Missile Defense Success Questioned

Despite Testing at Vandenberg, Scientists Remain Skeptical of Weapon's Effectiveness

A Minuteman III ICBM launches from a silo at Vandenberg AFB.

Tasked with protecting the United States from missile threats, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) – a direct descendent of Ronald Reagan‘s Strategic Defense Initiative – has come under intense criticism from groups claiming that the cost of such a service isn’t justified by the effectiveness of shooting down a missile with another missile. Controversy has also arisen over the role of testing in securing Congressional funding.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a national environmental watchdog organization, brought this issue to the fore during a December 5 missile launch from Santa Barbara County’s Vandenberg Air Force Base, when the MDA conducted what its representatives deemed a successful interception of a target missile. While the interceptor missile from Vandenberg did hit its target, the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a statement immediately afterward, stating that the test was not successful due to a lack of realistic circumstances.

The target missile was launched from a state-owned complex on Alaska’s Kodiak Island shortly after noon on December 5, followed 15 minutes later by an MDA missile from Vandenberg. According to the MDA, this marks the eighth successful test of a ground-based interceptor of the 14 that have been attempted.

Currently, 21 long-range ground-based midcourse interceptor missiles are positioned at Ft. Greely, Alaska, and three at Vandenberg. A tentative agreement with the Polish government proposes erecting 10 more sites within Poland’s borders. Radar stations for the system are located strategically throughout the world, and the Bush administration has been trying to forge an agreement for another one in the Czech Republic. Although the Czech Republic’s upper legislative body approved the plan, it is not yet clear if the lower house will. Meanwhile, Russia has expressed strong objections to the U.S. placing missile defense apparatus in what it considers to be its backyard.

As various nations’ governments hammer out the details of these matters, debate continues over calling the December 5 launch a success despite the target missile’s failure to deploy a decoy package. “It would have been nice to have them, but the important thing was the intercept,” said Rick Lehner, MDA public affairs officer, of the decoys. Typically, if a missile were fired at a target, it would deploy one or more active warheads. More advanced systems include decoy warheads to confuse weapons systems attempting to destroy them. Early tests conducted by the MDA included decoy warheads in the form of Mylar balloons, which were deployed with mock warheads from the target missile.

However, questions have been raised about the decoys’ failure, which some say were supposed to be an important part of the test. “The whole point of the test was to hit the target in the presence of decoys,” said Philip Coyle, senior adviser for the Center for Defense Information. Coyle – who served as assistant secretary of defense from 1994 to 2001 and directed the Defense Department’s testing and evaluation department – said the MDA’s claim of success in this test was misleading. “They don’t want to have a failure because they don’t want Congress to pull funding,” he said.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has taken issue with the frequency and thoroughness of the tests. “Scientists have looked at missile defense for a long time, and the Achilles’ heel has always been decoys,” said UCS spokesperson David Wright of the target missile’s failure to launch decoy warheads to test the capability of the system against real threats. He also said that this is only the fourth successful interception test since the current missile defense program was brought online by the Bush administration in 2002, and that none of those tests deployed countermeasures to simulate a realistic threat. Another factor that the UCS scrutinized is the close proximity of launch sites used in intercept scenarios meant to test a system designed to protect the U.S. from long-range missiles sent by North Korea or Iran. UCS representatives claim the speeds reached by incoming long-range missiles would be much higher, making them more difficult to shoot out of the sky. “You would think that they would be testing a lot more, using realistic scenarios and countermeasures,” said Wright.

Lehner countered that at a cost of between $120 million and $150 million per test, the number of live tests MDA runs is limited, but that if a hostile missile were targeting a city, MDA would shoot as many interceptors as necessary to remove the threat. As for the scripting of the tests – or close monitoring of the target missile’s position as it is tracked by the interceptor missile – he said it was necessary in order to collect the maximum amount of data per test. “We don’t know what the North Koreans have,” he said. “They’ve launched two ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles] and they both failed, but they’re bound to get it right sometime.”

The MDA, which is responsible for the research and development portion of missile defense, has an average annual budget of $10 billion. The system – which includes long-range ground-based interceptors as well as short- and medium-range interceptors – is actually operated by various branches of the military. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently reviewed a proposal by the MDA to develop and deploy aircraft-borne lasers designed to shoot down threat missiles as part of the missile defense program. In order to purchase the aircraft, develop the weapon system, and operate it for 20 years, CBO projected an estimated cost of $24 million to $36 billion on top of the MDA’s current budget.

Wright asserted that the Bush administration exempted the MDA from many of the “fly before you buy” laws that military programs usually are subjected to. “MDA hasn’t had to set down specific goals as to what they want to do, and hasn’t outlined a concrete testing program,” he said. “It’s not part of the defense budget, so it hasn’t been subject to prioritization against other military programs.”

Further testing of the ground-based long-range interceptors is in the works for the coming years, but the program’s progress depends on how it is handled by the incoming Obama administration. According to the Obama-Biden transition Web site, it “will support missile defense, but ensure that it is developed in a way that is pragmatic and cost-effective; and, most importantly, does not divert resources from other national security priorities until we are positive the technology will protect the American public.”

Quoting former Georgia senator Sam Nunn, Coyle called Congressional support for missile defense more theological than practical. “Many members of Congress are gung-ho for missile defense and want to believe in it, but they don’t have the technical background to understand it,” he said.


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