by John Isaacs
Current national missile defense deployment plans
The initial deployment of land-based interceptors designed to smash into enemy warheads headed toward the U.S. is scheduled for calendar 2004. The Pentagon originally announced plans to deploy 10 interceptors in Alaska and California by September 2004, just before the election. It is likely that the Administration will deploy fewer than 10 interceptors by that date, although it may declare the system operational earlier in the year when a few interceptors are in place. Six of the interceptors are slated for Fort Greely in Alaska and four at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Up to 30 more interceptors are slated to be deployed in 2005 and 2006 at these two sites and a third unnamed site. The present plan calls for three Aegis cruisers to be operational by 2005 with up to 10 improved SM-3 missiles for theater or short-range missile defense.
Administration’s latest budget request
The request for fiscal 2005 is $10.2 billion, the largest single Pentagon weapons program and a 13% increase over the fiscal 2004 program. About $3.2 billion of that would go to the ground-based mid-course system (GMD) that is slated to be deployed later this year. If the Space Based Infra-Red System-High (SBIRS-high) is included, the total request for missile defense for the next year is $10.7 billion.
Major elements of ground-based midcourse defense
This system will eventually consist of six main components: 1) early warning radars for prompt detection of a missile launch, 2) defense support satellites to track warheads in space and discriminate between warheads and decoys, 3) X-band radar also for tracking, fire control support and discrimination, 4) interceptors called exoatmospheric kill vehicles (EKV), 5) command and control center, 6) booster rockets to send the interceptors into space
What is not included in the first deployment
The Pentagon is currently exploring a system with many layers, including interceptors based at sea, in the air and in space, a system to attack rockets shortly after takeoff (boost phase defense) as well as immediately before landing (terminal defense). The theory is to build many layers of defenses so attacking warheads might have to overcome many gauntlets. However, these other defenses are far into the future. There are a number of theater missile systems — shorter range systems — such as Patriot, THAAD, and MEADS — that are totally separate from the national missile defense system.
Potential attacks to be defended
The initial deployment is designed to protect against an attack from a one or two nuclear warheads launched from North Korea.
Testing of national missile defense
The system to be deployed later this year has undergone eight intercept tests (trying to hit a target in space), the latest in December 2002. All these tests have occurred in highly scripted, unrealistic test environment; even so, only five of 8 were successful. The tests included simple targets, only a few decoys and used an unrealistic target missile trajectory. Moreover, because of the pressure to deploy this year, four of the six intercept tests originally planned to be held by October 2004 have been canceled since deployment was announced in December 2002. In all, the Missile Defense Agency has eliminated nine of 20 planned intercept tests, citing a shortage of missiles and other factors.
Total cost of program
The cost of all missile defense programs will be between $8 – $10 billion per year for the next six years. Total costs have been estimated to be between $100 billion and $1 trillion by the year 2030. The Pentagon refuses to provide a cost estimate.
Technical difficulties with deployment in 2004
- The system has not even completed its developmental tests, much less its operational tests under realistic combat conditions.
- The booster rocket for the system has suffered many development problems, and is behind schedule.
- A ground-based X-band radar needed to enhance satellite tracking is not scheduled to be fielded any time soon.
- A sea-based X-band radar which is needed to enhance satellite tracking is not scheduled to be fielded until 2005 at the earliest.
- An infrared satellite system capable of tracking incoming missiles, discriminating warheads from decoys and helping guide the interceptor will not be in place for many years.
- The system cannot deal with decoys and countermeasures.
What the Pentagon’s testing office says
Thomas Christie, director of the Pentagon’s Office of Operational Test and Evaluation, confirmed in a March 11 hearing that there is no way to determine if the system will work. When Sen. Jack Reed asked: “At this time, we cannot be sure that the actual system would work against a real North Korean missile threat?,” Christie replied: “ I would say that’s true.”
Christie’s earlier evaluation of missile defense produced a skeptical view of the system to be deployed. From a January 21 Bloomberg article by Anthony Capaccio, “The U.S. missile defense system may not work when it’s deployed Oct. 1, the Pentagon’s top weapons tester says. Tests to date haven’t really challenged the ground-based system, and two intercepts slated this year leave ‘very limited time’ to show key components are capable, Thomas Christie says. ‘Even with successful intercepts in both these attempts, the small number of tests would limit confidence’ in the interceptor missiles and their hit-to-kill warheads to perform as part of an integrated system, Christie writes his annual assessment of major U.S. weapons programs … ‘Delays in production and testing of the two booster design have put tremendous pressure on the test schedule immediately prior to fielding,’ Christie writes. ‘At this point, it is not clear what mission capability will be demonstrated prior to initial defensive operations.’”
What the General Accounting Office says
In an April 2004 report, the GAO stated: “As a result of testing shortfalls and the limited time available to test the BMDS [Ballistic Missile Defense System] being fielded, system effectiveness will be largely unproven when the initial capability goes on alert at the end of September 2004.”
It went on to say: “MDA [Missile Defense Agency] predicts with confidence that the September 2004 defensive capability will provide protection of the United States against limited attacks from Northeast Asia. However, testing in 2003 did little to demonstrate the predicted effectiveness of the system’s capability to defeat ballistic missiles as an integrated system. None of the components of the defensive capability have yet to be flight tested in their fielded configuration (i.e., using production-representative hardware).”
[For a copy of GAO-04-254, see http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d04409.pdf]
A Program on International Policy Attitudes conducted a poll on March 16-22, 2004. When asked 68% of the public said that the U.S. should “do more research until such a system is proven to be effective” while 21% supported “Building a missile defense system right away.” A Gallup poll released in March 2004 asked “Do you think the government should or should not spend the money that would be required for research and possible development of such a system, or are you unsure,” 46% said the government should spend the money, 21% said should not, and 33% were unsure.
Is deploying something better than nothing?
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has argued that an incomplete missile defense is better than none at all: “I think that it is certainly better to have that capability than to not have it.” (December 17, 2002 press conference). The Pentagon has many times decided to abandon programs because they were over cost, behind schedule or underperforming — and sometimes all three — including the Comanche helicopter and the Crusader. Many times nothing is better than an underperforming system that wastes money or is not ready for prime time. Premature deployment may well give both policy makers and the American people a false sense of security. If a military confrontation with a nuclear-armed adversary broke out in a few years, it is not hard to imagine that American leaders will rely on a missile shield as French leaders mistakenly relied on an inadequate Maginot Line before World War II.
For further information: John Isaacs
Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, 322 4th Street, NE, Washington, D.C. 20002 202 543-4100 ×131 firstname.lastname@example.org