Study Shoots Down Current U.S. Missile Defense Strategy as Costly, Impractical

By Eric Beidel
The United States should stop development of expensive systems to shoot down enemy missiles as soon as they launch and focus on improving weapons to intercept them in midcourse, according to a study requested by Congress and funded by the Missile Defense Agency.
In a report titled “Making Sense of Ballistic Missile Defense: An Assessment of Concepts and Systems for U.S. Boost-Phase Missile Defense in Comparison to Other Alternatives,” a committee from the National Research Council painted the MDA as having a hobby-shop mentality, chasing every technology available in hopes of creating an impenetrable shield.
That is an unrealistic goal, said L. David Montague, committee co-chair and retired president of the missile system division at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Space.
A number of studies in recent years have come to the same conclusion. The NRC report recommends increasing midcourse defense by supplementing two current interceptor sites at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., with a third in the northeast United States. As it stands, the two-interceptor system has limited capability to defend against missiles launched by countries other than North Korea, the report stated. The third site could be located in Maine or upstate New York, said Walter B. Slocombe, former undersecretary of defense for policy and the committee’s other co-chair.
MDA appears to have had trouble transitioning into an organization that knows what it wants and how to get it, Montague said. The agency needs to be able to navigate the acquisition process without changing requirements so frequently, he added.
“For too long, the U.S. has been committed to expansive missile defense strategies without sufficient consideration of the costs and real utility,” Montague said. “As the primary agency in charge, the Missile Defense Agency must strengthen its system analysis and engineering capabilities so that it can better evaluate new initiatives before significant funding is committed.”
He and his colleagues determined it would cost as much as $500 billion to acquire and operate space-based boost-phase interceptors over 20 years, about 10 times more expensive than any other approach to missile defense. Additionally, air- and ground-based systems often cannot be located close enough to shoot down missiles within a few minutes of being launched.
The report suggests the United States could make significant improvements in its defense system within the $45 million budget already requested by the Defense Department for fiscal years 2010 to 2016. These fixes include developing smaller, more effective interceptor missiles and employing a suite of X-band radar components at five existing early-warning radar sites. The radars, along with infrared sensors on the interceptors, would create more time and data for identifying enemy missiles, allowing for successive shots to take them down.
While MDA had scrapped a lot of its exploration of in-flight sensing, knowledge from previous studies can be retrieved and built upon, Montague said.
“The key is more than just the optics,” he said. “It’s exploiting the data that has already been gathered in flight tests over 40 years . . . It’s not just taking an early shot and seeing what it did, but it’s continuing to look and discriminate what’s going on with both the radars and the follow-on interceptors.”
One of the programs recommended for elimination is the precision tracking and surveillance system, a Northrop Grumman-led effort consisting of two low-Earth-orbiting satellites with short-wave infrared, wide-field-of-view sensors to autonomously detect and track missiles during boost phase. The Lockheed Martin space-based infrared system and the proposed suite of X-band radars and interceptor sensors can do the same job for less money, experts said.
As for theater missile defense, the committee recommended continued focus on non-boost systems such as Aegis ship-based interceptors, the Army’s ground-based terminal high-altitude area defense system and Patriot-based missile defense, all of which can also provide adequate protection to U.S. forces and allies.
Photo Credit: Defense Department

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, Missile Defense

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