Jeffrey Lewis

Back to the Future

Missile defense doesn't work, so of course Congress is doubling it.

US Navy via Getty Images
US Navy via Getty Images

Reading through the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2013 is a surreal experience. While the rest of us are watching our elected officials careen from one (self-inflicted) macroeconomic crisis to the other, largely over issues related to the national deficit, the FY2013 NDAA appears to exist in a Neverneverland of constantly rising defense budgets despite increasingly dire warnings about the country’s fiscal health.

With the recent remake of Red Dawn and David Lee Roth fronting Van Halen again, there are moments when I feel like it is 1984. (Speaking of the mid-80s nostalgia, did you know that Monday was the day to which Marty McFly traveled in Back to the Future II? Where, as Calvin asked, is my flying car?)

Nowhere is nostalgia for the heady days of Ronald Reagan more apparent than the section in the NDAA relating to funding for a new site somewhere in New England to defend against long-range ballistic missiles from Iran.

This summer, House Republicans became very enthused about the prospect of adding yet another site of ground-based midcourse defense interceptors to go with those in Alaska and California. They claim they were encouraged by the recommendations of several groups, including a recent National Academies study on boost-phase missile defense.

(It is perhaps necessary here to note that the United States has a very large number of programs to develop different missile defenses for different classes of missiles in different periods of their flight — boost, midcourse, and terminal. In English, that is up to space, through space, and back down again. A system to intercept a short-range ballistic missile as it falls back toward earth is very different from something designed to hit a rocket as it is launching.)

At first, the notion of an East Coast interceptor site drew mild mockery. Al Kamen, of the Washington Post, held a contest to ask readers to suggest a location for the interceptors. Entries included schemes to protect valuable national treasures such as Fenway Park and Snookie.

I submitted Mianus, CT. As in, imagine the now-retired Joe Lieberman standing before the local gentry, solemnly declaring: "I strongly support the emplacement of two dozen ground-based interceptors, right here in Mianus. I can think of no better place to put them." I mean, how can you disagree with that?

Somehow I didn’t win the contest. (I was robbed, I tell you.) In fact, actual sites under consideration to host the missile defense interceptors include Fort Drum, NY and Caribou, ME.

Undeterred by the prospect of ridicule, the House added $100 million to fund an environmental impact assessment of three sites. Republican senators, led by New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, pushed a similar measure. Ayotte’s measure did not make it into the final Senate bill, but it prevailed in conference.

Which, of course, raises the obvious question: Do we need another missile defense site?

Well, we certainly don’t need another site like the one in Alaska. One of the strange features of this debate is that the House measure would study placing current U.S. ground-based interceptors in New England, even though the National Academies would terminate that program.

The National Academies was asked to study intercepting missiles in the boost phase of their flight, as well as the alternatives.  The committee was apparently so convinced of the impossibility of the boost-phase intercept that it started looking at alternatives — specifically, the existing midcourse system, which provides the best opportunity to shoot down long-range missiles. The committee was, to judge by the text, shocked at the incompetence and mismanagement it found in U.S. missile defense programs. The report is a scathing indictment of U.S. missile defense efforts in general, and the Missile Defense Agency in particular. Here is a sample comment regarding one programmatic decision: "That this was not understood by those responsible for managing these systems raises questions about the systems analysis capability of the MDA and others." That is Washington-ese for "These people do not know what they are doing." Even a casual read of the report raises questions about whether the Missile Defense Agency should be abolished, with the programs turned over to the services.

The National Academies reserved particular hostility for our only current hope to intercept an Iranian missile, the current ground-based midcourse system in Alaska and California. The committee outlined "six fundamental precepts of a cost-effective ballistic missile defense." Their conclusion? "The committee finds the current GMD system deficient with respect to all of these principles." The committee went on to describe the current GMD system as a "classic example" of what it termed "a ‘hobby shop’ approach, with many false starts on poorly analyzed concepts."

As a result, their recommendation was to develop and deploy an entirely different interceptor (based in part on a now canceled program called the kinetic energy interceptor) that would eventually replace the current interceptors in Alaska. The panel thought so highly of these interceptors that they recommended, once the new interceptor is ready, removing the old missiles from their silos and apparently using them for target practice. ("At a later time, the more capable interceptor would be retrofitted into the silos at Fort Greely, Alaska, with the existing GBIs diverted to the targets program supporting future operational flight tests." It is also possible the MDA might use them as boosters.)

Somehow, House Republicans were able to take this scathing assessment of the Disasta’ in Alaska and use it as a reason to give the Missile Defense Agency an extra $400 million to expand the current, flawed GMD program, including $100 million to start planning for placing obsolete interceptors at a third site on the East Coast. The plus-up brought total GMD spending to more than $1.3 billion this year.

I suppose it is hardly surprising that Congress would turn the recommendation of the National Academies on its head. After all, it is not unknown for members of Congress to cherry pick recommendations. And, in this case, the package presented by the National Academies would require Congress to admit that the United States has invested $34 billion in a flawed midcourse defense architecture ("fragile" was the polite term) that has been chronically mismanaged by the Department of Defense. In the current budgetary environment, that is a difficult admission to make.

It’s a lot easier to just stick some more crappy interceptors in Maine and pretend everything is fine.

Second, one might question the National Academies recommendation. It is important to understand why the National Academies recommended what amounts to a complete overhaul of the ground-based midcourse system.

With the current architecture comprising interceptors in Alaska and California, it is physically possible to intercepting a missile fired from Iran at the United States. The problem, of course, is that the system doesn’t work all that well. (The last two tests have been misses.) The best chance of being able to shoot down an enemy missile is to fire several — perhaps as many as five — interceptors at each incoming missile. With the current system, the United States has one opportunity to fire at the incoming missile.

The problem with firing a salvo of interceptors is that it is very inefficient, particularly if Iran were to launch several missiles at once or the incoming missiles were accompanied by decoys and other so-called penetration aids. The famously photoshopped image of an Iranian salvo launch, as well as some parodies, makes precisely that point. One has to give the National Academies credit for proposing a complete redesign of the current architecture — new interceptors, radars, and a concept of operations — to deal with the problem. For years, many of my colleagues have been arguing that the Missile Defense Agency has systematically ignored the challenge posed by countermeasures. While I am not sure I share the National Academies confidence in the ability of the United States to stay ahead in the countermeasures game — particularly in the current era of budgetary austerity — this is the first missile defense study to take the problem seriously.

The planned missile defense site in Poland would offer an opportunity for an early shot at an Iranian missile. The problem, as suggested by the National Academies, is that Iran might be able to "loft" a missile too high for yet-to-be-developed interceptors to have a shot.

Now, the intelligence community agrees that the Iranians do not currently have such an ICBM — or any ICBM actually. (Steven Hildreth, at the Congressional Research Service, has just prepared a very detailed report on Iran’s ballistic missiles, which is generating headlines largely for concluding that this judgment appears sound.) As it turns out, it would take one heck of an Iranian ICBM to fly over the top of a missile defense interceptor site in Poland, with enough gas left in the tank to rain nuclear destruction on Martha’s Vineyard. The National Academies assumed a solid-fueled missile with a range of 12,500 kilometers, which is more capable than anything the Chinese have. Only Russia has such a missile, which in part explains why the Obama administration chose this particular architecture in Europe. The National Academies is probably correct to worry about the possibility, but at this stage a 12,500-km range solid-fueled Iranian ICBM seems far enough away that a third site could still be considered at a later date.

Given the challenges associated with countermeasures and the far off prospect of an Iranian super-ICBM, I am inclined to think we could hold off on the East Coast site for now, while making many of the programmatic changes suggested by the National Academies panel, as well as entertaining one other modest notion.

There is an implicit question that arises from the National Academies panel: Should the United States abolish the Missile Defense Agency, returning missile defense programs to the services? In my lifetime, the entity has been called the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, and the Missile Defense Agency. Of the many things MDA has been called, highly competent is not one of them. This is an organization that has recently seen its chief executive resign over accusations that he bullied staff; previously, he had to send a memo to his employees asking them to spend less time surfing for porn. (I am waiting for the outraged letter from long-time MDA spokesman Rick Lehner to my editor Peter Scoblic. I can practically write it for him. It will look like this. Or this. Or this. I think he has a template titled OutragedLetter.docx)

Part of the problem with MDA and its predecessors has been a de facto, then de jure, exemption from the normal rules of testing and procurement. In its history, MDA has transferred only a small number of systems to the services. In general, missile defense systems have been driven by missile defense enthusiasts, not the services.

What would happen if missile defense programs were returned to the services, and expected to compete against other priorities on basic grounds like "cost-effectiveness"?

For one thing, the systems would probably be tested more frequently and under more realistic conditions. One of the strangest aspects of the debate about operational testing is that MDA, by and large, does not want to test interceptors as they might other systems. One of the strangest features in this debate was the suggestion in 2005 that MDA should reduce the number flight tests of the ground-based midcourse system because it kept missing and that was hurting the credibility of the system. (I am not making this up! Integrated Flight Tests hate our freedoms.)

In addition to more frequent and realistic testing, I also suspect the services would be much more sensitive to concepts of operations and other practical military concerns. The Navy, for example, is hardly enthusiastic about the European deployment of SM-3. The Navy is firmly against single-purpose ships, which means that missile defense interceptors compete for room with other systems on Aegis-class destroyers. Each SM-3 interceptor to knock down an Iranian missile represents a launch tube that can’t be used to clean the Supreme Leader’s clock. We need some defense against theater missiles, but the proper basis for deciding how much is normal programs analysis and evaluation, not happy memories of Ronald Reagan on horseback.

Some people may worry that, if missile defense programs were subject to the same cost-effectiveness criteria as any other military procurement systems, very few of the current programs would survive. This ought to be the point! Reasonable defense planning is about making tradeoffs to maximize security.

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

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