Center for Arms Control

by Robert G. Gard [contact information]

Missile Defense Update 2011: Questions Remain

The U.S. is engaged in a prolonged, highly expensive and only occasionally successful program to develop a layered, integrated system of systems to defend the homeland, troops and facilities abroad, and some allies from ballistic missile attacks.

Defense against ballistic missiles includes short range (less than 1,000 kilometers), medium range (1,000 to 3,000 kilometers), intermediate range (3,000 to 5,500 kilometers) and long range or inter-continental (greater than 5,500 kilometers). Ballistic missiles are guided in their boost phase by a rocket or rockets into a high-arched parabolic trajectory. The mid-course stage of flight of intermediate range and inter-continental long range ballistic missiles is in space, above the earth’s atmosphere.

In all, the United States has spent tens of billions of dollars since the 1950s trying to develop a system to protect against Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, and has largely come up empty. It was not until 1983, with President Ronald Reagan's speech on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), nicknamed "Star Wars," that expanded research and development on missile defense programs notably accelerated. The Star Wars program aimed to establish combined ground- and space-based missile defense systems to protect against any and all strategic nuclear ballistic missiles by forming a "protective bubble." This complex endeavor soon raised skepticism about its technological feasibility and affordability, forcing succeeding administrations to pursue less ambitious missile defense programs to counter intercontinental ballistic missiles.

National Missile Defense; the Ground-Based Mid-Course System (GMD)

The Missile Defense Act of 1999 requires the U.S. “to deploy as soon as is technologically feasible an effective National Missile Defense system that is capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack” (emphasis added). To satisfy the criteria of effectiveness and capability, the system must demonstrate in realistic operational tests that it can reliably intercept the warheads of a few ballistic missiles targeted against the U.S. homeland.

Yet in 2002, when the ground based interceptor was in the preliminary phase of testing and other components of the system were still in the early stages of development, President Bush ordered the deployment of interceptors by fall 2004 to counter a limited attack by North Korea or Iran. At the same time, to enable this deployment, Bush gave notice that the United States would withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that had limited the deployment of United States and Russian (formerly Soviet Union) missile defense systems.

A new concept, called “spiral development,” was intended to provide an operational capability during the development and testing periods by making necessary adjustments to the deployed elements of the system as needed. However, premature production and deployment risks concealing major design flaws, making it difficult to diagnose and correct problems, which is likely to result in sharply increased corrective costs. The Government Accountability Office reported in 2007 that the Missile Defense Agency had incorporated “less reliable or inappropriate parts … in deployed interceptors, raising questions about their reliability”; and in 2008 it noted that “the reliability of some interceptors could be affected by problematic parts that have not been replaced yet,” and that a retrofit effort, costing millions of dollars, was not scheduled for completion until 2012.

There are currently 30 deployed interceptors, 26 at Fort Greely, Alaska, and four at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, with a Congressionally-imposed mandate to construct 8 additional silos as backup at Fort Greely. In the more than eight years since President Bush ordered deployment, there have been seven interceptor flight tests; four of the seven failed to achieve intercept, even in highly scripted conditions. Because the system is still in development, there are as yet no plans to test the system in its actual operational configuration and environment.

Key components of the system are still under development. The director of the Missile Defense Agency has stated that the Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS) is an essential element in all but the most rudimentary missile defense system. The launch in September 2009 of two demonstration satellites to determine the feasibility of tracking missiles from space was delayed for several years. The program, re-named the Precision Tracking Space System (PTSS), now calls for placing in orbit for mid-course tracking and a limited discrimination capability a nine to 12 satellite constellation before the end of the decade, although 18 is considered the minimum number of satellites necessary to cover all key regions.

In his 2010 report, the director of the Department of Defense Operational Test and Evaluation office stated that ground and computer tests “suggest” that the Ground-Based Mid-Course system can provide a capability to defend the U.S. against a limited number of long-range ballistic missiles with “uncomplicated emerging threat warheads”, meaning with no or very simple decoys or other counter-measures. Yet in a 1999 National Intelligence Estimate, the U.S. National Intelligence Council stated: “We assess that countries developing ballistic missiles,” including North Korea and Iran, “would also develop various responses to U.S. theatre and national defenses … by the time they flight test their missiles.” This is the Achilles heel of the system.

The Defense Science Board and the Office of Technology Assessment have explained the difficulty of discriminating between warheads and decoys or debris with infrared sensors in conjunction with radar, the only method currently employed or planned for the future. The former chief scientist and deputy director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, George Rathjens, and the former director of the Institute of Advanced Studies and chair of the Federation of American Scientists, Karl Kaysen, have expressed strong doubts that the problem of discriminating between incoming warheads and countermeasures could be solved in the near future, if ever. As early as July 1998, a distinguished defense scientist, Richard Garwin, warned that a ballistic missile threat with even simple countermeasures cannot be defeated.

Then director of the Missile Defense Agency, Lt. General Obering, confirmed the problem posed by countermeasures by declaring in 2007 that “the Multiple Kill Vehicle system,” then in a conceptual stage, “will allow us to handle decoys and countermeasures.” Not only was that conclusion questionable at the time, but the system showed so little promise that it has since been canceled. Philip Coyle, a former director of the Defense Operational? Test and Evaluation Agency, has characterized the Ground-Based Mid-Course System as “a scarecrow, not a defense.” Garwin was blunter in calling the system “totally useless.”

Even if there were some prospect of eventually dealing successfully with the problem of countermeasures, continuing the development of the Ground-Based Mid-Course system does not appear to be a cost-effective defense expenditure. Since the launch of a long range ballistic missile is easily traceable to its source, it is highly unlikely that a rogue state would choose this suicidal form of attack, thereby inviting a devastating retaliatory strike. It would be technologically simpler and much less expensive to attack the United States with a cruise missile from a ship off the coast or to smuggle a weapon across the border. The current version of the of the Fiscal Year 2011 budget calls for spending $1.346 billion on this long range system, and the administration has requested $1.161 billion for Fiscal 2012. Options for expending funds to deploy this system for more likely threats to U.S. security should be considered, along with simply canceling the program to reduce the deficit.

Boost Phase Defenses; A concept that has failed to deal with long range missiles

If it were possible to shoot down inter-continental ballistic missile in its boost or launch phase while the booster rockets are burning and before the warhead and decoys or other countermeasures are released to enter space, the discrimination problem could be avoided. There have been programs to try to develop missile defense systems to attack long range ballistic missiles during the boost phase of their flight.

The Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI) was conceived as a mobile land- and sea-based system to attack ballistic missiles in their boost phase. The problem that could not be solved was to design a fast enough interceptor to catch up with ballistic missiles during the short duration of the boost phase of their flights. As soon as the missile reaches full velocity at burnout of the booster rockets, it can deploy its payload. With the advances in technology to solid-fueled booster rockets, the time to burnout was reduced from five minutes in the 1980s to three minutes in the 90s to slightly over two minutes, breaking clouds in 50 seconds and leaving only 75 seconds for engagement. Even with a rapid interceptor, the only conceivable operationally effective system would need to be stationed close to the North Korean coast to intercept the slower liquid fueled missiles. The program was canceled in 2009 after expenditures of $4.5 billion over eight years.

On May 20, 2009, Secretary of Defense Roberts Gates explained to the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee why the system was killed:

First of all, this was to have been a five-year development program and it now looks like it's about a 16-year development program. As you suggest, there's not been a single flight test. There are a couple of more static tests, as I understand it, that have to take place before a test of the booster. There's been little work on the third stage or the kill vehicle, which are obviously critical.

But a big part of the problem with this program is that it needs to be close to the launch site to be able to be effective. And so it has -- the only potential country where it could have a role with some confidence would be North Korea. It has poor capability against Iran and virtually no capability against either Russia or Chinese launch facilities. And so you have a very limited capability here at considerable cost.

The other problem that we have is we don't know what to put it on. The missile's 38 or 39 feet long. It weighs 12 tons. There's no extant ship that we can put it on. We would have to design a new ship to put it on. And as I say, it would have to operate in close proximity to the territorial waters of these countries.

The Airborne Laser program envisioned mounting a series of six chemical/oxygen/iodine laser systems, each the size of a Chevy Suburban Sports Utility Vehicle, end-to-end aboard a modified Boeing 747 cargo aircraft so that the laser beams could be combined and aimed through the turret in the nose of the aircraft to attack ballistic missiles in their boost phase. In addition to serious technical problems with the laser complex, a basic limitation is the range of the system; the aircraft must be so close to the missile launch site that it is vulnerable to air defenses. The Chief of Staff of the Air Force agreed with Secretary of Defense Gates that the chemical laser is too heavy and unreliable for wartime use. After spending some $5.2 billion on the program, it has been relegated to a demonstration research and development project to promote the potential of advanced directed energy.

Secretary Gates explained during the same hearing the decision to halt most work on the airborne laser:

“I don't know anybody at the Department of Defense, Mr. Tiahrt, who thinks that this program [airborne laser] should, or would, ever be operationally deployed. The reality is that you would need a laser something like 20 to 30 times more powerful than the chemical laser in the plane right now to be able to get any distance from the launch site to fire. So, right now the ABL would have to orbit inside the borders of Iran in order to be able to try and use its laser to shoot down that missile in the boost phase. And if you were to operationalize this you would be looking at 10 to 20 747s, at a billion and a half dollars apiece, and $100 million a year to operate. And there's nobody in uniform that I know who believes that this is a workable concept.

At the same hearing, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen added:

“I'd only say I've been in and out of missile defense since the mid-90s, and we've made a lot of progress on the near-term threats, where this investment goes. The challenges that we have in boost phase, specifically in boost phase, are enormous. I've felt ABL's been a flawed concept for years, quite frankly, because it made no sense ….”

Shorter-range missile defense: Aegis Missile Defense System

Originally designed to protect against aircraft and low-flying anti-ship cruise missiles, the Aegis system evolved with its SM-2 missile to counter short range ballistic missiles in the terminal phase of their flight. In its next phase, the SM-3 Block IA missile, a three stage interceptor employing hit-to-kill technology, has been designed to attack short and medium range ballistic missiles during the mid-course of their flight. By the end of October 2010, 19 ships, four cruisers and 15 destroyers, were equipped with this Aegis system, including SM-3 interceptors and radars. The plan is to reach 23 ships with 106 interceptors by the end of Fiscal Year 2011 and 38 ships by 2015, and to integrate them with an evolving network of land- and space-based sensors.

What gives the Aegis system longer legs, however, was President Obama’s announcement on September 17, 2009, of a new approach for missile defense in Europe in place of the Bush-planned system for establishing a third site for National Missile Defense in Poland and the Czech Republic. The revised system, to be deployed in phases of increasing capability, is called the “European Phased Adaptive Approach” (EPAA). The Administration argued that the new system could be deployed sooner, and would cover a larger area against nearer term actual threats than the previous plan.

The first phase is to station Aegis ships on patrol in the Mediterranean and North Seas, augmented by a forward based mobile X-Band radar on land in Turkey or Bulgaria. In March 2011, a cruiser, the USS Monterey, equipped with Aegis radar and interceptors, headed to the Mediterranean to begin deployment of the system.

Phase II of the plan, to be implemented by 2015, is to deploy 180 SM-3 Block IB missiles, with an improved warhead and optics, along with 112 Block IA interceptors, on ships whose stationing will be extended to the Black Sea. In addition, Ground-based Aegis Ashore interceptors will be deployed in Europe, probably Romania, perhaps augmented by airborne infra-red sensors.

Phase III, to be accomplished by 2018, envisages expansion of the Aegis system to 43 ships, deployment of a second field of Aegis Ashore missiles, probably in Poland, the addition of space-based sensors and the introduction of SM-3 Block IIA interceptors, with improved seeker optics and more powerful and faster booster motors, able to reach intermediate range missiles, possibly with a limited capability to attack inter-continental ballistic missiles.

Phase IV, still in the conceptual stage, will deploy by 2020 SM-3 Block IIB missiles, with a further improved booster, seeker and kill vehicle, presumably capable of defeating inter-continental ballistic missiles.

Since the current and near term threats to Europe from Iran are short and medium range ballistic missiles, deploying the Aegis system appears more appropriate than a third Ground-Based Mid-Course site. Although the Aegis system has been tested successfully against short and medium range ballistic missiles, questions have been raised concerning whether the tests were realistic enough to conclude that the system actually is operationally effective. Moreover, the compressed third and fourth phases of the Phased Adaptive Approach raise the same intractable problems faced by the Ground-Based Mid-Course system in intercepting warheads in space in that it also will rely on infra red technology augmented by radar.

In a report released in January 2011, the Government Accountability Office warned that the missile defense plans for Europe lack clear guidance, a fully integrated schedule and life cycle costs, and face potential cost overruns and uncertainty about the system’s capacity to counter missile threats from the Middle East. J. Michael Gilmore, director of the Department of Defense’s Operational Test and Evaluation Office, stated in June 2010: “ It will take as many as five to seven years to collect the data necessary to determine whether the administration’s planned missile defense architecture is sensible.” Harking back to experience with the Ground-Based Mid-Course system, the Government Accountability Office in a report released in March 2011 warned of “a risk that that key components [of the Phased Adaptive Approach] will start production before demonstrating system performance” and cautioned that “In the past, similar deficiencies in missile defense acquisition oversight have led to rework, cost increases, delays, and doubts about delivered capabilities.”

NATO Missile Defense and cooperation with Russia

In March 2005, after considerable uncertainty, NATO declared its decision to develop an active, layered theater missile defense system to protect its military forces and installations from short and medium range ballistic missiles. A NATO feasibility study concluded in May 2006 that the alliance could construct a system capable of defending European countries from missile threats from Iran, Syria and North Korea. A test bed was established in February 2008, with the intent to have “robust protection of deployed forces against short and medium range missiles” in place by 2016. Alliance navies have been equipping air defense ships with long range radars that can be upgraded with early warning capability against a ballistic missile attack.

One key element of the NATO system, to be integrated into the European sensor and fire control complex, was the Trans-Atlantic Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS), capable of defending against aircraft, drones and short and medium range missiles. It started in 1999 as a cooperative development project, with the U.S. funding 55% of the costs, Germany 28% and Italy 17%. The concept included a multi-functional fire control radar with 360 degree coverage, capable of precision tracking and classifying and discriminating among targets. The intent was that the system would replace the antiquated Nike Hercules in Italy, the almost as ancient Hawk in Germany, and even the Patriot in the U.S. arsenal.

However, with increasing doubts regarding the system’s potential, combined with significant cost overruns, the U.S. announced in February 2011 that it would not procure the system; but because of a previously successful critical design review, it will continue funding “proof of concept” development costs of $804 million through Fiscal Year 2013 to prevent even larger expenditures for cancellation penalties and to provide meaningful potential capabilities for its partners, Germany and Italy, and possible future options for the U.S. As the Secretary General of NATO observed recently, there is no clear understanding of what the European missile defense system should be.

However specious the validity, Russia has continued to express concern that deployment in or near Europe by the U.S. of a missile defense system to defend against long range ballistic missiles could threaten its strategic retaliatory capability. At the summit meeting in Lisbon in November 2010, the U.S. and Russia agreed to seek ways to cooperate in developing a European missile defense system. The U.S. and NATO prefer the coordination of two independent NATO and Russian systems with some sharing of data, while Russia has expressed a strong desire to participate in the development of a more closely coordinated joint system, beginning with a threat assessment and including “legal guarantees” that a U.S. system will not be directed against Russia.

To keep the re-set with Russia on track and secure Russian cooperation in further arms control measures, it is important to ameliorate Russian suspicions by finding a way to cooperate with Moscow in European missile defense. Technically, reassuring the Russians should not be difficult. Yuri Solomonov, a top official at the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology, stated in January 2011 that Russia had developed a new type of ballistic missile payload with directed delivery that “will put an end to all talk regarding our battle with a non-existent missile defense system of a potential adversary.”

Terminal Defense; 30 seconds for ICBMs

The terminal phase of an ICBM, after it re-enters the atmosphere, lasts only 30 seconds. Thus far, there is no system under development to deal with ICBMs in this phase of their flight. So defense of the mainland against long range ballistic missiles by an anti-missile system remains dependent on mid-course intercept in space with infra-red technology combined with radar, which can be defeated by decoys or other countermeasures.


The Patriot system was designed originally in the 1960s and 70s to defend against aircraft. It was modified just before the 1991 Gulf war to attack short range tactical ballistic missiles in the terminal phase of their flight. It was credited initially by the Army with successfully destroying Iraqi missiles during that conflict, but later analysis determined that the system had been largely ineffective. New software installed in the system after the war failed to solve identification problems.

During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it was estimated that Iraq fired 19 short range ballistic missiles; eight were reportedly destroyed by the firing of 22 Patriot interceptors and 11 were not engaged. However, a British Tornado jet was misperceived as an incoming missile and was shot down, killing both crew members; and two Patriot missiles destroyed a U.S. Hornet aircraft, killing the pilot. A U.S. F-16 pilot received a signal that his aircraft was being targeted by radar; so he fired a missile that hit the source – a Patriot missile defense site.

British and American post-conflict investigations concluded that the Patriot radar produced false targets caused by equipment problems, aircraft radar jammers and other electromagnetic interference and clutter from nearby radars and communication systems; that its computer system was not reliable in differentiating between incoming missiles and Identification Friend and Foe systems on aircraft; that its communication equipment was insufficient for awareness of air operations in its area of operation and full integration into the joint battle space; and that the training of its crews had been unrealistic.

Additional problems with the Patriot include the fact that its computer identifies objects being tracked by the radar and displays them immediately as symbols on a screen; if the symbol for an incoming missile is displayed, the operator has only a few seconds to override the automatic firing of interceptors. The Patriot’s software is proprietary, meaning that it cannot be linked quickly with other systems. It remains to be seen if the Patriot has been modified to correct these shortcomings. Meanwhile, developments are underway to extend the system’s capability to engage incoming missiles at higher altitudes and longer ranges.

Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD)

The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD) employs a single rocket booster on a truck-mounted launcher, with interceptors, radar, fire control and support equipment, to attack short and medium range ballistic missiles during the terminal phase of their flight at higher altitudes than Patriot. After developmental difficulties, it resumed flight intercept tests in 2006, and reached the point of activation of tactical units beginning in 2008. A longer range, more powerful booster is under development to achieve greater range.


Expenditures for a layered missile defense system of systems continue to consume a disproportionate amount of the national security budget compared with more cost effective defense measures.

Funding Requests For Ballistic Missile Defense

Total Ballistic Missile Defense Agency Budget Requests

$10,219.9 million -- FY’11
$10,671.6 million -- FY’12

Ballistic Missile Defense – Administration Budget Requests for Selected Functions

Ground-Based Mid-Course Defense (GMD)
$1,346.2 million -- FY’11
$1,161.0 million -- FY’12

$1,561.4 million -- FY’11
$1,525.7 million -- FY’12

Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD)
$1,295.4 million -- FY’11
$1,174.7 million -- FY’12

Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS)
$467.1 million -- FY’11
$406.6million -- FY’12

Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3)
$561.2 million -- FY’11
$877.1 million -- FY’12

Other Ballistic Missile Program

Space Based Infra-Red System-High (SBIRS-High), for early warning of launches
$1,525.5 million -- FY’11
$995.2 million -- FY’12

GRAND TOTAL Ballistic Missile Defense Budget Requests
$11,745.4 million -- FY’11
$11,666.8 million -- FY’12


Funding to deploy the Ground-Based Mid-Course missile defense system to defend the homeland should be reallocated to counter other more likely threats to national security. Research and development on tactical system to defend our troops, installations and allies should continue, and systems should be procured when realistic operational tests demonstrate that they are effective.

Robert G. Gard 202-546-0795 ext. 2111

Lt. General Robert G. Gard, Jr. (USA, ret.) is Chairman of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation where his work focuses on nuclear nonproliferation, missile defense, Iraq, Afghanistan, military policy, nuclear terrorism, and related national security issues. Gard has written for well-known periodicals that focus on military and international affairs and lectured widely at U.S. and international universities and academic conferences.

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