- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
Late Tuesday afternoon, the United States successfully shot down a mockup of an intercontinental ballistic missile before it re-entered the earth’s atmosphere near the Hawaiian islands.
The successful test of the nation’s foremost ballistic missile defense program is marginally good news for a country increasingly faced with the growing threat of missile proliferation, but the program continues to face questions over a problematic track record, and if it is keeping pace with North Korean advances in missile technology. Initial reports indicate that the test its objectives, but program officials will continue to evaluate the results based on the data that continues to flow in.
The much-watched, $244-million test of the Pentagon’s costly ground-based missile defense program, or GMD, came as Washington and its allies are increasingly worried over North Korea’s rapidly-improving missile program and the ability of American defenses to intercept them.
The intercept “is an incredible accomplishment” for the GMD system said Missile Defense Agency director Vice Adm. Jim Syring. “This system is vitally important to the defense of our homeland, and this test demonstrates that we have a capable, credible deterrent against a very real threat.”
The long-planned test of a system that has consistently underperformed in the field — it has managed to knock down only about half the missiles it targeted in a decade of testing — was the first to target a simulated ICBM, and the Pentagon hoped to find the rhythm after a grim 9-for-17 run in sinking incoming missiles.
It is unclear if more tests are planned in the near future, or what the success might mean for the program overall until military officials study the data more closely.
“Based on its testing record, we cannot rely upon this missile defense program to protect the United States from a North Korean long-range missile,” said Philip E. Coyle of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “In several ways, this test was a $244 million dollar baby step, a baby step that took three years.”
The test ICBM flew slower than an actual ICBM from North Korea would travel, making it easier to track and hit, while the closure rate between the target and the interceptor also was slower than an intercept would be between a North Korean ICBM and a U.S. interceptor, Coyle said.
It’s not a niche mission. Overall, the Missile Defense Agency has spent about $190 billion since 1985, and the GMD program has cost about $40 billion total over the past 15 years. Despite that investment, the program has only managed to produce “essentially an advanced prototype,” wrote Laura Grego, a physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Tuesday’s test was the first of a new “kill vehicle,” 5-foot-long device which steers itself into the path of the oncoming missile, destroying it by the force of impact. Pentagon officials like to say that it’s like hitting a bullet with a bullet.
There are two kill vehicles currently in use among the 36 deployed interceptors in California and Alaska. A majority use the CE-I variant, that has had only seen two successful intercept tests over four tries. The last success came in 2008. The other CE-II kill vehicle has fared even worse, having succeeded only once in three tries. None of the kill vehicles had a successful test before being fielded.
Whatever kill vehicle is used, all of the tests were highly scripted affairs, with long advance warnings before launch. And there, North Korea is upping the ante. The country’s engineers have recently started to incorporate solid-fuel technology into their rockets, which allows them to launch more quickly and give U.S. satellites less of a heads-up that a launch is coming. The older liquid fuel rockets require a long, visible process of refueling, tipping off surveillance systems. The less warning the U.S. systems have, the less likely they are to succeed, according to analysts.
The Pentagon’s testing and program evaluation office last year admitted it has only a “limited capability” to defend the United States from ballistic missile attacks, and — despite another $37 billion having already been earmarked for these programs between now and 2021 — the Government Accountability Office reported Tuesday that the Pentagon’s current ballistic missile defenses “will not likely provide robust defense as planned.”
The Missile Defense Agency requested $7.9 billion for 2018, which includes $1.5 billion for ground-based missile defense. Thirty-six ground-based interceptors are in place today, and the agency is on track to expand the fleet to 44 by the end of 2017.
North Korean missile launches have become almost a weekly occurrence, Monday’s launch consisted of what North Korea claims is a new, more accurate missile. Pyongyang fired the missile from a mobile tracked vehicle in Wonsan, on the country’s eastern coast, raising the prospect that the missile may be the same one shown off in an April military parade in the capital.
South Korea’s military identified the missile, which landed in waters within Japan’s exclusive economic zone, as a Scud variant. The missile flew about 280 miles before splashing down inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone. The launch was North Korea’s third in three weeks and its 12th this year.
Photo Credit: Missile Defense Agency