by Robert G. Gard
In his article “Missile Defense Hits the Mark: Increasing Success Undermines Critics” (Defense News, July 23, 2007), Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA), carries the traditional and laudable “can-do” attitude of the military too far. He claims an operational capability, yet to be demonstrated, for the Ground-Based Mid-Course (GMD) system, designed to protect the U.S. against a limited attack from warheads launched on long-range ballistic missiles by so-called rogue states. Such hyperbole not only misleads Congress and the public, but it could be dangerous if national security decision makers relied on an unproven defense in an emergency.
General Obering states flatly that the U.S. “had an operational capability to defend against a missile launched at the United States” at the time of North Korea’s abortive attempt in July 2006 to launch a Taepodong-2 missile with an estimated range of 2,500-3,700 miles. This, he says, provided the president with “an alternative other than pre-emption and retaliation.” He failed to mention that our huge nuclear arsenal and overwhelming conventional military superiority provide effective deterrence against such an attack.
There are two separate camps of wrongheaded critics of GMD, according to Obering: (1) the near-term deployment of the GMD system is misguided and (2) the system’s susceptibility to countermeasures makes its deployment an imprudent, futile exercise. There is, however, nothing mutually exclusive between the two points of view, and there is considerable evidence to support the critics. Count me as a charter member of both camps.
MDA has prematurely deployed elements of GMD, including 19 interceptors, while the complex system of systems is in its developmental phase. The fancy name for this approach is “spiral development,” sometimes called “concurrency.”
The idea is to accelerate operational capability by deploying a weapons system or its components in the developmental stage in the hope that only minor modifications will be necessary to correct the earlier mistakes in producing an operationally effective system.
Yet the Governmental Accountability Office, congressional oversight committees and even the Pentagon’s own Defense Science Board of outside industry experts have repeatedly warned of the perils of concurrency. This acquisition approach has led to notorious procurement fiascos and cancellation of unworkable systems after the government had spent billions of dollars.
Premature deployment of a complex system of systems runs a high risk that critical technologies will not function as intended. At best, this can result in significantly increased costs, but more likely a necessity to return to the drawing boards for re-design, with the resultant waste of billions of dollars in the case of GMD.
Moreover, a key element of the GMD system is not even scheduled for completion until far into the future. The Missile Defense Agency has characterized the Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS) as “an essential element” in all but a most rudimentary mid-course system. The launch of test satellites just to determine the feasibility of tracking missiles and warheads from space has been postponed yet again. Even if the technology should prove to work, deployment of this sub-system cannot be accomplished until well into the next decade at the earliest.
When asked about the capability of the GMD system in August of 2006, after the claim of operational capability during the Korean missile test, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, hardly one of the critics, said he would withhold judgment until all the pieces are put together in operational tests, which are not yet even scheduled.
There are credible technically qualified critics who believe that there is no current technology, nor any in sight, that can defeat countermeasures easily available to any nation, even a rogue state, that can develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). A 1999 National Intelligence Estimate of the Ballistic Missile Threat through 2015 concluded that any country that can flight test an ICBM will be able to develop countermeasures to penetrate a missile defense system.
This confirmed an Office of Technology Assessment report of 1988 noting that decoy designs are very difficult to counter with passive infrared sensors in conjunction with radar, the only capability currently available. Previously, the defense Science Board in a 1987 review concluded that passive infrared sensors could discriminate only the most primitive decoys and debris.
The former Chief Scientist and Deputy Director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, George Rathjens, and the former chair of the Federation of American Scientists, Karl Kaysen, more recently expressed strong doubts that the problem of discriminating between incoming warheads and countermeasures could be solved in the near future, if ever.
These evaluations and their own personal knowledge have led a former director of the Defense Test and Evaluation Agency, Philip Coyle, to conclude that GMD is “a scarecrow, not a defense.” A distinguished defense scientist, Richard Garwin, has stated in characteristically blunt terms that GMD is “totally useless.”
Perhaps unintentionally, General Obering appeared to confirm the problem presented by countermeasures by stating in his article that “the Multiple Kill Vehicle system…will allow us to handle decoys and countermeasures.” Not only is his conclusion questionable, but the complex sub-system to which he refers is in its early developmental phase.
Since the launch of a ballistic missile can be traced to its source, it is highly doubtful that a rogue state would choose to attack the U.S. in this fashion, thereby inviting a devastating retaliatory strike. Even in the unlikely event that the expensive GMD system of systems eventually proves workable, the opportunity cost of its deployment should be compared to expending the funds to counter more likely threats to U.S. security.