interviewed May 19 characterized the change in tone as “remarkable,” noting that vehement opposition no longer exists and countries are more interested in exploring and discussing operational aspects of missile defenses, such as command and control issues. Reflecting this attitude shift, NATO agreed last November to undertake a study of missile defenses to protect allied territories and population against all ranges of ballistic missiles. Two NATO members, France and Germany, were leading missile defense opponents prior to the U.S. treaty withdrawal.

In its May 20 missile defense paper, the Bush administration said that, in order to pursue foreign missile defense cooperation, it would review existing U.S. export regulations that could hinder joint work or the transfer of missile defense technologies abroad. The White House declared it would “seek to eliminate impediments to such cooperation.” It also stated that the United States would implement the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR)—an informal regime of 33 countries that aims to restrict the transfer of ballistic missiles capable of delivering a 500-kilogram payload 300 kilometers or more—in a manner so that it would not interfere with international missile defense cooperation. A State Department official interviewed May 22 said how that would be done has not been decided yet. Last summer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Vann Van Diepen warned in congressional testimony that the United States should be cognizant of the potential precedent it could set if it chose to allow transfers of missile systems that might fall under MTCR controls. Washington might undercut its ability to persuade other countries to abide by their MTCR commitments if the United States is also pursuing deals at odds with the regime, he suggested.

The ABM Treaty did not rule out all U.S. cooperation on missile defenses with foreign governments. Israel, Japan, Italy, and Germany had programs for jointly researching or developing TMD systems underway with the United States when Bush took office. Washington and Moscow also agreed to work together in 1992 on designing two satellites for use in spotting ballistic missile launches. All of these programs are still ongoing, although some, particularly the Russian project, have been troubled.


U.S. Missile Defense: Protection
Against a North Korean Threat?

As the Bush administration seeks to maintain political support for its missile defense plans, it is using the potential threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear program as a key element in its sales pitch. President George W. Bush argued during an April 24 interview that a U.S. missile defense “will make it less likely that a nuclear country could blackmail us or Japan or any one of our friends.”

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer added during an April 25 briefing that North Korea’s recent “announcement” that it possesses nuclear weapons “is an important reminder of why missile defense is an important part of our strategy to defend our country.”

A May 20 White House fact sheet on U.S. missile defense policy states that the United States is pursuing such a defense to augment its deterrence capability against states “aggressively pursuing the development of weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles as a means of coercing the United States and our allies”—a possible reference to North Korea.

Although North Korea’s long-range missile programs have been a source of concern, both administration officials and other experts have expressed concern that a nuclear-armed North Korea could present security threats that a U.S. missile defense system could not counter, such as selling fissile material to other governments or inspiring other regional powers to acquire nuclear weapons.

Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet sounded a new alarm about North Korea’s missile program when he testified during a February congressional hearing that Pyongyang currently possesses a missile capable of reaching the United States.

A CIA spokesperson interviewed in February cited a December 2001 National Intelligence Estimate as the agency’s most recent public assessment of North Korea’s missile program. The estimate says North Korea’s Taepo Dong-2 missile could hit parts of the continental United States in a two-stage configuration and all of North America in a three-stage configuration. North Korea has not tested these missiles, the spokesman said.

The longest-range missile North Korea has flight-tested is the Taepo Dong-1, which it launched into the Sea of Japan in 1998. As configured, that missile cannot reach the United States. Pyongyang announced in September that it would extend indefinitely a 1999 moratorium on long-range missile testing.

What About Costs?

Although the scorecard appears relatively bare for those who advocated dumping the ABM Treaty, no serious negative repercussions have accumulated either.

Russia and China condemned the U.S. withdrawal and still grumble occasionally about U.S. missile defense plans, but neither has announced new armament plans. There has not been an unraveling of arms control treaties as Russia threatened could happen. In fact, Moscow negotiated a new nuclear arms reduction agreement, the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), with Washington after Bush announced his intention to scrap the ABM Treaty. Both Moscow and Beijing seem to have concluded that the technical complexity of missile defenses will hamper the United States from fielding anything in the short term that could threaten their security and therefore have adopted a wait-and-see attitude. To be sure, both countries are strongly pushing for negotiation of a treaty essentially devoted to preventing the deployment of space-based missile defenses. Any U.S. move to test or deploy such systems would generate significant anxiety and ill will, and not just from Russia and China.

Harder to assess is whether the treaty withdrawal impacted other countries’ willingness to cooperate with the United States on other international security issues, such as confronting and disarming Iraq. Many countries have expressed dismay with what they perceive as the Bush administration’s unilateralist style, but the ABM Treaty withdrawal is just one of a series of actions that have elicited foreign consternation. One European diplomat based in Washington and interviewed May 16 speculated that Washington’s rejection of the Kyoto Protocol regarding global warming ranked as the U.S. act that most upset other countries. The diplomat went on to say that, politically, the withdrawal would seem to have been largely positive so far, taking into account the shift in tone surrounding missile defense globally.

What Has Not Happened

Nearly a year after the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, it is as easy to identify what has not happened as what has. The United States appears no closer to deploying a working defense against strategic ballistic missiles than it was before withdrawing from the treaty. The sole system on the horizon is the same one inherited from the Clinton administration, and it still remains unproven. The possible deployment of sensors and radars for tracking long-range ballistic missiles has slipped further. Despite concerted attempts to sell other countries on the merits of missile defenses, few have bought in, although that could change. But no countries have also taken up arms against the United States for its move, and none have copied the U.S. action. North Korea’s announced withdrawal from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty earlier this year cannot be attributed to the U.S. ABM Treaty withdrawal, and Russia’s June 2002 declaration that it would no longer be bound by the START II nuclear arms reduction accord, which had not entered into force and was effectively superseded by SORT, was more symbolic than substantive.

While not agreeing on much, some missile defense proponents and critics have contended that the U.S. ABM Treaty withdrawal, coupled with Bush’s December 2002 deployment announcement, has ended the long debate over missile defenses. Until missile defenses are proven to work, however, the expenditure of several billions of dollars per year on their research and development will surely stimulate debate. Furthermore, if the United States ultimately proves successful in fielding effective defenses, the response from other countries could make the original motivation leading to the negotiation of the ABM Treaty—the desire to avoid an offensive-defensive arms race—relevant again.

Whether the United States can deploy effective defenses remains unknown. Notwithstanding the Patriot systems’ purported success in the latest Iraq conflict, technical challenges and obstacles did not disappear with the ABM Treaty. The objective of hitting a relatively slow-moving short-range ballistic missile warhead differs significantly from destroying a long-range ballistic missile warhead potentially accompanied by sophisticated countermeasures speeding through space. Philip Coyle, who reviewed all Pentagon weapons testing for six years during the Clinton administration, describes missile defense as the hardest thing the Pentagon has ever tried to do. One person who probably understands this better than anybody else is Kadish, who noted at a March 2003 missile defense conference that, with the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, the Bush administration “has taken our excuses away.”


Last June 13, the United States withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, eliminating the treaty’s limits on the U.S. ability to develop...

DOD Wants to Field Defenses Without Calling It Deployment

Wade Boese

As part of its fiscal year 2004 budget request, the Bush administration is asking Congress to treat plans to field up to 40 ground- and sea-based missile interceptors before 2006 as part of a research and development program and not as an acquisition program. Some Democratic senators see the move as a Pentagon attempt to begin deploying missile defense systems without subjecting them to rigorous or realistic testing.

President George W. Bush announced December 17, 2002, that the United States would field the initial elements of an evolutionary, multilayered missile defense system in 2004 and 2005. These first elements would include up to 20 ground-based missile interceptors for use against long-range ballistic missiles and 20 sea-based interceptors to counter short- and medium-range ballistic missiles.

Both types of interceptors have yet to be subjected to tests resembling real-world scenarios. The Pentagon refers to such testing as operational testing.

U.S. law—section 2399 of Title 10 of the United States Code—requires that major defense systems, defined as any system costing more than $115 million to research and develop, complete operational testing before proceeding past “low-rate initial production.” The Pentagon is requesting more than $9.1 billion in missile defense funding for fiscal year 2004. (See ACT, March 2003.)

Some Democrats in Congress assert that Pentagon plans to deploy up to 40 missile interceptors exceed the understood definition of low-rate initial production, thereby requiring the interceptors to be operationally tested before being fielded. The legal prohibition was crafted to prevent faulty or immature systems from being passed to the armed services.

A spokesperson for the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), which oversees missile defense research and development, said that MDA intends to operationally test the missile defense system after the interceptors are fielded. Democratic Senate staffers, however, argue that that process is backwards since the goal of operational testing is to determine whether a weapons system works well enough to merit deployment.

The Pentagon contends it has adopted a new approach, called spiral development, to make weapons systems available to military users earlier in the production process. Strongly criticized by some lawmakers, spiral development calls for fielding weapons systems before they are perfected in order to have some basic capability quickly with the aim of improving systems as time passes.

Although Thomas Christie, the director of the Pentagon’s office of Operational Test and Evaluation, endorsed the general concept of spiral development in his office’s annual review of Pentagon systems under development, he also struck a cautionary note. “I recognize and agree, in principle, with the desire to field new capabilities as soon as possible, but that desire should be tempered with the responsibility to ensure that the weapons will not put Americans at risk,” Christie wrote in a February report to Congress. (See ACT, March 2003.) “We must reinforce the principle that systems that go to war must be tested the way they will be employed,” he added.

At a February 13 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld defended the Pentagon’s plans to deploy missile interceptors prior to their operational testing. “I happen to think that thinking we cannot deploy something…until you have everything perfect, every ‘i’ dotted and every ‘t’ crossed, it’s probably not a good idea,” he testified. “I think we need to get something out there, in the ground, at sea, and in a way that we can test it. We can look at it, we can develop it, we can evolve it, and…learn from the experimentation with it.”

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) sent a February 19 letter to Rumsfeld contesting his position. “I believe that any deployed missile defense system, must meet the same requirements and standards that we set for all other fully operational weapons systems,” she wrote. “I simply do not understand how we can go forward with the deployment of a missile defense system which may or may not work and which the Department of Defense apparently does not believe needs to be fully or realistically tested.”

The dispute comes down to how the Pentagon’s plans for basing up to 40 missiles interceptors in Alaska and California and aboard naval ships beginning in 2004 are to be labeled.

Pentagon officials appear to want it both ways. They would prefer that the interceptors be recognized by Congress as part of a “test bed” for research and development. At the same time, they tout the inherent operational capability of the proposed test bed in public statements, creating the aura of a deployed system.

Congressional critics see the test bed as simply the first stage of a much bigger deployment, which is the impression President Bush made when he declared December 17 that he was “pleased to announce that we will take another important step in countering [the threats of the 21st century] by beginning to field missile defense capabilities to protect the United States, as well as our friends and allies.” These critics charge the Pentagon wants to avoid testing that could reveal the system’s flaws and postpone deployment of the interceptors beyond 2004, which some Democratic legislators have charged is a politically motivated deadline because it is a presidential election year.

Rumsfeld explained in the February 13 hearing that finding the right term to describe the Pentagon’s plans is controversial. “And the words are hot button words because the testing is required before deployment but not before a test bed, and yet the reality is the test bed offers a deployable minimal capability,” Rumsfeld stated.

The Clinton administration had a plan to field a total of 20 ground-based interceptors in Alaska by the end of 2005. The Pentagon described that plan as a deployment.

As part of its fiscal year 2004 budget request, the Bush administration is asking Congress to treat plans to field up to 40 ground- and sea-based missile interceptors...

Congress Authorizes 2003 Missile Defense Funding

December 2002

By Wade Boese

Congress approved $7.4 billion for the Pentagon to spend on ballistic missile defenses for fiscal year 2003 in October legislation and mandated that the Pentagon share more information on its missile defense plans with Congress in legislation passed in November.

In early October, Congress approved the Defense Appropriations Act, which President George W. Bush signed October 23. The act gave the Pentagon $400 million less in missile defense funding than its $7.8 billion request.

Legislators trimmed funds from some sea-based missile defense programs, an early-warning satellite project with Russia, the Theater High Altitude Area Defense program, and research into kinetic energy weapons for use against ballistic missiles shortly after they are launched. Congress fully funded the Pentagon’s $2 billion request for work on the ground-based midcourse missile defense system and provided $533 million for development of the new missile defense test bed, which includes construction of a missile interceptor base at Fort Greely, Alaska.

Shortly after returning to Washington following the November 5 elections, legislators passed the Defense Authorization Act and cleared it for the White House November 13. In the act, lawmakers moved to offset actions the Pentagon took earlier this year that were perceived as lessening legislative oversight of U.S. missile defense efforts. One of the top congressional complaints was that the Department of Defense had cancelled a process that established design parameters and performance objectives for each missile defense program.

If signed by Bush, the authorization act would require the Pentagon to inform Congress annually of “the performance goals and development baselines” for any missile defense system that might be deployed or that is of special interest to Congress. The Joint Requirements Oversight Council, which is an advisory body to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was also tasked to conduct a one-time review and report on each missile defense program’s cost, schedule, and performance criteria to see if they are valid. The Missile Defense Agency was further charged with reporting all flight test results of the ground-based midcourse missile defense system directly to the relevant congressional committees.

Both acts ruled out the use of any funds to research, develop, evaluate, test, procure, or deploy missile defense interceptors armed with nuclear warheads. A news report appeared last spring that a Pentagon advisory board with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s blessing would explore nuclear-armed interceptors, but senior senators from both parties quickly and vehemently denounced the idea.

Congress Authorizes 2003 Missile Defense Funding

Ground-Based Midcourse Defense Hits Again

November 2002

By Wade Boese

The Pentagon destroyed a mock strategic warhead in space October 14 with a ground-launched missile defense interceptor for the fourth consecutive time. Nearly identical to prior intercept trials, the latest test’s only new wrinkle was the addition of a ship-based radar operating in a shadow mode, meaning it observed but did not aid the intercept.

Delayed almost two months while program officials replaced rocket motors on the interceptor’s two-stage booster, the October test improved the ground-based midcourse missile defense system’s record to five hits in seven tries. A booster problem caused one of the system’s two misses, in July 2000.

Following the pattern of earlier tests, the Pentagon launched a target missile from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California over the Pacific Ocean and, roughly 20 minutes later, an interceptor from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Approximately six minutes after being launched, the interceptor’s exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV), which uses its own onboard sensors and data from a Kwajalein-based radar to seek out the target, collided with the mock warhead, obliterating it more than 225 kilometers above the Earth.

Preprogrammed with information on the target’s characteristics, the EKV selected the right target from among three decoys, believed to be one large and two small balloons, as used in the system’s March 15 test. A couple months after that test, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) decided to classify certain information on its future tests, including decoy details.

Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish, who heads MDA, explained in June that keeping decoy information secret was intended to prevent potential adversaries from learning how to counter a U.S. missile defense system. Democratic lawmakers, however, have objected to the new secrecy, arguing that the move lessens outside scrutiny of the missile defense program and helps insulate MDA from charges of employing simple decoys that do not resemble the mock warhead. That practice makes it easier for the EKV to discriminate between the target and decoys.

Although the Pentagon hailed the October test as the first strategic missile defense test to involve a U.S. ship, the USS John Paul Jones, the naval vessel played no active role in the intercept. The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, from which the United States withdrew in June, ruled out using sea-based systems or components to track or shoot down strategic missiles.

Having abrogated the ABM Treaty, the Bush administration is now exploring whether a sea-based missile defense system under development to protect against theater ballistic missiles, which was permitted by the 1972 accord, has any utility against long-range ballistic missiles. Past Pentagon reports concluded that the Aegis AN/SPY-1 radar used on the John Paul Jones and similar ships would not be able to support an expanded mission due to its limited detection and tracking ranges.

An MDA spokesperson said October 22 that a complete test analysis has not yet been completed, but that preliminary evidence suggests the ship’s radar performed “quite well.” The ship was stationed approximately 500 kilometers from Vandenberg Air Force Base and tasked with gathering information on the target in its boost and midcourse phases of flight.

MDA plans call for deploying at least one ship to track targets in all future tests of the ground-based midcourse missile defense system. According to the MDA spokesperson, the ship will be limited to an observing role for the next test, which may occur before the end of the year.

The upcoming test, formally referred to as IFT-10, is the last in which MDA expects to use a surrogate two-stage booster to carry the EKV into space. A new three-stage booster, which will accelerate much faster than the surrogate booster and put more stress on the EKV, is expected to be integrated into intercept testing after MDA selects a model from two competing versions, one by Lockheed Martin and the other by Orbital Sciences Corporation. The two companies are scheduled to flight-test their boosters next summer or fall, meaning that after IFT-10 there will not be a strategic missile defense intercept test until late next year.

Development of the three-stage booster has been significantly delayed. Initially, the Pentagon planned to flight-test the booster three times between February and July 2000 and then integrate it into intercept tests in the first few months of 2001. But the booster’s first flight test did not occur until August 2001, and a second one failed shortly after launch in December 2001.

Boeing, the primary contractor for the U.S. ground-based midcourse missile defense program, was developing the three-stage booster itself, but earlier this year it awarded Orbital Sciences a contract to develop an alternative booster and let Lockheed Martin take over work on the Boeing version.

Ground-Based Midcourse Defense Hits Again

U.S. Missile Defense Programs at a Glance

For the past five decades, the United States has debated, researched, and worked on the development of defenses to protect U.S. territory against long-range ballistic missile attack. Yet, today, the United States remains far from being able to deploy effective and reliable strategic missile defenses.

The Bush administration inherited seven U.S. missile defense programs and two key satellite programs from the Clinton administration, but it has not been able to accelerate their development despite making missile defense a top priority and budgeting billions of additional dollars for the programs. In fact, most of the programs have experienced additional delays, and one sea-based system has been canceled because of poor performance, spiraling costs, and schedule problems.

The Bush administration has reorganized missile defense programs, placing the separate programs under one big tent. And, whereas previous U.S. administrations drew a distinction between theater defenses (those designed to hit short- and medium-range ballistic missiles) and strategic defenses (those intended to intercept long-range missiles/ICBMs), the Bush administration is pursuing what it calls a general research and development program. Nevertheless, for the most part the Pentagon continues to work on each program individually, as it did during the Clinton administration, albeit with an eye toward sharing technology among the systems and expanding some theater programs to tackle a strategic mission.

Although the Bush administration singled out the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty as the primary impediment to development of U.S. missile defense systems, the June 13 U.S. withdrawal from the accord is unlikely to hasten missile defense deployment. Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish, who is director of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, recently testified that two benefits of the U.S. treaty withdrawal would be the freedom to test whether a specific sea-based radar can be used to track a strategic ballistic missile target and to deploy strategic missile defenses when they are available. (The treaty bans Moscow and Washington from fielding nationwide strategic defenses but places no restrictions on theater missile defense systems.)

But two Pentagon reports have already concluded that the radar in question is not capable of supporting or performing a national missile defense role, and no strategic missile defense systems will be ready for deployment for at least several years. At this time, only one U.S. missile defense program—the national missile defense program initiated by the Clinton administration—is being tested against strategic ballistic missiles, and the only “deployment” plan is for five missile interceptors to be fielded in Alaska by 2004, ostensibly for testing purposes. This represents a scaling back of the Clinton plan that called for an initial deployment of 20 operational missile interceptors in Alaska by 2005.

The following chart provides a brief look at each of the Pentagon’s major missile defense programs. It contains information on what type of ballistic missile each defense would be intended to counter and at which stage of the enemy missile’s flight an attempted intercept would take place. (For a brief description of ballistic missiles, how they are classified, and their three stages of flight, see “Ballistic Missile Basics” below.) Also included are Pentagon estimates on when each defense may have an initial, rudimentary capability as well as when it may be fully operational. Information on the status of each program, including testing delays, is also detailed.

Ballistic Missile Basics

Ballistic missiles are classified by the maximum distance that they can travel, which is a function of how powerful the missile’s engines (rockets) are and the weight of the missile’s warhead. To add more distance to a missile’s range, rockets are stacked on top of each other in a configuration referred to as staging. There are four general classifications of ballistic missiles:

  • Short-range ballistic missiles, traveling less than 1,000 kilometers (approximately 620 miles)
  • Medium-range ballistic missiles, traveling between 1,000–3,000 kilometers (approximately 620-1,860 miles)
  • Intermediate-range ballistic missiles, traveling between 3,000–5,500 kilometers (approximately 1,860-3,410 miles)
  • Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), traveling more than 5,500 kilometers

Short- and medium-range ballistic missiles are referred to as theater ballistic missiles, whereas ICBMs or long-range ballistic missiles are described as strategic ballistic missiles. The ABM Treaty prohibited the development of nationwide strategic defenses, but permitted development of theater missile defenses.

All ballistic missiles have three stages of flight:

  • The boost phase begins at launch and lasts until the rocket engines stop firing and pushing the missile away from Earth. Depending on the missile, this stage lasts between three and five minutes. During much of this time, the missile is traveling relatively slowly, although toward the end of this stage an ICBM can reach speeds of more than 24,000 kilometers per hour. The missile stays in one piece during this stage.
  • The midcourse phase begins after the rockets finish firing and the missile is on a ballistic course toward its target. This is the longest stage of a missile’s flight, lasting up to 20 minutes for ICBMs. During the early part of the midcourse stage, the missile is still ascending toward its apogee, while during the latter part it is descending toward Earth. It is during this stage that the missile’s warhead, as well as any decoys, separate from the delivery vehicle.
  • The terminal phase begins when the missile’s warhead re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere, and it continues until impact or detonation. This stage takes less than a minute for a strategic warhead, which can be traveling at speeds greater than 3,200 kilometers per hour


Ground-Based Midcourse Defense

(Referred to as National Missile Defense by the Clinton administration)

Program & Key Elements

  • The key element of the ground-based midcourse defense is a ground-based missile interceptor consisting of a powerful multistage booster and an exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV), which separates from the booster in space and seeks out its target through radar updates and use of its onboard visual and infrared sensors.
  • The EKV destroys its target by colliding with it. This process is referred to as hit-to-kill
Designed to Counter
  • The projected system’s goal is to intercept strategic ballistic missiles in their midcourse stage
  • To date, the system has four successful intercept attempts in six developmental tests.
  • The next intercept attempt is scheduled for August.
  • The development of the multistage booster for the EKV is more than 18 months behind schedule.
  • The proposed booster failed its second flight test on December 13, 2001, within 30 seconds of its launch.
  • A second U.S. company has been contracted to develop an alternative booster
  • The Pentagon is currently planning to deploy five test missile interceptors at Fort Greely in Alaska by September 2004.
  • Although not considered an actual deployment, the five interceptors could provide an “emergency capability” if needed, according to Pentagon officials.
  • Currently, there are no plans to use the missiles from Fort Greely in tests because of safety concerns.
  • Clinton’s missile defense plans called for deployment of 20 missile interceptors in Alaska by 2005.
  • The interceptors under the Clinton plan would have been supported by an X-band radar, which the Bush proposal does not currently include.
  • Instead, Bush’s plans call for the missile interceptors to be supported by an upgraded, though less capable, early-warning radar on Shemya Island at the western tip of the Aleutian Island chain.


Sea-Based Midcourse Defense
(Referred to as Navy Theater Wide by the Clinton administration)

Program & Key Elements

  • The key elements of the proposed sea-based defense are a ship-based missile (Standard Missile-3, or SM-3) and the Aegis combat system, an advanced system that can detect and track more than 100 targets simultaneously while directing a ship’s weapons to counter incoming air, surface, and submarine threats.
  • The SM-3 is a hit-to-kill missile comprised of a three-stage booster with a kill vehicle.
  • Two Pentagon reports have declared that the Aegis combat system, particularly its radar, is not capable of supporting a strategic missile defense mission.
  • The SM-3 is also considered too slow to intercept a strategic ballistic missile.
Designed to Counter
  • Initially, the sea-based midcourse defense is geared toward defending against short-, medium-, and interme- diate-range ballistic missiles during their midcourse stage with an emphasis on the ascent phase.
  • Eventually, the Pentagon wants the defense to be capable of countering strategic ballistic missiles, possi- bly in the boost phase.
  • A senior Pentagon official announced May 2 that the Pentagon would also explore whether the system can be adapted to counter short- and medium-range missiles in their terminal stage.
  • In a January 25 test, the system intercepted a target for the first time, but the flight paths of the two objects had been plotted in such a way that an intercept was expected. A second test in June, which was described as “identical” to the first, also succeeded.
  • The next test is tentatively scheduled for November.
  • Clinton administration plans called for five intercept attempts to be completed by September 2002, but the program will have completed two intercept tries at most by that time.
  • The Bush administration has stated it would like to have a sea-based system available by 2004 as part of a rudimentary, emergency capability against short- and medium-range ballistic missile threats.
  • The Pentagon is seeking to deploy four ships outfitted with a midcourse defense between 2006 and 2008.
  • Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish, who is director of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, estimated last July that testing the system against long-range ballistic missiles could begin in 2007 or 2008.

Airborne Laser (ABL)

Program & Key Elements

  • The key element of the proposed ABL system is a modified Boeing 747 plane equipped with a chemical oxygen-iodine laser.
  • The laser beam is produced by a chemical reaction
Designed to Counter
  • Although the Pentagon originally aimed to field the ABL against theater ballistic missiles, the Pentagon now contends the ABL may have an inherent capability against strategic ballistic missiles as well.
  • The expanded ABL objective is to shoot down all ranges of ballistic missiles in their boost phase.
  • Construction of the first test plane and its laser are underway.
  • First attempt to intercept a ballistic missile target is scheduled for the fall of 2004.
  • The Clinton administration planned for the first ABL intercept attempt to take place in 2003.
  • The Pentagon is seeking to have one ABL available by 2004 for use in emergencies.
  • The Pentagon aims to have two or three ABLs between 2006 and 2008.
  • The Pentagon’s ultimate goal is a fleet of seven aircraft by 2011.


Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD)

Program & Key Elements

  • THAAD’s main components are a missile comprised of a single rocket booster with a separating kill-vehicle that seeks out its target with the help of a specifically designed THAAD radar.
  • The THAAD kill vehicle is hit-to-kill.
  • THAAD missiles are fired from a truck-mounted launcher.
Designed to Counter
  • THAAD’s mission is to intercept short- and medium-range ballistic missiles during their terminal stage.
  • The system had two successful intercept attempts in the summer of 1999 after experiencing six test failures between April 1995 and March 1999.
  • The THAAD missile is currently being redesigned.
  • THAAD flight tests are scheduled to resume in 2004.
  • The Pentagon initially aims to field the system in 2007 or 2008.


Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3)

Program & Key Elements

  • PAC-3 consists of a one-piece, hit-to-kill missile interceptor fired from a mobile launching station, which can carry 16 PAC-3 missiles.
  • The missile is guided by an independent radar that sends its tracking data to the missile through a mobile engagement control station.
Designed to Counter
  • PAC-3 is designed to defend against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles in their terminal stage at lower altitudes than the THAAD system.
  • Operational intercept testing started in February 2002 with a test failure.
  • A March 21 operational test, the second, resulted in a PAC-3 hitting its target, though a second PAC-3 missile did not fire as called for in the test.
  • An April 25 operational test, the third, was initially reported as a success, but the Army later announced that the PAC-3 missile did not destroy the target. A second PAC-3 missile failed to launch.
  • In a fourth, and reportedly final, operational test in this testing series, a PAC-3 missile hit its target on May 30, but a second PAC-3 missile failed to fire as planned.
  • During earlier developmental testing, the system struck nine out of 10 targets.
  • The Pentagon declared on September 26, 2001, that a limited number of PAC-3 missiles were available for deployment.
  • The Army has a projected inventory of 2,200 PAC-3 missiles.
  • A decision on the pace of production for the PAC-3 missile is scheduled for September 2002.
  • The Pentagon’s fiscal year 2003 budget request calls for funding to procure 1,159 PAC-3 missiles.
  • A senior Pentagon official testified April 17, 2002, that “over 20” PAC-3 missiles are already in deployment status.


Navy Area Theater Ballistic Missile Defense (NATBMD)

Program & Key Elements

  • NATBMD was a ship-based system consisting of the Standard Missile-2 (SM-2) and Aegis combat system.
  • Unlike other U.S. missile defense programs the SM-2 was armed with a blast fragmentation warhead and was not a hit-to-kill system.
Designed to Counter
  • The system was intended to intercept short- and medium-range ballistic missiles in their terminal stage.
  • The Bush administration canceled the program on December 14, 2001, because of poor performance, projected cost overruns, and schedule delays.
  • A senior Pentagon official announced May 2, 2002, that the Pentagon would not pursue development of a new naval terminal system.
  • As an alternative to a new program, the Pentagon will study whether the sea-based midcourse defense can be modified so that it can also deal with theater missiles in their terminal stage.


Space-Based Laser (SBL)

Program & Key Elements

  • The proposed system’s main element would be a satellite armed with a hydrogen-fluoride chemical laser.
Designed to Counter
  • The SBL is being developed to counter all ranges of ballistic missiles in their boost phase.
  • Pentagon plans during the Clinton administration called for a first space test in 2012, but funding cuts have pushed back the initial test date indefinitely, although recent reports suggest the Pentagon is exploring ways to accelerate the program.
  • No official estimate exists on a possible deployment date.


Space-Based Infrared System-low (SBRIS-low)

Program & Key Elements

  • SBIRS-low is to be comprised of approximately 30 satellites in low-Earth orbit.
Designed to Counter
  • The SBIRS-low satellites are expected to support U.S. missile defense systems by providing tracking and discrimination data on warheads and decoys during their midcourse stage.
  • The first launch of a SBIRS-low satellite was to take place in fiscal year 2006, but the program is currently being restructured because of high costs and schedule delays.
  • A senior Pentagon official said May 2, 2002, that an initial launch of a SBIRS-low payload could occur in 2006 or 2007.
  • During the Clinton administration, Pentagon plans called for full deployment by fiscal year 2010.
  • No official estimate exists on a possible deployment date.


Space-Based Infrared System-high (SBIRS-high)

Program & Key Elements

  • SBIRS-high will be comprised of four satellites in geosynchronous Earth orbit and sensors on two host satellites in a highly elliptical orbit.
Designed to Counter
  • SBIRS-high’s primary objective is to provide early warning of global ballistic missile launches.
  • The first launch of a geosynchronous satellite was scheduled to occur in fiscal year 2005, but it is now scheduled for fiscal year 2007.
  • The first payload for the two satellites in a highly elliptical orbit is to be ready by 2003.
  • An Air Force spokesperson reported May 21 that current expectations are that the full SBIRS-high system will be operational “on or about 2011.”



PAC-3 Production to Continue Despite Program Shortcomings

July/August 2002

By Wade Boese

Despite failures in each of its last four intercept tests, production and deployment of the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missile defense system should continue, a senior Pentagon official said June 20.

Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish, who oversees U.S. missile defense programs, expressed disappointment that PAC-3 had fallen short of expectations in recent testing but recommended that U.S. deployment of the ground-based, tactical missile defense system not be halted. “We ought to proceed putting that weapons system in the field as soon as we possibly can,” the general stated in a public briefing.

Kadish urged continued deployment of PAC-3, which is designed to intercept short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and aircraft, because the United States has “no capability out there today that is the equivalent of the Patriot-3.”

The Army announced last year that it had PAC-3 missiles ready for deployment, and now more than 20 are stockpiled for use. Low-rate production of the system is ongoing, and a PAC-3 program official said, “We do not anticipate a break in production.”

Kadish stated that fixing the problems revealed by the recent testing, which he said were “not severe,” and continuing production and deployment could be done together. “The decision on Patriot is to work out the difficulties we found and improve the system over time and build as much as we can afford in the process,” Kadish said.

After missing only one of 10 targets in developmental testing, the PAC-3 system experienced problems in every operational test conducted between February and May. In operational testing, actual soldiers participate in testing the system under more realistic battlefield scenarios than those conducted by contractor personnel in developmental testing.

Three of the four operational tests involved simultaneously launching multiple Patriot missiles, both PAC-3 and the earlier PAC-2 versions, at multiple targets. The final test called for two PAC-3 missiles to be fired automatically in quick succession against a single target.

A PAC-3 interceptor missed its target in the first test, and in each of the last three tests a PAC-3 missile failed to launch as planned. In sum, PAC-3 missiles destroyed two of the five targets assigned them. One PAC-3 missile hit its target but did not destroy it.

Each test failure resulted from a different problem, according to the Pentagon, although analysis of the last failure is still underway. In one test, for example, the missile received an inaccurate cue from a ground-based computer, but in another, the PAC-3 missile launcher lost power during the firing sequence.

The PAC-3 program official downplayed the test failures, claiming none “indicate a systemic problem with the PAC-3 missile or with PAC-3 ground equipment.” For his part, Kadish acknowledged, “We got some bugs in the system we’ve got to work out,” but he expressed confidence that the problems will be fixed.

No future PAC-3 test is currently scheduled, although additional testing is expected.

Pentagon officials were scheduled to make a decision on whether to accelerate PAC-3 production this September from low-rate to full-rate production, but Kadish implied that would not happen, saying the Pentagon does not “necessarily know at this point what full-rate production ought to be.” Instead, Kadish said, “We intend to build at a low rate or a rate that we can afford at this point in time.”

The Army’s declared inventory objective is at least 2,200 PAC-3 missiles, but Kadish testified at an April 17 hearing of the Senate Appropriation Committee’s defense subcommittee that he thought that figure would be adjusted over time.

PAC-3 Production to Continue Despite Program Shortcomings

Rhetoric or Reality? Missile Defense Under Bush

Philip Coyle

Since it assumed office, the administration of President George W. Bush has made missile defense one of its top priorities, giving it prominence in policy, funding, and organization.

First, the administration outlined an ambitious set of goals that extend well beyond the Clinton administration’s missile defense aims. In early January 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld described the administration’s top missile defense objectives this way: “First, to defend the U.S., deployed forces, allies, and friends. Second, to employ a Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS) that layers defenses to intercept missiles in all phases of their flight (i.e., boost, midcourse, and terminal) against all ranges of threats. Third, to enable the Services to field elements of the overall BMDS as soon as practicable.”

Then, in its nuclear posture review, the administration outlined the specific elements of a national missile defense that it wants to have ready between 2003 and 2008: an air-based laser to shoot down missiles of all ranges during their boost phase; a rudimentary ground-based midcourse system, a sea-based system with rudimentary midcourse capability against short- and medium-range threats; terminal defenses against long-range ICBMs capable of reaching the United States; and a system of satellites to track enemy missiles and distinguish re-entry vehicles from decoys.

Finally, to speed implementation, the administration has taken a number of tangible steps. It announced on December 13, 2001, that the United States would withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, ostensibly because the treaty was restricting testing of mobile missile defenses against ICBMs. In its first defense budget, the administration requested a 57 percent increase in funding for missile defense—from $5.3 billion to $8.3 billion, of which it received $7.8 billion. Then, Rumsfeld reorganized the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization into the new Missile Defense Agency, cancelled the internal Pentagon documents that had established the program’s developmental goals, and changed the program’s goal from being able to field a complete system against specific targets to simply being able to field various missile defense capabilities as they become available.

All in all, a lot has happened in missile defense in the first year or so of the Bush administration. But have these actions brought the United States any closer to realizing its missile defense goals, especially deployment of a national missile defense? And what elements, if any, of a national missile defense capability might it be possible for the United States to deploy by 2008, as called for in the nuclear posture review?

Despite the Bush administration’s push for missile defense, the only system likely to be ready by 2008 is a ground-based theater missile defense intended to counter short-range targets—i.e., a system to defend troops in the field. Before Bush leaves office, the only system that could conceivably be ready to defend the United States itself is the ground-based midcourse system pursued by the Clinton administration. None of the other elements mentioned in the nuclear posture review as possible defenses against strategic ballistic missiles is likely to be available by 2008.

To understand why, let us examine each of the missile defense programs—starting with the short-range, theater missile defense systems and moving to the longer-range, strategic systems—to see what has happened since the Bush administration took office 16 months ago. The results suggest that the Bush administration should not base its foreign policy on the assumption that during its tenure it will be able to deploy defenses to protect the United States from strategic missiles.

Theater Missile Defenses

Each of the U.S. military services has been pursuing tactical missile defense programs designed to defend U.S. troops overseas. None of these programs was designed to defend the United States against ICBM attacks, and none has any current capability to do so. However, the administration hopes to be able to apply some of the technology from these service programs to a layered national defense capable of defending the U.S. homeland. (For an explanation of the various stages of development discussed below, see the box below.)


The Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) is a tactical system designed to defend overseas U.S. and allied troops in a relatively small area against short-range missile threats (such as Scuds), enemy aircraft, and cruise missiles. Developmentally, it is the most advanced U.S. missile defense system, and a small number have been made available for deployment although testing has not yet been completed.

PAC-3 flight testing began in 1997. From 1997 to 2002, 11 developmental flight tests were conducted, including four flight intercept tests with two or three targets being attempted at once. Most of these tests were successful, but in two of the tests one of the targets was not intercepted. In February, PAC-3 began initial operational testing, in which soldiers, not contractors, operate the system. Three operational tests have been conducted, all with multiple targets. In each, one of the targets has been missed or one of the interceptors has failed.

A year ago, PAC-3 was planned to begin full-rate production at the end of 2001. However, problems with system reliability and difficulties in flight intercept tests have delayed that schedule. This means that full-rate production likely will be delayed until more stressing “follow-on” operational tests can be conducted against targets flying in a wide range of altitudes and trajectories. In March, Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish, who heads U.S. missile defense programs, testified to Congress that the full-rate production decision would be made toward the end of 2002 (before operational testing has been completed), representing a delay of about a year since last year. The full system will be deployed once all operational testing has been completed, perhaps around 2005.

A future version of PAC-3 is being considered for terminal defense of the United States. However, PAC-3 was not designed to counter long-range threats, and no flight intercept tests have been conducted to demonstrate how it might be incorporated in a terminal defense layer. Further, the ground area that can be defended by PAC-3 is so small that it would take scores of systems to defend just the major U.S. cities. A version of PAC-3 that could be effective in a national missile defense is probably a decade away.


The Theater High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system is designed to shoot down short- and medium-range missiles in their terminal phase. THAAD would be used to protect forward-deployed troops overseas as well as nearby civilian populations and infrastructure. THAAD is to defend a larger area against longer-range threats than PAC-3, but it is not designed to protect the United States from ICBMs.

From 1995 to 1999, 11 developmental flight tests were performed, including eight in which an intercept was attempted. After the first six of those flight intercept tests failed, the program was threatened with cancellation. Finally, in 1999, THAAD had two successful flight intercept tests. The THAAD program has not attempted an intercept test since then, instead focusing on the difficult task of developing a new, more reliable, higher-performance missile than the one used in early flight tests.

A year ago, full-rate production was scheduled to begin in 2007 or 2008, but because there were no intercept tests in 2000 or 2001, that schedule has likely slipped two years or more. In fact, no flight intercept test is scheduled until 2004, and it is therefore unlikely that the first THAAD system will be deployed before 2010.

The Bush administration is considering THAAD for use in a layered national missile defense system. Conceptually, THAAD might be used in conjunction with PAC-3 as part of a terminal defense, or it could be deployed overseas to intercept enemy missiles in the boost phase. However, in its current configuration THAAD is incapable of performing these missions—even once it has met its Army requirements for theater missile defense—and therefore a role for THAAD in national missile defense is probably more than a decade away.

Navy Area Theater Ballistic Missile Defense

The Navy Area Theater Ballistic Missile Defense was the sea-based equivalent of PAC-3. The Navy Area system was being designed to defend forward-deployed Navy ships against relatively short-range threats. But in December 2001 the program was cancelled because its cost and schedule overruns exceeded the limits defined by law. (Ironically, the cancellation came just one day after President Bush announced that the United States would pull out of the ABM Treaty because its missile defense testing was advanced enough to be bumping up against the constraints of the treaty.)

The Navy still wants to be able to defend its ships against missile attack, and the program will most likely be restructured and reinstated once the Navy decides on a new approach. In the meantime, the Navy Area program is slipping with each day that passes. As with PAC-3, the Bush administration has considered extending the Navy Area system to play a role in the terminal segment of a layered national missile defense. However, at this point the program is too poorly defined to allow speculation about when it could accomplish such a demanding mission.

Navy Theater Wide

The Navy Theater Wide program was originally intended to defend an area larger than that to be covered by the Navy Area system—that is, aircraft carrier battle groups and nearby territory and civilian populations—against medium-range missiles during their midcourse phase. In this sense, Navy Theater Wide is the sea-based equivalent of THAAD.

In January, the Navy Theater Wide program conducted its first successful flight intercept test, but a dozen or more developmental flight tests will be required before it is ready for realistic operational testing. About a year ago, full-rate production was scheduled for spring 2007, meaning that the system could be deployed before the end of the decade.

But since then, the Pentagon has given new priority to a sea-based role in defending the U.S. homeland. Navy Theater Wide was not designed to shoot down ICBMs, but the Bush administration has restructured the program so that it aims to produce a sea-based midcourse segment and/or a sea-based boost-phase segment of national missile defense.

Either mission will require a new missile that is twice as fast as any existing version of the Standard Missile, which the system now uses; a new, more powerful Aegis radar system to track targets; a new launch structure to accommodate the new, larger missiles; and probably new ships. As a result, the Navy Theater Wide program requires a great deal of new development. It is unlikely that Navy Theater Wide will be ready for realistic operational testing until late in this decade, and it will not be ready for realistic operational demonstration in a layered national missile defense for several years after that.

Airborne Laser

The Airborne Laser (ABL) is a program to develop a high-power chemical laser that will fit inside a Boeing 747 aircraft. It is the most technically challenging of any of the theater missile defense programs, involving toxic materials, advanced optics, and the coordination of three additional lasers on-board for tracking, targeting, and beam correction. The first objective of the program is to be able to shoot down short-range enemy missiles. Later, it is hoped the ABL program will play a role in national missile defense by destroying strategic missiles in their boost phase.

The ABL has yet to be flight-tested. About a year ago, full-rate production of the ABL was scheduled for 2008. The plan was to build seven aircraft, each estimated to cost roughly $500 million. At that time, the first shoot-down of a tactical missile was scheduled for 2003. Recently, the ABL program office announced that the first shoot-down of a tactical missile had been delayed to late 2004 because of many problems with the basic technology of high-power chemical lasers—about a one-year slip since last year and about a three-year slip since 1998. Accordingly, full-rate production probably cannot be started before 2010, and the cost will likely exceed $1 billion per aircraft.

Assuming all this can be done, it is important to note that the ABL presents significant operational challenges. The ABL will need to fly relatively close to enemy territory in order to have enough power to shoot down enemy missiles, and during a time of crisis it will need to be near the target area continuously. A 747 loaded with high-power laser equipment will make a large and inviting target to the enemy and will require protection in the air and on the ground. Finally, relatively simple countermeasures such as reflective surfaces on enemy missiles could negate the ABL’s capabilities.

Deployment of an ABL that can shoot down short- and medium-range tactical targets is not likely before the end of the decade, and the Airborne Laser will not be able to play a role in national missile defense for many years after that.

National Missile Defense

The Bush administration hopes to build a layered national missile defense that consists of a ground-based midcourse system, expanded versions of the theater systems discussed above, and, potentially, space-based systems. The Bush administration does not use the phrase “national missile defense” because it was the name of the ground-based midcourse system pursued by the Clinton administration and because the Pentagon’s plans to defend the country are now more robust. But national missile defense is a useful shorthand for any system that is intended to defend the continental United States, Alaska, and Hawaii against strategic ballistic missiles, and it is in that sense that it is used here.

For all practical purposes, the only part of the Bush national missile defense that is “real” is the ground-based midcourse system. It is real in the sense that six flight intercept tests have been conducted so far, whereas versions of the THAAD or Navy Theater Wide systems that might be used to defend the United States have not been tested at all. Space-based systems are an even more distant prospect. For example, the Space-Based Laser, which would use a laser on a satellite to destroy missiles in their boost phase, was to be tested in 2012, but funding cuts have pushed the testing date back indefinitely. Deployment is so far in the future that it is beyond the horizon of the Pentagon’s long-range planning document, Joint Vision 2020.

As a result, despite the Bush adminis-tration’s attempts to distinguish its plans from its predecessor’s, Bush’s layered national missile defense is, in effect, nothing more than the Clinton system.
Since 1997, the ground-based midcourse program has conducted eight major flight tests, known as IFTs. The first two, named IFT-1A and IFT-2, were fly-by tests designed simply to collect target information. The next six tests, IFT-3 through IFT-8, were all flight intercept tests. IFT- 4 and IFT-5, conducted in January 2000 and July 2000 respectively, both failed to achieve an intercept, which became a principal reason why, on September 1, 2000, President Bill Clinton decided not to begin deployment of ground-based midcourse components, such as a new X-band radar on Shemya Island in Alaska.

Another year passed before the next flight intercept test, IFT-6, was conducted. The intercept was successful except that the real-time hit assessment performed by the ground-based X-band prototype radar on the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands incorrectly reported the hit as a miss. IFT-7, conducted in early December 2001, was also successful. Until then, all of the flight intercept tests had had essentially the same target cluster: a re-entry vehicle, a single large balloon, and debris associated with stage separation and decoy deployment. Then, in IFT-8, conducted on March 15, 2002, two small balloons were added to the target cluster. This flight intercept test also was successful and marked an important milestone for the ground-based midcourse program.

However, despite these recent successes, there have been significant delays in the testing program. Several of the flight tests were simply repeats of earlier tests, and as a result IFT-8 did not accomplish the tasks set for it in the original schedule. In short, the testing program has slipped roughly two years—i.e., what was originally scheduled to take two years has taken four. This is not to say that the program has made no progress but rather that key program milestones have receded into the future.

The pace of successful testing will be one of the primary determinants of how quickly the United States can field a national missile defense. If the ground-based midcourse system has three or four successful flight intercept tests per year, as it has during the past year, it could be ready for operational testing in four or five years. If those operational tests also were successful, then whatever capability had been demonstrated in all those tests—which would probably not include the capability to deal with many types of decoys and countermeasures or the capability to cover much of the space through which an enemy missile could travel—could be deployed by the end of the decade or even by 2008.

However, the ground-based midcourse system has difficulties beyond the testing pace of its interceptor. The system requires a new, more powerful booster rocket than the surrogate currently being used in tests—a task that was thought to be relatively easy. That new booster was to be incorporated into the continuing series of flight intercept tests to make those tests more realistic and to be sure that the new booster’s higher acceleration did not adversely affect other components or systems on board.

But development of the new booster is about two years behind schedule. Indeed, on December 13, just hours after President Bush announced U.S. plans to withdraw from the ABM Treaty, a test of the new booster had to be aborted and the missile destroyed in flight for safety reasons because it flew off course. Flight intercept tests that were to have used the new booster have come and gone without it. Indeed, development of the booster is so far behind that the Pentagon recently issued another contract for a competing design.

Equally problematic is uncertainty over how the system will track enemy missiles in flight and distinguish targets from decoys. One approach is to use high-power radars operating in the X-band (that is, at a frequency of about 10 billion cycles per second). A prototype X-band radar on the Kwajalein Atoll has been part all of the ground-based midcourse flight intercept tests so far, and technically, X-band radar progress has been one of the most successful developments in missile defense technology.

A year and a half ago, Lieutenant General Kadish testified to Congress that establishing an X-band radar in Alaska was the “long pole in the tent” for missile defense. This meant that the X-band radar was critical to a ground-based midcourse system and that if that radar was not built soon, the program would start slipping day for day. Then, as now, there were many other developments that would take as long or longer than building an X-band radar at Shemya, but the Pentagon’s official position was that construction needed to start in the spring of 2001 at the latest. Nevertheless, Clinton deferred taking action on the radar.

Surprisingly, the Bush administration has not requested funding for an X-band radar at Shemya in either of its first two budgets. This may be because the administration views such an installation as inconsistent with the ABM Treaty, which the administration has said it will not violate while the treaty is still in effect. Or the administration may not have requested funding because the Missile Defense Agency has been exploring “portable” X-band radars—that is, X-band radars deployed on ships or barges.

Some defense analysts believe that the Space-Based Infrared Satellite (SBIRS) program could be used in place of the X-band radar to assist a national missile defense. SBIRS—which would consist of two sets of orbiting sensor satellites, SBIRS-high and SBIRS-low—is designed to detect the launch of enemy ballistic missiles and could be used to track and discriminate among them in flight. However, the program has significant technical problems.

SBIRS-high, which will consist of four satellites in geosynchronous orbit and two satellites in highly elliptical orbits, is to replace the existing Defense Support Program satellites, which provide early warning of missile launches. A year ago, the SBIRS-high satellites were scheduled for launch in 2004 and 2006, but recently those dates have slipped roughly two years because of problems with software, engineering, and system integration. A year ago, realistic operational testing was scheduled for 2007; now, it may not occur this decade, which means that full deployment may not occur this decade. SBIRS-high is also well over cost and is in danger of breaching the legal restrictions covering cost growth.

SBIRS-low is to consist of approximately 30 cross-linked satellites in low-Earth orbit. A year ago, the launch of the first of these satellites was scheduled for 2006, but SBIRS-low has slipped two years because of a variety of difficult technical problems. The developmental testing program for SBIRS-low is very challenging, and realistic operational testing will probably not begin this decade. This could delay deployment of the full constellation of SBIRS-low satellites until the middle of the next decade. SBIRS-low is also dramatically over budget and was threatened with cancellation in the latest round of congressional appropriations.

For now, the administration has been saying that it will upgrade an existing radar on Shemya called Cobra Dane. Under this plan, the Cobra Dane radar would become an advanced early-warning radar with some ability to distinguish among targets. But the Cobra Dane radar operates in the L-band with about eight-times poorer resolution than a new X-band radar would have, raising questions about the effectiveness of any national missile defense using it.

In sum, the only element of a “layered” national missile defense that exists on anything but paper is the ground-based midcourse system pursued by the Clinton administration. Accordingly, it is nearly impossible to predict when, if ever, an integrated, layered national missile defense with boost, midcourse, and terminal phases might be developed. As noted above, given the most recent pace of testing, some part of the ground-based midcourse system could be deployed by the end of the decade or possibly by 2008.

However, the capability such a system would have would be marginal and probably would not be able to deal with many types of decoys and countermeasures or to cover much of the space through which an attacking ICBM might fly. The Bush administration has said it will deploy test elements as an emergency capability as early as possible, but such a deployment would be rudimentary and its capabilities would be limited to those already demonstrated in testing. It would likely not be effective against unauthorized or accidental launches from Russia or China, which might include missiles with countermeasures. It also would not be effective against launches from Iraq, Iran, or Libya since those countries are to the east, out of view of a radar on Shemya.


During the first year of the Bush administration, all U.S. missile defense programs—both theater and national—have slipped. In general, the shorter-range tactical missile defense systems are further along than the medium-range systems, and those medium- range systems are further along than the longer-range systems intended to defend the United States against ICBMs.

PAC-3 is the most developmentally advanced of any U.S. missile defense system, but full deployment will not likely take place before 2005, and realistic operational testing will continue for many years after the first Army units are equipped in the field. The THAAD program has slipped two years or more and will not be deployable until 2010. The Navy Area Wide program has been cancelled, and the Navy Theater Wide program has slipped two years or more and will not be deployable in a tactical role until the end of the decade. If the Pentagon restructures the program so that its priority is boost-phase or midcourse defense against strategic missiles, it will likely take longer. The Airborne Laser has slipped one year and will probably not be deployed as a theater missile defense before the end of the decade.

SBIRS-low has slipped two years and doubled in cost and probably will not be deployed before 2008.
For all practical purposes, national missile defense is technically not much closer than it was in the Clinton administration. There have been no flight intercept tests of the boost-phase or terminal-phase elements suggested by the Bush administration, and developmental testing could take a decade or more, depending on the pace of testing and the level of success in each test. The only element that can be flight-intercept tested against strategic ballistic missiles today is the ground-based midcourse system. Part of that system could be deployed by 2008, but elements fielded before then will have only a limited capability.

Thus, while making foreign policy, the Bush administration would do well to consider that probably only a limited-capability version of PAC-3 will be fielded during its tenure and that an effective, layered national missile defense will not be realized while it is in office. It would make little sense to predicate strategic decisions on a defense that does not exist.

It is important for Congress and the American public not to be frightened into believing that the United States is—as some missile defense proponents like to assert—defenseless against even a limited missile attack by a “rogue state” such as North Korea. Powerful and effective options exist, both military and diplomatic.

In Afghanistan, U.S. attack operations with precision-guided weapons have been highly effective. Those same precision weapons would be effective against an enemy ICBM installation. In fact, given current capabilities and the ever-improving technologies for precision strike, it would be fantasy to believe any national missile defense system deployed by 2003 to 2008 would work better and provide greater reliability at a lower cost than the precision-guided munitions used in Afghanistan.

On the diplomatic front, in 1999 former Secretary of Defense William Perry made a series of trips to convince North Korea to stop developing and testing long-range missiles. He was remarkably successful. Although Secretary Perry would not say that North Korea was no longer a threat, it was obvious that the North Korean threat had been moderated. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was able to build on his trip the next year to secure a pledge from Pyongyang to halt flight testing of missiles. Dollar for dollar, Secretary Perry has been the most cost-effective missile defense system the United States has yet to develop. The most straightforward route to missile defense against North Korea may be through diplomacy, not technology.

Many decision-makers in Washington—and, from what one reads, the president himself—seem to be misinformed about the prospects for near-term success with national missile defense and the budgets being requested for it. It takes 20 years to develop a modern, high performance jet fighter, and it probably will take even longer to develop an effective missile defense network. Taking into account the challenges of asymmetric warfare, the time it can take to develop modern military equipment, the reliability required in real operational situations, and the interoperability required for hundreds of systems and subsystems to work together, it would be highly unrealistic to think that the United States can deploy an effective, layered national missile defense by 2004 or even by 2008.

In the meantime, policymakers should be careful that U.S. foreign and security goals and policies are not dependent on something that cannot work now and probably will not work effectively for the foreseeable future. A case in point is President Bush’s decision to abandon the ABM Treaty with Russia. That decision was certainly premature given the state of missile defense technology and likely could have been avoided or postponed for many years if not indefinitely.

This is not to say that missile defense technology ought not to be pursued—only that it should be pursued with realistic expectations. Policymakers must be able to weigh the potential merits and costs of missile defense based on a sound understanding of both the technology and the possible alternatives. No one weapon system can substitute for the sound conduct of foreign policy, and even a single diplomat can be effective on a time scale that is short when compared with the time that will be required to develop the technology for national missile defense.

Stages of Development

Missile defense, especially national missile defense, is the most difficult program ever attempted by the Department of Defense—much more difficult than the development of a modern jet fighter like the F-22 Raptor, the Navy’s Land Attack Destroyer (DD-21), or the Army’s Abrams M1A2 tank complete with battlefield digitization, endeavors that all have taken 20 years or more. Each new major weapons system must proceed through several stages of development, which are listed below. Most U.S. missile defense systems are currently in developmental testing and are therefore not close to deployment.

Research and Development (R&D): The period during which the concepts and basic technologies behind a proposed military system are explored. Depending on the difficulty of the technology and the complexity of the proposed system, R&D can take anywhere from a year or two to more than 10 years.

Engineering and Manufacturing Development (EMD): The period during which a system design is engineered and the industrial processes to manufacture and assemble a proposed military system are developed. For a major defense acquisition such as a high-performance jet fighter, EMD can take five years or more. If substantial difficulties are encountered, EMD can take even longer.

Developmental Testing: Testing that is performed to learn about the strengths and weaknesses of proposed military technologies and the application of those technologies to a new military system in a military environment. Generally, developmental testing is oriented toward achieving certain specifications, such as speed, maneuverability, or rate of fire. Developmental testing is conducted throughout the R&D and EMD phases of development and becomes more stressing as prototype systems evolve and mature.

Operational Testing: Testing that aims to demonstrate effective military performance against operational requirements and mission needs established for a system. Testing is performed with production-representative equipment in realistic operational environments—at night, in bad weather, against realistic threats and countermeasures. Military service personnel, not contractors, operate the system, which is stressed as it would be in battle. Operational testing of a major defense acquisition system typically takes the better part of a year and is usually broken into several periods of a month or two to accommodate different environments or scenarios. If substantial difficulties are encountered, several years of operational testing may be required.

Production: The phase of acquisition when a military system is manufactured and produced. Early on, during “low-rate production,” the quantities produced are typically small. Later, after successfully completing operational testing, a system may go into “full-rate production,” where the rate of production is designed to complete the government’s planned purchase of the system in a relatively short period of time, about five years.

Deployment: The fielding of a military system in either limited or large quantities in military units. The first military unit equipped may help develop tactics, techniques, and procedures for use of the new system if that has not already been done adequately in development.—P.C.

Flight Stages of Ballistic Missiles

All ballistic missiles have three stages of flight.

The boost phase begins at launch and lasts until the rocket engines stop firing and pushing the missile away from Earth. Depending on the missile, this stage lasts three to five minutes. During much of this time, the missile is traveling relatively slowly although toward the end of this stage an ICBM can reach speeds of more than 24,000 kilometers per hour. The missile stays in one piece during this stage.

The midcourse phase begins after the propulsion system finishes firing and the missile is on a ballistic course toward its target. This is the longest stage of a missile’s flight, lasting up to 20 minutes for ICBMs. During the early part of the midcourse stage, the missile is still ascending toward its apogee, while during the latter part it is descending toward Earth. It is during this stage that the missile’s warhead, as well as any decoys, separate from the delivery vehicle.

The terminal phase begins when the missile’s warhead re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere, and it continues until impact or detonation. This stage takes less than a minute for a strategic warhead, which can be traveling at speeds greater than 3,200 kilometers per hour.—ACA

Philip Coyle, a senior advisor at the Center for Defense Information, was assistant secretary of defense and the Pentagon’s director of operational test and evaluation from 1994 to 2001.


Pentagon Outlines Missile Defense Plans to Congress

Wade Boese

During congressional hearings held in late February and early March, top Pentagon officials sketched out U.S. ballistic missile defense plans for the first time this year, receiving a warm welcome from Republican lawmakers but a cooler reception from Democrats, who voiced concerns about the Bush administration’s $7.8 billion missile defense spending request.

Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish, director of the Missile Defense Agency, told senators and representatives at separate hearings that the Pentagon aimed to put missile defense capabilities “in play as soon as practicable,” with the goal of having limited protection against long-range ballistic missiles as early as 2004.

To accomplish this task, Kadish said the Pentagon would be willing to deploy prototypes and test assets if necessary and to add to or upgrade them as time passed, an approach the Pentagon describes as “spiral development.” Decisions to deploy test assets would depend on a number of factors, including the success of testing programs and the “international security environment,” according to the general’s prepared testimony.

Exactly which systems will be fielded remains undetermined because the current missile defense program calls for research and development without specific deployment plans. Appearing with Kadish at a March 7 hearing of the strategic subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Edward Aldridge, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, told senators that “we don’t know what we’re going to buy.”

Yet the Pentagon does have ideas on what types of defenses it wants. In public statements and published excerpts of a secret January Pentagon report called the nuclear posture review, the Pentagon reveals it is hoping to have “near-term emergency [missile defense] capabilities” consisting of a single plane armed with a laser to shoot down missiles early in their flight, a rudimentary ground-based defense of five missile interceptors based in Alaska, and a single ship-based system that could attempt intercepting short- and medium-range ballistic missiles as they travel through space.

The nuclear posture review projects that beginning in 2006 the United States could deploy up to two or three Airborne Laser aircraft, four sea-based missile defense ships, and additional ground-based missile interceptor sites. By 2008 the Theater High Altitude Area Defense, a separate ground-based system that protects against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles during their last minutes of flight, might also be ready.

Because it claims to have no current procurement plans—aside from the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 system, which is currently being operationally tested and procured by the Army—the Pentagon did away with operational requirements documents (ORDs) for the missile defense program. These Pentagon papers define in advance what a system will look like and what capabilities it will have, and they set out specific criteria to determine if a system is ready to be purchased.

Describing the documents as “not appropriate” for missile defense at this stage, Aldridge defended the decision to do away with ORDs at a March 13 hearing of the strategic subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He explained that, even if a potential system fell short of meeting a specific marker, such as hypothetically being able to intercept only eight missiles in six minutes instead of 10 missiles in five minutes, it could still add to a U.S. defense and should be considered for deployment with the aim of gradually improving its performance.

Once a particular missile defense system is transferred to one of the military services to procure and field, however, ORDs will be drawn up, according to Pentagon officials.

While Republicans in both legislative chambers commended the Pentagon on its efforts, many Democrats challenged whether missile defense funding could not be better spent on other programs that defend against more urgent threats, such as terrorist attacks, and if the Pentagon approach could lead to deployment of systems unable to do their job.

At a February 27 joint hearing of two subcommittees of the House Armed Services Committee, Representative Marty Meehan (D-MA) criticized the Pentagon’s proposed spiral development approach as last being used by the Soviet Union and condemned it as a “buy first, think later” acquisition policy. Although describing missile defense efforts as “valid,” Meehan expressed concern that the Bush administration was “shortchanging the war on terrorism” for missile defense spending.

Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) shared similar worries at the March 13 hearing. He told Pentagon officials that their approach of fielding systems and then adding to them might invite the Pentagon to “dumb down standards.”

A Democratic staffer on the House side summed up congressional reactions to the hearings as being in the “eyes of the beholder.” He said that the lack of detailed Pentagon plans makes it very difficult to tell American taxpayers what they are getting for nearly $8 billion a year in missile defense spending. He also noted that the first strategic defenses are scheduled to be available in 2004, which happens to be when the next presidential election takes place. “This is purely a political deployment,” the staffer asserted.

Navy Theater Missile Defense Test Successful

Wade Boese

On January 25, a U.S. Navy ship successfully launched a missile interceptor carrying a warhead that collided with a ballistic missile target about 160 kilometers above the Pacific Ocean. The intercept, which the Pentagon predicted as “probable” prior to the test because of the planned flight paths of the two objects, marked the first hit for the sea-based system.

In the test, which the Pentagon described as a “controlled developmental test and not operationally representative,” an Aries target missile was launched from Kauai, Hawaii. Six minutes later, the U.S.S. Lake Erie fired the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3). Approximately two minutes and 250 kilometers later, the SM-3’s warhead struck the Aries target. The test objective was to test the warhead’s guidance, navigation, and control, but not to achieve an intercept.

The January test, the system’s fourth, took place just a little more than a month after the Pentagon cancelled a separate sea-based missile defense program because of spiraling costs and poor performance. Unlike the cancelled system, which employed a blast-fragmentation warhead, the system in the January test, formerly called Navy Theater Wide but now referred to as the sea-based midcourse ballistic missile defense system, uses a kinetic warhead, which destroys a target through force of impact rather than an explosion.

Pentagon plans call for the next test of the sea-based system this June, in what will be considered the program’s first intercept attempt. A Pentagon spokesperson interviewed February 6 said the target and missile trajectories in the upcoming test would repeat those in the January test.

Current sea-based system testing is geared toward defending against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, but the Bush administration wants to develop a sea-based capability to protect against long-range ballistic missiles as well. The Pentagon spokesperson said that, at this time, there is no date for when the sea-based system could potentially be tested against long-range targets. Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish, who directs the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, told reporters last July that sea-based systems could potentially be tested against long-range targets in the “‘07 and ‘08 time frame.”

The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty prohibits the development, testing, and deployment of sea-, space-, air-, and mobile land-based defenses against long-range ballistic missiles. Because he wants the freedom to explore a layered defense possibly consisting of these barred systems, President George W. Bush announced on December 13 the U.S. intention to withdraw from the treaty in six months.

Next U.S. Missile Defense Test To Have Three Decoys

Wade Boese

The Pentagon is planning to make its next attempt to destroy a mock strategic warhead in space more challenging than previous ground-based midcourse missile defense tests by increasing the number of balloon decoys accompanying the target from one to three.

In past intercept tests, the Pentagon has deployed only a single large balloon decoy with the target warhead, but in a test scheduled for mid-March, two smaller Mylar balloons will also be deployed, according to a spokesperson from the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), the body overseeing U.S. missile defense efforts.

The next test will mark the sixth intercept attempt for the Pentagon’s ground-based midcourse system, which has scored three hits in five attempts since October 1999. The last test, a hit, occurred December 3.

Days before that test, Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish, the MDA’s director, told reporters that, if the test succeeded, the Pentagon would have greater “confidence to move on to more aggressive and complicated [testing] efforts.” He said that the “obvious” way of making tests tougher would be to add “more countermeasure type of activity.”

A decoy is one kind of countermeasure that a potential adversary could use to try to circumvent a future U.S. missile defense system. Another would be hiding a warhead in a cloud of radar-reflecting chaff.

Previously known as the national missile defense system, the ground-based midcourse system is comprised of a powerful booster that carries an exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV) into space to collide with an incoming target. The Pentagon plans for the system ultimately to use a combination of satellite systems and an advanced radar, none of which currently exist, to track and discriminate warheads and decoys. The EKV is also equipped with infrared sensors to help it select the right target in the final seconds before a collision. During tests, the Pentagon has preprogrammed the EKV with information about test objects, such as their relative brightness, to help it strike the proper target.

Missile defense testing plans in 1997 called for 9-10 objects, including balloons of various sizes, to accompany a mock warhead in early intercept testing. But the Pentagon reduced that number to three balloons in 1998 and then to one in July 1999. Critics of missile defense charged that the Pentagon deliberately “dumbed down” the tests to avoid failure because it knew the system would be unable to pick out the mock warhead among so many objects.

Pentagon officials defended the reduction in decoys, contending that it is wise to start with tests with as few variables as possible so that, if something went wrong, it would be easier to identify the problem and fix it. The Pentagon said that testing would be made incrementally tougher once the system proved capable of hitting a target in space.

The MDA spokesperson said that including two smaller balloons in the next test would “further stress” the defense system’s EKV and prototype X-band radar, which relays updated target-tracking information to the EKV.

In interviews, two former top Pentagon officials from the Clinton administration concurred. Jacques Gansler, a former undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, stated that the additional balloons would “add discrimination complexity for both the [X-band] radar and the interceptor.”

Philip Coyle, former director of the Defense Department’s office of operational test and evaluation, said that adding the two small balloons would give the missile defense system a “more complicated” view. However, Coyle also said that, although introducing the two small balloon decoys into testing moves the program in a more aggressive direction, the Pentagon still has “a long way to go.”

Describing the two small balloon decoys as “unsophisticated” countermeasures, Coyle said that, if the new balloons’ diameters are about the same as the target, they might appear to the missile defense system as similar to the mock warhead in “some viewing angles, but not the correct overall shape or reflectivity.”


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