President Bush has announced plans to begin deployment of a strategic missile defense by September 30, 2004. The initial deployment will include six silos at Fort Greely, Alaska, and four at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California; each silo will contain one interceptor missile. More are to follow in succeeding years.
Site preparation has already begun. The system will consist of satellites with heat-sensing capability to detect the launch of ballistic missiles in Asia, land-based and sea-based radars to track those missiles as they travel toward the United States, and ground-based interceptor missiles that carry exo-atmospheric kill vehicles (EKV’s — exo-atmospheric means above the atmosphere). After being released, an EKV is supposed to be guided to the hostile warhead by onboard infrared sensors and to destroy it by direct impact.
The system is called ground-based midcourse defense (GMD). It is only the first phase of a much more ambitious program whose ultimate aim is deployment of a multi-layered system, including a boost-phase component.
In evaluating any proposed weapon system, one must address the following questions:
- What is the mission of the system?
- How much will the system (assuming it is capable of accomplishing its mission) contribute to U.S. security?
- Will it work?
- Is it cost-effective? Could the funds dedicated to it be more fruitfully expended in some other fashion?
- Will it have any unintended consequences that adversely affect U.S. security?
The GMD as currently configured fails on practically all counts.
The stated mission of the GMD is to defend the United States from a missile attack launched by some rogue state, intially North Korea. How plausible is such an attack? North Korea is pursuing a nuclear weapons program, and has tested some intermediate-range ballistic missiles. In time, it might have a few missiles capable of reaching the United States, and might be able to arm them with nuclear warheads. But it would be an act of lunacy for the Koreans to launch a missile attack against us, knowing the kind of retaliation that would inevitably follow.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union, with a far greater offensive capability than North Korea ever can hope to achieve, was deterred from using nuclear weapons against us. Unless Kim Jong Il has suicidal tendencies, he has no intention of using his nuclear capability, if he ever attains one, in a ballistic missile strike against the United States. In short, the proposed GMD, if it works, will protect us against an attack whose likelihood is miniscule.
There is another possible mission for GMD, not prominently discussed by the administration. Possession of a nuclear capability, even a tiny one, would give N. Korea some degree of deterrence against us. If President Bush (or some future president) were to contemplate attacking N. Korea, he might be dissuaded from doing so if he feared that the Koreans could deliver even one or two nuclear-armed missiles on American soil. This is in fact the most plausible motive for N. Korea to pursue a nuclear program. A defensive system like GMD could negate the Korean deterrent. But in order to do so, it would have to function nearly perfectly.
What about Al-Qaeda or some other terrorist group?
Terrorists would surely not be deterred by any threat of retaliation; they have repeatedly demonstrated their readiness to commit suicide in pursuit of their objectives. But even if a terrorist group managed to steal a nuclear weapon or to cajole one from some friendly state, it is most unlikely to gain access to intercontinental missiles as well as the means to launch and guide them. A much more credible scenario entails a terrorist group sneaking a small nuclear weapon into the United States, perhaps on a freighter, and detonating it in a crowded city. The proposed GMD (or any other ballistic missile defense) would offer no protection from such an attack.
Will the proposed system work?
GMD is not as outlandish a scheme as was Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars, but the technology is still highly complex. The system might actually work, but no one can be sure, because it has been insufficiently tested. Some developmental tests have been successful; several have failed. Moreover, all tests to date have been carried out under unrealistic conditions. For example, the defense has been told the launch point and launch time of the target missile as well as its planned trajectory. Eventually, the system must be subjected to operational testing, with a booster taken from the inventory pitted against a target missile launched without advance notice and equipped with sophisticated decoys and other countermeasures such as a dedicated enemy is likely to employ. No tests of that kind have yet been carried out.
In all tests to date, a radio beacon has been attached to the target; data from this beacon are used to calculate the intercept point. No test has been carried out at night, or against a tumbling re-entry vehicle, or against multiple targets. The decoys employed have been very crude, designed for easy discrimination. Moreover, all tests have used modified boosters from Minuteman missiles rather than boosters designed for the new system, because development of the new booster rockets is way behind schedule. In two embarrassing failures, the kill vehicle failed to separate from the booster.
GMD was supposed to employ two new satellite systems: SBIRS-High (Space-Based Infrared Satellite) and SBIRS-Low. SBIRS-High is years behind schedule, with costs mounting and not a single satellite yet launched. In 2002 SBIRS-Low was restructured and renamed Space Tracking and Surveillance System (SSTS). The system configuration has yet to be decided, and no operational testing is likely this decade.
A recent report by the General Accounting Office, the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, is highly critical of the decision to modify the old Cobra Dane radar in Alaska to serve as the key tracking radar for GMD. Cobra Dane is not well situated to track missiles launched from N. Korea. Moreover, the many software changes required to adapt the radar to its new mission will not be subjected to live testing before the system is declared operational; in fact, there are no plans for an intercept test involving Cobra Dane.
The critical task of midcourse tracking and decoy discrimination was assigned to an X-band radar. The current plan is to deploy one x-band radar on a floating platform, modified from a deep-sea oil rig design. The platform is undergoing design modifications in Texas and is not expected to have the radar assembled to it until sometime in 2005. It must then undergo seven months of testing before being towed around South America to get to Alaska. This radar is programmed to be used solely for testing, not as an operational asset.
In short, some essential components of the proposed GMD exist only on the drawing board. Others are under construction and have never been tested. Many components that do exist are in early stages of testing and need significant upgrading and testing before being integrated into the deployed system. Never has so inadequately tested a weapon system been deployed by the U.S. military.
The prudent course under the circumstances would be to continue testing until the effectiveness of the system has been demonstrated. At the present rate of testing, that could take ten years or more; it is most unlikely that deployment of an adequately tested GMD system could take place within a second Bush administration. Instead, the President has decided to reverse the usual order and deploy before testing is complete.
The project managers and engineers must have been as surprised as anyone to learn of the president’s deployment decision. That decision has probably had an adverse effect on the test program, as project priorities have been revamped to meet the deployment deadline. The testing program has in fact been scaled back. Some scheduled tests have been delayed and nine of the 20 remaining have been canceled; others have been “dumbed down” to less demanding tasks.
Why the rush?
In an emergency, it might be necessary to field an insufficiently tested weapon in order to fill a dangerous gap in our force structure. But the present situation clearly is not such a case. “Any system is better than nothing,” is the best that Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld can say. A cynic might point out that the scheduled deployment date for GMD is just a month before the 2004 election. The President will announce with great fanfare that, for the first time, American cities are protected from attack by enemy missiles. And the public will be unaware of what a sham that protection will be.
The cost of the proposed GMD system has been roughly estimated at $70 billion. As modern weapons systems go, this is relatively cheap. But $70 billion is not a trivial sum, and we can be sure that the final cost will be much greater. In essence, it will be money poured down the drain. A far better use for the money would be to fund badly needed improvements in domestic security, to say nothing of the long array of unmet human needs.
Finally, we should ask how the proposed system is likely to affect our relations with other states. China cannot help but view GMD with alarm, since it would appear to constitute a potential threat to its modest deterrent capability. Intelligence estimates suggest that the Chinese, who now have about 20 operational ICBMs, are likely to increase their force to about 200 if the US deploys a ballistic missile defense; that surely would not be a desirable development.
The Russian nuclear arsenal remains the greatest potential threat to the United States. Reducing the American and Russian arsenals to much lower levels would contribute more to U.S. security than would deploying a ballistic missile defense of dubious effectiveness. But that goal, already set back by the president’s abrogation of the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty, would be further jeopardized by U.S. deployment of GMD. The Russian leadership will look on GMD as only the first step toward a system that could ultimately threaten their deterrent, and will want to retain a substantial force as a hedge against that possibility.
NOTE: Some of the facts cited in this article are taken from Philip E. Coyle, Is Missile Defense on Target? Arms Control Today, Oct 2003, pp 7-14.
Authored by Leo Sartori
Leo Sartori is emeritus professor of physics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. From 1978 until 1981 he served at the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and took part in the SALT II negotiations.