A Little Hit and a Big Miss

Don't be fooled by a minor success. America's interceptor missile-defense system is still a failed $40 billion boondoggle.

Photo via Ballistic Missile Defense Organization/Getty Images
Photo via Ballistic Missile Defense Organization/Getty Images

President Barack Obama is about to walk into a trap of his own making. His administration said last year that if a key missile defense test hit its target, the Pentagon would expand the Alaska- and California-based system. Well, that test, conducted on June 22, was apparently a success.

Administration officials now say Obama will follow through with his plan to add 14 ground-based interceptors (GBIs) to the 30 already deployed. If he does, three things would happen, all of them bad: Obama would effectively take primary ownership of a system that is widely seen as deeply flawed; it would become harder for the administration to argue against deployment of a similar system on the East Coast; and Obama’s goal to further reduce global nuclear stockpiles would become a more distant prospect.

The trap may be closing, but it is not too late for the White House to find a way out.

The Obama administration inherited the current GBI system from President George W. Bush and has kept it at arm’s length. Obama, who as a candidate in 2008 criticized Bush’s "haste to deploy missile defenses," continued to fund the system as canceling it would have led to a huge political fight and doomed chances to ratify New START — but he hardly embraced it. Now, however, Obama is poised to become the system’s champion.

The Bush administration began fielding the system in 2004, after withdrawing from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and today the system is composed of 30 interceptor missiles in Alaska and California, intended to counter a possible long-range missile attack from North Korea or Iran. Ten years later, it is all too clear that the prototype system was rushed into production before the technology was ready, to address a hyped threat that has advanced but still has not materialized.

The American taxpayer is now stuck with a $40 billion "defense" on which no commander in- chief can depend — it has a dismal test record that is actually getting worse with time. Before the June 22 hit, the system had failed in its last three intercept tests and had not hit a target since 2008.

Overall, out of 17 highly scripted intercept attempts from 1999 to 2014, the system hit its target nine times, a 53 percent success rate. For the first eight tests, the system had five hits, or 63 percent. But in the last nine tests, the system has hit only four times: a depressing 44 percent success rate. These numbers attest that, despite the recent hit, this is still a prototype technology that should not have been put into production.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill) said on June 11 that the "design, engineering, and reliability problems … were largely caused by the rush to field this system without properly testing [it]. We are now paying dearly for some of those decisions." Correcting these problems will cost more than $1.3 billion, according to the government’s nonpartisan Government Accountability Office.

As for the threat it is intended to counter, Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in May that neither North Korea nor Iran "yet has a mature [intercontinental-range ballistic missile] capability, and both nations know they would face an overwhelming U.S. response to any attack." As Winnefeld implies, it is not missile defense that would stop a missile attack from North Korea or Iran (if those countries were to achieve that capability). It is deterrence — that neither regime wants to invite upon itself a devastating U.S. response.

There are important lessons here. Don’t rush a complex weapon system into production while it is still a prototype. Don’t base plans on exaggerated threat assessments. And above all, don’t do both at the same time.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration is on the verge of repeating the same mistakes. After just one successful test of the newest interceptor, the CE-II, the Pentagon wants to double down on this troubled system and expand it. This roughly 50 percent increase in the number of interceptors will cost about $1 billion. This makes no more sense than Bush’s decision to prematurely field the system in 2004. "The idea of deploying 14 more of the existing … interceptors at Fort Greely in Alaska, as proposed by the Obama administration last year, would be throwing good money after bad," Philip Coyle, former director of weapons testing for the Defense Department, told the Anchorage Daily News. "We need to make sure we have a system that works, not expand a system we know to be deeply flawed."

Even its proponents don’t believe in its efficacy. Current and former Pentagon officials say the system needs more tests before they can have confidence in it. Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale told Reuters on June 24: "It’s got to work several times. We’ve got to demonstrate it under various conditions before we’d have … full confidence in the system," he said. "That is the ultimate accountability."

Meanwhile, missile defense supporters in Congress have been beating the drum to build another interceptor site near the U.S. East Coast. This would cost another $10 billion or more, and the Pentagon is studying four possible locations, without committing to a new site. So far, the administration has persuasively argued that there is no military requirement for an eastern site, because the site in Alaska can cover both coasts and the potential Iranian long-range missile threat is further out in the future than North Korea’s, which despite recent tests has not arrived yet, either.

An additional argument against building an East Coast system now is that the West Coast system is simply not reliable or effective and that regardless of the threat it would make no sense to deploy the same flawed technology at a new location. Once the administration deploys more of the same flawed technology in Alaska, missile defense boosters will likely say that what is good enough for the West Coast is good enough for the East. The administration would then be playing a weaker hand.

Another danger of expanding missile defense is the negative impact it may have on U.S. plans for arms control with Russia and China. The United States has said for years that the GBI system is intended to counter limited, long-range missile threats from North Korea and Iran, if such missiles should appear, but is not intended to counter much larger missile forces in Russia and China. As Admiral Winnefeld said in May, "We’ve told Russia and the world that we will not rely on missile defense for strategic deterrence of Russia because it would simply be too hard and too expensive and too strategically destabilizing to even try. Even though Russians have a hard time believing us on this, it has the very great virtue of actually being true." The same applies to China.

The problem is that Russia and China do not believe it. The more Washington deploys real missile interceptors to counter potential missile threats in Pyongyang and Tehran, the more Moscow and Beijing will resist reducing their nuclear forces. This will put an inevitable brake on how far the United States can lead the world to reduce nuclear weapons. Both countries are also concerned about U.S. regional missile defenses, such as U.S. plans to put medium-range interceptors in Europe and to work with Japan and South Korea.

As China’s Foreign Ministry warned in May, the U.S. plan to expand missile defense cooperation with South Korea would "not help maintain stability and strategic balance in this region." Read between the lines, and it’s clear that expansion would do the opposite.

Given the current state of U.S.-Russia relations and the situation in Ukraine, Obama’s plan for another round of nuclear arms control with Moscow after the 2010 New START agreement is on hold in any case. But, at some point, Russian President Vladimir Putin may realize that he would like to spend his rubles on things other than nuclear weapons. If U.S. missile defenses increase, the job of bringing Russian forces down may become that much harder.

Obama should stick with his 2008 statement that missile defenses "must be proven to work" before adding to a system that has thus far failed — even in highly scripted tests. Rather than expand the system, he could prioritize improving it through more rigorous testing.

For guidance, Obama should not look to Bush, but to Clinton. When President Bill Clinton was considering missile defense deployment in 2000, he based his decision on four criteria: the readiness of the technology, the impact on arms control, the cost of the system, and the threat. Ultimately, Clinton rightly decided that he did not yet have "enough confidence in the technology and the operational effectiveness … to move forward to deployment." He noted that there were unresolved questions about countermeasures, or efforts to "confuse the missile defense into thinking it is hitting a target when it is not."

Clinton’s conclusions still hold true today, and Obama would be wise to consider them. Obama has a choice: His legacy can be like Clinton’s, the president who held the line on missile defense; or he can be remembered like Bush, as the president who made a costly mistake for which we are still paying the price.

Tom Z. Collina is Director of Policy at Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation in Washington, DC.

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