UPDATE (1/29): Portions of this post have been revised to add additional detail and clarity.
Regular readers of the blog will remember that last October we flagged the following rosy proclamation from Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta about U.S. missile defenses: “But you know, we really do have a very remarkable defense system set up to deal with that challenge [i.e. the missile threat to the U.S. homeland].” [emphasis mine.]
Two new reports suggest Panetta ought to be a little less effusive in his praise. The reports demonstrate that the currently deployed missile defense systems are still unable to reliably intercept and destroy incoming enemy warheads…
Discrimination Problem Remains Unsolved
Center Chairman Lt. Gen. Robert Gard (USA, ret.) has a new article up over at the mothership which summarizes a recent Defense Science Board report titled “Science and Technology Issues of Early Intercept Ballistic Missile Defense Feasibility”.
Early intercept refers to destroying a ballistic missile in the early stage of its flight but after the initial boost phase, which the Pentagon defined for the Defense Science Board as “that interval between thrust termination to final deployment of re-entry vehicles and countermeasures”.
The task force also considered a different kind of “early intercept”, namely the issues related to using interceptors based in Europe to get an “early” shot at intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) heading to the U.S. (though not necessarily before the missiles could release their decoys and countermeasures). The fourth phase of the phased adaptive approach is slated to provide such a capability against limited ICBM threats from Iran.
We first noted the existence of the report last summer, when an interim version was briefed to Congress, prompting some Republicans to allege that the Obama administration is leaving the U.S. defenseless against ballistic missile attack (as if the George W. Bush administration’s plan would have been more effective). Though the title of the report gives that impression that it is only about early intercept, the Defense Science Board presents a number of scathing conclusions about the condition of the phased adaptive approach overall. Below is a summary of the reports main findings (direct quotes from the report are italicized):
- “EI per se is not a particularly useful goal or protocol for design of a regional BMD system.” In this case other traditional objectives such as confirming the destruction of a target with a single intercept and the key enablers listed below are far more useful than early intercept.
- “In a homeland defense context, there is a significant potential cost and effectiveness advantage of achieving an intercept by forward-based regional assets prior to having to commit rearward homeland protection assets such as GBIs.” The idea here would be to give longer-range interceptors based in Europe as part of the phased adaptive approach a first shot at an incoming missile targeted at the U.S. before having to launch long-range ground based interceptors in Alaska and California.
- “Intercept prior to the potential deployment of multiple warheads or penetration aids – the principal reason often cited for EI – requires Herculean effort and is not realistically achievable, even under the most optimistic set of deployment, sensor capability, and missile technology assumptions.” According to the Defense Science Board, intercept must occur within 100 seconds after the target missile has finished burning its boosters in order to reliably prevent the early release of decoys or countermeasures.
- The effectiveness of the phased adaptive approach in defending Europe and the U.S. hinges less on early intercept and more on the development of key enablers such as faster interceptors, better radars, adequate command and control, and the ability to discriminate (in space) the target warhead from other pieces of the offensive missile complex, including rocket bodies, miscellaneous hardware, and intentional countermeasures. The Pentagon is maturing these capabilities, but none are yet where they need to be for an effective real world defense. For example, faster missiles are being developed for the later stages of the phased adaptive approach (though it remains to be seen if the fastest interceptors will be fast enough). The same goes for the radars, which are far from up to snuff. Perhaps most importantly, effective discrimination has yet to be achieved.
- “Pursuit of the current plans for regional ballistic missile defense, such as envisioned in the PAA [phased adaptive approach], if pursued to completion, will provide an effective regional defense capability – those plans are technically feasible, are making good progress, and enjoy broad political support.”
Get all that? It’s quite a bit to digest. You may be wondering how the Defense Science Board could have endorsed the Pentagon’s missile defense plans for Europe given the vulnerabilities it raised. Perhaps the Board believes the Pentagon will ultimately overcome these hurdles, particularly the discrimination problem. Perhaps it assumes that the system will never have to combat more complex threats, such as short, medium, or intermediate range missiles armed with decoys or countermeasures? Or perhaps it felt the need to say something positive to offset the report’s many negative conclusions.
As Gen. Gard noted in his article, the fact that early intercept before the first release of potential decoys or countermeasures is not realistically achievable undoubtedly prompted the Defense Science Board to emphasize repeatedly the need for the Missile Defense Agency to deal with the problem of discriminating in space between warheads and other objects. The report’s statement that “discrimination in the exo-atmosphere is still not a completely solved problem,” is, to quote Gen. Gard again, “a polite understatement.”
Ground Based Midcourse Defense Testing Record Still Underwhelming
Meanwhile, Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation earlier this month released his annual testing reports to Congress (click here for a link to the report, though it may be behind a pay wall). The report on missile defense, particularly the ground based midcourse defense system (i.e. national missile defense), once again makes for revealing reading.
The report states: “To date, GMD has demonstrated a limited capability against a simple threat.” Talking about damning with faint praise.
The report reminds us that the GMD system failed in its last two flight tests in January 2010 and December 2010, respectively, meaning that the system has not had a successful intercept flight test since December 2008 (or more than three years ago)! Note that none of these tests were undertaken under what could be considered operationally realistic conditions (i.e. in a situation where the interceptor must find the target amid missile junk or countermeasures designed to defeat the system). The system suffers from the same discrimination problem highlighted by the Defense Science Board.
According to the report, these intercept failures “delayed achievement of flight test program goals by at least two years.”
All of which led Gilmore to once again conclude: “Lack of sufficient data for comprehensive model and simulation verification, validation, and accreditation continues to preclude end-to-end GMD performance assessment.”
I think that’s a scientific and gracious way of saying that the system is not quite as remarkable as Panetta would have us believe.