Let’s end bogus missile defense testing

July 16, 2013

Immediately following the Fourth of July fireworks, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) tried out some fireworks of its own. By trying to hit a missile with a missile they attempted a demonstration of the defensive “shield,” designed to protect the U.S. from North Korean and Iranian nuclear missiles. It turned out to be a dud. As with the two previous attempts, the Ground Based Missile Defense system once again failed. This failure happened despite the fact that the demonstration was essentially rigged: the intercept team knew ahead of time when to expect the incoming missile and all its relevant flight parameters. Such luxury is obviously not available in real-life combat. But even if the $214 million “test” had worked it would not prove much.

Now some GOP hawks — led by “Buck” McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee — are calling for more fake “testing” of the system. Their request should be denied as it would only throw more good money after bad.

These are not real tests at all, but better described as controlled “experiments” or scripted “demonstrations.” It’s like “testing” how good a hunter one is by shooting a deer tied to a tree — at ten paces. Successfully shooting the deer wouldn’t prove a thing about one’s hunting skills. Failing such a “test,” however, would underline just how unprepared one is.

For instance, the team assigned to intercept the incoming missile knows the timing, trajectory, speed and radar signature of the missile. And, typically, contractors from the companies who built the missiles and interceptors are holding the hands of the military staff during these scripted demonstrations. In the real world, one would have no idea which day an attack might occur — nor the precise trajectory, speed or radar signature that the missile might take.

Moreover, our adversaries will surely also use countermeasures during the attack, rendering the system ineffective. The enemy may also choose to launch a simultaneous salvo attack with several live warheads distributed among many decoys. The time of attack could also be planned such that the sun is located in an unfavorable location in the sky, possibly blinding or confusing the defensive sensors. For the sea-based “Aegis” missile defense system, another complication is if the enemy chooses to attack during rough weather when interceptors cannot safely be launched from the ships. None of these complicating factors are incorporated in the MDA’s demonstrations.

But the main problem is that the type of missile defense the United States and NATO are fielding — “midcourse” missile defense — is particularly easy to defeat using simple decoys and countermeasures. The simplest countermeasures are cheap inflatable balloon decoys. Because the missile-defense interceptors try to strike the missile warheads in the vacuum of space, these balloons and any warheads travel together, making it impossible to tell them apart. An enemy bent on delivering a nuclear payload to the United States could inflate many such balloons near the warhead and overwhelm the defense system by swamping it with fake signals.

Even the new director of the Missile Defense Agency, Vice Admiral James Syring, cited this key problem during House Armed Services Subcommittee hearings last month. He explained that the defense system is both costly and ineffective: Syring talked about “the very difficult problems of lethal object discrimination, limited inventory and cost per kill.” If the missile interceptors can’t discriminate between the lethal object — the warhead — and the decoys, then limited (and costly) inventory is used up chasing the fakes.

The Pentagon’s director of operational test and evaluation, Michael Gilmore, reaffirmed this challenge during the same hearings. “If we can’t discriminate what the real threatening objects are,” Gilmore said, “it doesn’t matter how many ground-based interceptors we have, we won’t be able to hit what needs to be hit.”

Similarly, the Pentagon’s own scientists reported “the importance of achieving reliable… discrimination [between the warhead and any decoys or debris] cannot be overemphasized.” Missile defense, the scientists point out, is “predicated on the ability to discriminate” real warheads from other targets, “such as rocket bodies, miscellaneous hardware and intentional countermeasures.” If “the defense should find itself in a situation where it is shooting at missile junk or decoys, the impact on the regional interceptor inventory would be dramatic and devastating!”

So the central conundrum of midcourse missile defense remains that while it creates incentives for  adversaries and competitors of the United States to increase their missile stockpiles, it offers no credible combat capability to protect the U.S. from this weaponry.

If the system is so straightforward to defeat, why is Washington spending extraordinary sums on it? What propels the system is a mixture of institutional inertia, lobbying by contractors, fear of political intimidation (labeling opponents “weak on defense”); and of course, the prospect of pork — both domestic and foreign. European allies are quite happy to go along with fielding the system, just so long as Uncle Sam foots the bill and they don’t have to pay a cent.

Unfortunately, no amount of scripted demonstrations will prove that the system works — but failures in these rigged tests (like the last three for the ground-based system) will highlight some of the many reasons why it won’t work in real combat.

So what would a realistic test look like? Firstly, the there has to be at least several days uncertainty in when the target missile will be launched. The team launching the target missile must not be allowed to communicate with the one firing the defensive interceptor — just like in real life. During these few days the intercept team would need to be on a round-the-clock watch in anticipation of a launch, as in a real conflict.

Secondly, the speed and trajectory that the target missile flies should be unknown to the intercept team.

Thirdly, no contractors should be allowed to participate in the test in any way: the staff is part of the system being tested and no outside help should be given.

Next, the radar signature of the missile and warhead should also be an unknown to the defense. And, lastly, a salvo of missiles should be launched together with decoys and countermeasures to make the scenario similar to actual combat.

Such a test could be deemed a realistic trial of any given incarnation of missile defense. However, in the case of midcourse missile defense — the type we are fielding in Europe and in Alaska and California — we can save ourselves the effort and money involved in testing. We already know that the problem with this incarnation of missile defense is fundamental — specifically, that it can be rendered ineffective by decoys — so elaborate testing is neither required nor useful. Unless a fundamentally new type of missile defense is proposed, further testing is not needed.

A better use of limited defense dollars would be to spend them on port security or the Coast Guard: any adversary crazy enough to carry out a nuclear strike against the U.S. will likely do so using a sneaky clandestine delivery — for example by boat — rather than using a missile with a known return address.

PHOTO: A Standard Missile-3 Block 1A interceptor is launched from the guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Erie during a Missile Defense Agency and U.S. Navy test in the Pacific Ocean, February 13, 2013. REUTERS/U.S. Navy/Handout


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“Unless a fundamentally new type of missile defense is proposed, further testing is not needed.”

I propose a fundamentally new type of missile defense that George H.W. Bush scrapped to help the military industrial complex. I propose Brilliant Pebbles, a series a small satellites that can launch interceptors repeatedly at missiles. We need to build it soon or we will probably be nuked or extorted.

Start your campaign for Brilliant Pebbles today!

Posted by Rebuild1989 | Report as abusive

More taxpayer money well spent by the military-industrial mavens who protect us from everything…except themselves. A special thank you to Saint Ronnie Reagan and his costly and thoroughly useless Star Wars defense initiative.

Posted by Andvari | Report as abusive

And not the first time the test was ” essentially rigged” – although they had to be called out on the first test before admitting this little sin of omission. Google ‘SDI’ – and try to figure the course, cost, and confusion of this boondoggle started in the ’80’s (and never ended). Maybe a trillion? Who cares how it began – can’t someone stop it please

Posted by auger | Report as abusive

These are ground-based systems. If we switch to the air-based Brilliant Pebbles system, with multiple stations(upwards of 40000), we’ll have a working shield.

Posted by Rebuild1989 | Report as abusive

Quick note, the thebulletin.org link doesn’t work.

Other than that, I’ll just leave this here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V_LurJfOS iA

Failures are actually good, it allows us to learn from those mistakes and build on them. They’ll keep trying, and keep learning from failures until something finally pans out. Believe it or not, they are actually near as a few tests have been successful in the past (from reading previous articles in WSJ and NYTimes.) It’s only a matter of time before the success is 100%..but your alternative ideas are good too. I say all of the above. I’m a big defense person..so that’s openly my own bias. I’m for getting the system, perfecting it and selling it to fund and build a better system.

Posted by Proxyariesman | Report as abusive

Correct me if I’m wrong, but we have been throwing at least $20 billion per year (in the beginning, much much more) at this project since Reagan started it. How much has it cost us so far? And why do we continue throwing money at it? Oh yea, the missile contractors are in bed with Congress.
Now let’s say the “liberals” started some new project to launch $20 billion in cash per year over poor neighborhoods to drop cash on them. How long do you think it’d take before the TV and radio ads were flooded with negative attack ads about wasteful liberal spending? Oh well, at least the Star Wars spending keeps money flowing, unfortunately into the wrong hands, but at least it’s flowing.

Posted by possibilianP | Report as abusive

failure and the analysis of why something failed is very important in any new system development. Eventually, you will have a reliable system. 20 billion a year isn’t much money in the grand scheme of things. It was estimated that at least 60 billion a year could be saved on medicare with tort reform, but our president said that was an insignificant amount of money compared to the total health cost.

Posted by zotdoc | Report as abusive

I had an neighbor who lived in Serbia when they were fighting the Americans in the 90s.
He was very amused and proud that the government published plans for tanks made from wood and painted canvas or plastic which locals could build out on farms or in parks.
The Americans would fly expensive missions to discover them, and then blow them up with expensive laser guided bombs, as the villagers all clapped and cheered.

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

Butt, Yousaf…it appears clear you have never built a complex production system…To best appreciate a work of art it is best to understand how difficult it is to paint or sculpt. To understand the complexities of soccer (football) it is best to play it first …To provide comment on this weekends British Open it is best to have played golf …and played it at the highest levels. It would be silly and superflous for example to have a football player provide golf commentary…This would be like….well like ….a physicist commenting on the complexities of building and testing a missile defense shield…Maybe instead you should ask if it is a politically good thing to do (because we’re all equally stupid when it comes to politics)….Maybe you should ask is it a good idea to move away from the cold war era of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)…Maybe MAD is a good enough deterrent against regimes that believe it is Allah’s will that Islam (as they see it) destroy the western world… MAD is a sure way to world destruction. A missile defense shield currently appears te only way to prevent MAD without getting rid of all the nukes/chem/bio missiles… Maybe you should be asking is it worth it to the world to work at developing a missile defense shield to prevent MAD as the only deterrent to global thermo nuclear war, instead of telling Michelson his swing sucks…

Posted by Geekster1015 | Report as abusive

Sigh. This article is all biased opinion and silly hyperbole – very little attempt to present rational reasons why this concept is bad or too expensive. For instance – of course a basic capabilities test is not going to be a 100% realistic simulation of combat conditions. Duh. The comparison to “practicing hunting by shooting a tied deer” is silly and just insults our intelligence – BMD is at the stage where they are only testing if the gun regularly fires straight. Emotional rants like ‘It will never ever ever work!’ just ring as hollow as ‘heavier than air flight is impossible!’. Also, all military systems are subject to enemy counter-measures. Again; duh. The answer here is to demand they design a platform that can be quickly updated to match new enemy developments instead of screaming “It’s a boondogle”. Alas, the real error seems to have been when the GWB administration (for political reasons) decided to rush missile defense into actual deployment, years before it was ready. Put this thing back into R&D, work out the bugs and *then* deploy it. Will it cost a lot of money? Of course, but having a credible missile defense is sadly a necessary reality for a few more decades it seems… and therefore a pretty worthy investment on a lot of levels. If you have fact-based counter-arguments, let’s hear em.

Posted by Agicola | Report as abusive

I like this article. It represents a common sense point of view over what is likely just a huge waste of money and government resources. However, upon seeing the news of this system’s third failure, I couldn’t help but wonder if the failure itself was intentional. Consider this: you’re amazing at pool. In fact, you’re so good that you use your prowess over a billiard table to make money off of those that challenge you. One day, you walk into a pool hall in the next town over because another well known, and very rich, billiard enthusiast plays there often. Assuming you’re better than he is, and you will ultimately beat him, he’s unlikely to place any large bets against a player he’s never met before that walks in and starts flexing his muscles, so to speak, all over the place. So you, being an experienced and world class pool hustler, play a few games on the next table over from him and perform under par. Once he notices and decides that you would be an easy target, you both place your bets and then you slaughter him. I know this sounds a little cartoonish, comparing our missile defense strategy to pool sharking, but I wonder about it none the less. How do any of us know that the government isn’t just waiting for North Korea or Iran to “bet big” with an ICBM strike? If by “failing” over and over again, with a system that we already know is 100% effective, we lure an enemy into attacking us, the government would be able to march into all out conventional war that same day and dispatch a looming threat that’s angering half the world with their threats. This just seems more likely to me than the U.S. military failing time and time again…and then publishing those failures in news that’s visible all over the world. If I trip and fall in my own house, and there’s nobody around to see it, I don’t brag about it to every person that will listen to me. I just can’t believe the government would be so forthcoming about the failures of the only functioning defense we have against a nuclear attack unless there was some clever, underlying reason for it.

Posted by coylewe | Report as abusive

Either you have never worked in the design and development of complex systems, or you want an end to missile defense development.

Every complex system endures many failures, unexpected setbacks, and unanticipated costs, because scientists and engineers must learn many new things in the course of development.Such work is not like building a house where all the potential problems are known and have been solved many times.

Complex system developers can only acknowledge that there will be “unknown unknowns” to discover and resolve before success. The only way to deal with that ever-present reality is to toss in a “fudge factor” for time and costs and hope that it is big enough to allow completion of the projects before someone yells “fraud”.

Calling a missile defense program “fake” because every test doesn’t go the way YOU think it should is either manifest ignorance or ill-intentioned sophistry.

Posted by BillyOccam | Report as abusive

[…] been a frequent source of criticisms given the trouble the systems have faced. Many have cited the high cost of each test of the national missile defense system, and their subsequent failures, as sufficient […]

Posted by Misconceptions of Missile Defense: “BMD Costs Too Much” | Missile Defense Review | Report as abusive