An expert's point of view on a current event.

Failure to Launch

Why did America just spend $30 billion on a missile defense system that doesn't work?

Luci Pemoni/AFP/Getty Images
Luci Pemoni/AFP/Getty Images
Luci Pemoni/AFP/Getty Images

A report by the National Research Council (NRC) released Sept. 11 finds that the U.S. Ground-based Missile Defense (GMD) system deployed in Alaska and California to defend against potential long-range missile threats from North Korea and Iran is expensive and ineffective. To fix it, the report recommends replacing the current system with a revamped, but largely similar, system — and expanding it by adding a new site on the East Coast, in either New York or Maine.

But given the report’s scathing assessment of current GMD missile-interceptor technology, which cost more than $30 billion to deploy, it makes little sense that it calls for building a new system that has some of the same weaknesses as the old one — and that missile defense supporters in Congress would use the report to help their cause, as they have begun doing.

It should come as no surprise that the current GMD system is a lemon. The system was rushed into operation by the Bush administration in 2004 without adequate testing and has been in trouble ever since. Five of the seven intercept tests that have been conducted since November 2004 have failed, and there have been no successful intercept tests since 2008. Hardly reassuring. 

The 260-page report, which was commissioned by Congress, finds the GMD system’s "shortcomings" so serious that it recommends the system be completely redesigned, rebuilt, and retested, with a faster missile booster and heavier interceptor or "kill vehicle" and more capable sensors — a process that could take up to a decade or more and billions of dollars at a time of tight defense budgets.

The NRC, which is part of the National Academy of Sciences, says that its proposed system of two-stage missiles, stacked AN/TPY-2 radars, and additional interceptors will fix the problems of the old one. But these fixes cannot change the fundamental dilemma that faces all systems that seek to intercept targets in outer space: they need to be able to tell the difference between real warheads and fakes, which no one has yet been able to do after decades of trying. Until this capability can be shown under realistic testing conditions, buyer beware.

In addition to trashing the GMD system, the NRC report — Making Sense of Ballistic Missile Defense: An Assessment of Concepts and Systems for U.S. Boost-Phase Missile Defense in Comparison to Other Alternatives — finds that "boost-phase" missile defenses, which seek to intercept missiles before they release their warheads and other cargo, are not feasible. A missile’s boost phase is simply too short — just a few minutes — to get an interceptor there in time. Far-out concepts like space-based interceptors would require hundreds of satellites and cost as much as $500 billion over 20 years, the NRC’s experts estimated.  

As a result, the report’s authors concluded that any practical missile defense system must intercept enemy missiles in space, in the "mid-course" of their trajectory. The mid-course approach provides more time for the intercept, but it must confront the "discrimination problem" of telling the difference between real warheads and decoys.

"In short, there is no practical missile defense system that can avoid the need for midcourse discrimination, and the midcourse discrimination problem must be addressed far more seriously if reasonable confidence is to be achieved," the report states.

The report finds that initial "decoys" may be unintentional — missile parts, debris, and other components from the booster rocket. However, "as threat sophistication increases, the defense is likely to have to deal with purposeful countermeasures," such as intentional decoys and other "penetration aides" that adversaries may use to "frustrate U.S. defenses."

The NRC report finds the current GMD interceptor system is "very expensive and has limited effectiveness" and would have to be completely rebuilt before any system could be installed on the East Coast. The current interceptors are so inadequate that the report suggests they be used as test targets for the new system (they cost $70 million each to build).

Nevertheless, after the report’s conclusions were partially released in April in a letter to Congress, the Republican-controlled House Armed Services Committee voted to build a third strategic missile interceptor site on the East Coast by the end of 2015. This proposal ignores the NRC’s findings regarding the current GMD system and its estimate of how long it would take to develop a new system.

The NRC report’s co-chairs, L. David Montague and Walter B. Slocombe, said at a Sept. 11 press briefing that their redesigned system would take at least 6 to 8 years to deploy, an optimistic schedule given the technical and political complexity of the issue, the discrimination problem, and the funding constraints that currently exist.

Even so, Rep. Michael Turner (R-OH), chair of the Armed Services strategic subcommittee, issued a Sept. 11 press statement saying that the NRC report "validates, and informed, the provision of the FY13 National Defense Authorization Act which calls for the development of an East Coast site to improve the defense of the United States" by 2015. The Defense Department has said a third interceptor site is unneeded.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is building a different interceptor system in Europe, known as the Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA), to handle potential attacks from Iran. The system’s fourth phase, to be deployed in 2020, is intended to be able to intercept long-range missiles that could reach the United States. Neither North Korea nor Iran has yet deployed, or even successfully flight-tested, such missiles.

The NRC report states that its plan for an East Coast site would make phase four of the European PAA redundant, and thus that that phase could be cancelled. In addition, it says that the Bush administration’s plan (abandoned by the Obama administration) for a missile defense site in Poland would not have been effective, as it would have used a derivative of the GMD interceptor, which the committee recommends replacing.

Ultimately, the only way to determine if a revamped GMD system would be effective against realistic countermeasures is to test it against realistic countermeasures. But the United States has already spent $30 billion without ever getting around to such tests. Unless that changes, we should not expect a better outcome from the next $30 billion.

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