Keeping Watch: Flawed Senate Bill to Expand National Missile Defense

As the pieces come together for a 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), it is important to watch for efforts to incorporate harmful policy changes. The process of assembling and passing an NDAA is exhausting, and there will be great incentive to finish even a version that contains deeply flawed minor provisions. One such potential provision currently gestating in the Senate would mandate billions in spending on an unproven system with a troubled development history.

On May 22, a bipartisan group of senators led by Dan Sullivan (R-AK) introduced the “Advancing American Missile Defense Act” (AAMDA), citing the threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. Sen. Sullivan now plans to file the bill as an amendment to the NDAA. The existing homeland missile defense program, Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD), conducted a successful test on May 30, but suffers from immense cost overrun and an uninspiring record of regular test failures in highly scripted environments. The bill does not provide a path for fixing GMD as an effective response to the North Korean missile threat; instead, it expands the program, at enormous expense and without addressing the actual technical and organizational challenges that it faces.

GMD works by launching interceptor missiles that hit and destroy long-range ballistic missiles in the middle stage of their flight. The United States currently deploys 37 interceptors and plans to deploy a total of 44 by the end of 2017 (40 in Alaska and four in California). The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) declared GMD operational in 2004, before thorough testing could prove the system’s capability.

The AAMDA plan is to defend the homeland from North Korea by adding, in the short term, an additional 28 new interceptors to the fleet in Alaska and California. It also directs the MDA to report on the feasibility of expanding to a full 100 interceptors in Alaska, as well as on the status of emerging missile defense programs and technologies. To speed progress, the AAMDA calls for a more robust missile testing regime and a new space-based sensor apparatus to improve interceptor targeting.

The testing regime for GMD is problematic. Past tests were heavily scripted, with the timing and trajectory of the target known in advance, and the targets employing none of the complex countermeasures, such as decoys, that would accompany a real missile attack. The most recent test approached realistic conditions of speed, altitude and use of limited decoys, and was successful. That progress is welcome, but it should be put into context: the MDA first declared GMD operational thirteen years ago. Despite overall generous testing conditions, the system failed eight of nineteen tests, including three of the last five.

The AAMDA response to the unreliability of the GMD program is to make it bigger. It supports the figure of 100 interceptors by citing a report speculating that in a worst-case scenario North Korea could have 100 nuclear warheads by 2020. A missile defense strategy that relies on one-for-one matching of adversary missiles with interceptors ignores that, given the poor test record of the GMD system, MDA officials reportedly anticipate expending four or five interceptors to defeat a single ICBM. Even a large, impermeable missile defense system could not protect the US against other methods of delivering a nuclear warhead, such as via shipping container to a major port.

From its inception, the GMD program was a risky deviation from traditional procurement procedures. As documented by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Bush Administration exempted the MDA from standard rules: the agency was allowed to forgo meaningful cost and progress estimates, shield its expenditures from much external oversight, and deploy the system before completing operational testing. In consequence, as reported by the Government Accountability Office, the MDA had to repeatedly redesign the boost vehicle, and recently announced that the current kill vehicle has reached a “performance plateau” that cannot be overcome without a multibillion dollar replacement. The Bush Administration argued that loosened rules would allow the MDA to quickly build a system to protect the nation in an increasingly unstable world. Thirteen years and $40 billion later, the system is still not reliable. Sen. Sullivan presented his plan with the same argument: the urgent threat from North Korea demands an expedited response. The past and present of GMD show that reduced oversight degrades rather than improves our ability to efficiently develop new defenses.

GMD is not yet close to being a reliable system. Nevertheless, the AAMDA aims to massively expand it, risking billions of taxpayer dollars that could otherwise support proven defense programs. Gen. John Hyten, chief of Strategic Command, who is the intended operator of the deployed system, recently told Congress, “if we just go for additional capacity, I’m not sure we’re going to be making the right architectural decisions about how we deal with a pending threat in the future.” Congress should respect that insight and thoroughly review the GMD program before committing to a procurement process that has delivered neither timely nor effective defense.

~ John Walsh, Intern at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation