National Missile Defense Technology Still Falls Short

By Robert G. Gard Jr.
The United States has been attempting to develop a workable national missile defense capability since 1944, prompted initially by German V-2 ballistic missile attacks in Europe during World War II. The most recent initiative is the ground-based midcourse defense system, referred to as GMD, intended to defend against a limited attack by one or two intercontinental ballistic missiles launched by a rogue state, specifically North Korea or Iran.

In 1995, a U.S. national intelligence estimate stated that no country, other than the major declared nuclear powers, would develop or otherwise acquire a ballistic missile in the next 15 years that could threaten the contiguous 48 states and Canada.

Nevertheless, a congressionally mandated independent commission, chaired by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, issued a report in July 1998 that was more consistent with alarming assumptions held by advocates of national missile defense. It concluded that North Korea and Iran could develop the capability to strike the United States within five years of a decision to pursue ballistic missile technology. 

This was reinforced by Iran’s launch two weeks later of the Shahab-3 missile, with a range of 1,000 kilometers, and by North Korea’s launch the following month of a Taepo Dong 1 missile with a solid fueled third stage booster.

In January 1999, Secretary of Defense William Cohen announced full funding for development of a national missile defense system, with potential deployment in 2005. Congress then passed the National Missile Defense Act, which was signed by the president in July 1999. It says it is the policy of the United States to deploy as soon as is technologically possible an “effective” missile defense system.

An evaluation conducted in 2000 by an independent review team, chaired by retired Air Force Gen. Larry Welch, called for seven more flight tests prior to a production decision. 

The incoming Bush administration, with Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense, urged much faster deployment. On Dec. 13, 2001, President Bush gave Russia the required six-month notice to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972. In his January 2002 state of the union address, Bush anointed Iran and North Korea, along with Iraq, as members of an “axis of evil,” alleging their intent to pursue weapons of mass destruction. He ordered in December 2002 the deployment of an initial operating capability of interceptors two years later, and extended the scope of U.S. missile defense to a comprehensive, integrated, layered program to protect allies as well as deployed U.S. forces.

Meanwhile, in January 2002, Rumsfeld converted the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization to the Missile Defense Agency, with remarkable independent authority. MDA was accorded flexibility to establish its own requirements and manage its own acquisitions, without having to analyze costs or examine alternative military capabilities.

The short deadline to deploy an initial operating capability required production concurrently with development and testing. This procedure makes it more difficult to diagnose and correct deficiencies, resulting in problems requiring costly retrofits, and leading to what has been called a “rush to failure.”

Deployment of GMD interceptors began on July 22, 2004, with capability enhancement I (CE-I) kill vehicles. This was more than two years before the first flight intercept test of this design that was conducted Sept. 1, 2006.

In a flight intercept test July 5, 2013, the CE-I kill vehicle experienced problems with booster technology and failed to hit its target for a cause or causes that are not yet determined.

Development of a redesigned capability enhancement II (CE-II) kill vehicle began in 2005. Starting in October 2008, it was affixed to six newly deployed interceptors, and it replaced the CE-I on four interceptors that were already deployed. The CE-II was fielded some two years before its first two flight intercept tests in 2010, both of which failed. On Oct. 17, 2011, MDA surprisingly attributed the failure of the second test in December 2010 to a guidance error that was caused by “outer space-related dynamic environments.”

After the two failures in 2010, MDA suspended deliveries of the CE-II kill vehicle, but only after receipt of 12 of 23 on order. The cost of determining the cause of failure of the second CE-II test, fixing whatever ailed the CE-II, and conducting the confirmatory test June 22, 2014, has been estimated at $1.3 billion. The most recent test is the first successful intercept by the GMD system in more than five years, and the only success of the CE-II in three tries. Yet on this flimsy record, the Defense Department intends to procure and deploy 14 more CE-II interceptors in Alaska by fiscal year 2017.

The thrusters on the CE-II kill vehicle are currently being redesigned but the new version was not part of the most recent test.

Frustrated by delays, Congress has urged the Defense Department to test more frequently. In response, the Pentagon stated its intent to begin conducting three tests every two years in fiscal year 2018. However, J. Michael Gilmore, the department’s director of operational test and evaluation, concluded that the maximum practical frequency of testing was no more than 1.2 times per year.

Vice Adm. James Syring, director of MDA, indicated that he believed about one GMD test per year was all that could be responsibly managed, and the Government Accountability Office stated that insufficient information had been provided to justify accelerated testing.

Gilmore said in his fiscal 2013 report to Congress that the CE-II kill vehicle cannot be relied on against even “rudimentary long range missiles,” and he noted in testimony in April that there are “several issues of concern associated with the design of the kill vehicle,” and that it should be redesigned again to avoid patchwork fixes. Syring confirmed that the second redesign would begin in fiscal year 2015, with the first test programmed for 2018 and deployment scheduled to begin in 2020, along with a new long- range radar for midcourse tracking.

The Pentagon revealed the lower priority it actually accords GMD in its April report on the estimated impact of sequestration budget cuts. It states that funding for the redesigned kill vehicle and the new radar will be eliminated if relief is not forthcoming from the spending caps currently in effect.  

GMD shortcomings are much more extensive than fixing problems with the kill vehicle and deploying another radar. Gilmore noted that true integrated battle management will not be possible without further upgrades to the command-and-control system, which are not scheduled to come online until later in the decade.  A 2012 report by the National Research Council recommended a replacement system with a faster booster, re-design of a more capable kill vehicle, deployment of improved radars and sensors on land and in space, and the addition of two launch locations, all at an estimated cost of about $25 billion.

Even if this replacement were done, the GMD national missile defense system would not provide an effective capability due to its inability to distinguish an incoming warhead from debris or countermeasures that travel at the same speed in space as the warhead.

Richard Garwin, a distinguished defense scientist, observed that the NRC advocated a system that depends on mid-course discrimination against countermeasures, “without any indication of how this may be achieved.”

A 1999 intelligence estimate noted that many countries developing ballistic missiles, including North Korea and Iran, would also develop various responses to U.S. theater and national defenses, and that they “could develop countermeasures by the time they flight test their missiles.”

The need to solve the discrimination problem, crucial to success in intercepting ballistic missile payloads in space, was highlighted long before the initiation of GMD. A Defense Science Board report in 1987 noted that “serious questions remain unanswered about the ability … to carry out discrimination against anything but the most primitive decoys and debris.” An Office of Technology Assessment report in 1988 warned that there are “plausible decoy designs that would be very difficult to counter merely with passive infrared sensors in conjunction with radar,” which is the technology still being used by MDA.

In the fall of 1999, the first intercept test of an incipient national missile defense interceptor included a test element requiring the interceptor to distinguish between the target and the decoy object. In that test, and in the few subsequent tests including decoys, the thermal signature of the decoy was deliberately designed to be different from that of the target. Yet these decoys caused discrimination problems, even though they were not designed to replicate the target, as they obviously would be in an actual attack.

Warnings of the necessity to deal with the discrimination issue have persisted. Gilmore summed up the issue in March 2013: “If we cannot discriminate what the real threatening objects are, it doesn’t matter how many ground-based interceptors we have. We won’t be able to hit what needs to be hit.”

Syring noted in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee that solving “very difficult problems of lethal object discrimination” is key to the success of GMD.

MDA attempted to deal with the problem by developing the means to intercept attacking missiles in their boost phase, before they could discharge their payloads in space. The kinetic energy interceptor and the airborne laser both proved unworkable. They were canceled by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. A possible space-based boost phase system was determined impractical since it would require hundreds if not thousands of satellites at a cost of up to $500 billion over two decades. The National Research Council noted in 2012 that “early intercept, even if achievable, cannot obviate the need for mid-course discrimination, because countermeasures and payload deployment can be achieved very rapidly after … [the short period of] booster burnout.” 

Then-MDA Director Lt. Gen. Trey Obering conceded in October 2007 that GMD “can handle only unsophisticated countermeasures.” He claimed that a “multiple kill vehicle system will allow us to handle decoys and countermeasures.” Attempts were made to design a multiple kill vehicle with numerous sub-vehicles that could attack all the objects in the target cluster that resembled the incoming warhead. Garwin opined that even if the system proved successful, the individual kill elements were unlikely to keep pace with the development of decoys and other countermeasures. The multiple kill vehicle program also was canceled as unworkable during the Bush administration.

It is questionable whether there is a feasible solution to the discrimination problem with known technology.

Philip E. Coyle III, former director of operational test and evaluation, noted recently that MDA believes discrimination might be possible against one or two missiles with relatively unsophisticated countermeasures by deployment of a combination of radars of different frequencies, along with two-colored infrared and visible sensors mounted on satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles. Yet, with computers and digitization, radar countermeasures now include not only stealth but also a means of changing an incoming radar signal and sending it back to mislead the sender as to the location of the targeted object. He observed that there also are effective countermeasures against infrared sensors. His conclusion: discrimination may be possible — but probably not plausible.

If the inconsistent rationale of proponents for GMD is correct — that North Korea and Iran can and will develop intercontinental ballistic missiles, but somehow are incapable of, or uninterested in, producing effective countermeasures — these countries still could easily defeat GMD simply by overwhelming the system, which is designed to combat only one or two incoming warheads, with multiple missiles that cost far less than defensive interceptors.

The opportunity costs of investing in an expensive program to counter an unlikely threat, especially in times of constrained defense budgets, must be considered. GAO estimated that about $41 billion has been committed to the GMD program, $4.5 billion of it between fiscal years 2013 and 2017.

Then why is the United States spending so much on a weapons system so easily defeated? It is due, partially at least, to a blind ideological faith in the capability of American ingenuity to solve difficult technical problems regardless of their complexity or even scientific evidence to the contrary. Since former President Ronald Reagan promoted missile defense in 1983 as the answer to the threat of a nuclear attack, national missile defense has become an article of faith for most Republicans.

Elected officials who are skeptical about GMD are reluctant to expose themselves to intimidation for failing to support programs that purport to protect the population of the country. In this regard, something of an ideological commitment to missile defense itself has evolved. Also, once a program is started, institutional inertia sets in, contractors lobby and contribute to election campaigns, and members of Congress protect the jobs in their states and districts.

The insufficiently addressed issue of the GMD program is the inability of the system to discriminate between the incoming warhead and debris, decoys and other countermeasures.

Any further expenditure on GMD for the foreseeable future should be limited to a scientific study of a practical solution to the discrimination problem as a precondition to continuing.

Robert G. Gard Jr. is a retired Army lieutenant general and chairman of the board of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

Topics: Defense Department, Missile Defense, Science and Engineering Technology

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