Let’s end bogus missile defense testing
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