by John Isaacs
On November 12, Lt. General Henry Obering, head of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), gave a press briefing where he wildly exaggerated the capabilities of U.S. missile defense systems.
Gen. Obering: Our testing has shown not only can we hit a bullet with a bullet, we can hit a spot on the bullet with a bullet. The technology has caught up. (CNN)
Reality: A common public relations tactic employed by the MDA is to talk about “missile defense” as a monolithic whole so that it can ascribe achievements to the entire enterprise that should really only apply to specific programs. During Fleet Exercise Pacific Blitz on November 1, the Navy scored one hit and one miss with the Aegis missile defense system. Aegis is one of the most promising missile defense programs, but it cannot “hit a bullet with a bullet” every time. The U.S. missiles planned for installation in Poland involve an untested two-stage interceptor that is derived from the systems presently deployed in Alaska and California – systems that regularly fail even heavily-scripted flight tests. Gen. Obering cannot say whether or not European missile defense “technology has caught up” because the system hasn’t been tested at all.
Gen. Obering: We have come a hell of a long way since 2000. Our primary objective is going to be just, frankly, educating [people] on what we have accomplished, what we have been able to do…Not only are [current U.S. ground-based and sea-based systems] workable, they’ve been proven in combat. (AP, Washington Times)
Reality: First, there is no current U.S. missile defense system than can neutralize a ballistic missile threat that employs even simple decoys. Knowledgeable defense scientists believe missile defense will never be able to defeat countermeasures that any nation capable of fielding complex intercontinental ballistic missiles will be able to employ with ease. This refutes Gen. Obering’s assertion that missile defense is ready for combat.
Second, any accomplishments claimed by Gen. Obering have more to do with moving the goalposts than legitimate technological breakthroughs. Upon entering office, the Bush administration gave the MDA unprecedented latitude by exempting it from standard budgeting and reporting requirements. In a January 2008 report, the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation noted that a recent increase in operational realism in tests “has uncovered unanticipated deficiencies that will require additional development and testing.” A February 2008 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report noted that tests completed to date “are developmental in nature and do not provide sufficient realism” to determine whether the system “is suitable and effective for battle.” Given these assessments, Gen. Obering’s confidence is off-base.
Gen. Obering: If we were to walk away from these proposed deployments to Europe…I think it would severely undermine U.S. leadership in NATO. (AP)
Reality: When it was first negotiating missile defense in Europe, the Bush administration spoke directly with the Czech and Polish governments but ignored other allies, triggering consternation throughout Europe and disrupting the NATO alliance. As the NATO Secretary General stated critically, “NATO is the right place to have this discussion on missile defense.” Morever, French President Nicolas Sarkozy on November 14 announced his opposition to U.S. missile defense in Europe. Does Gen. Obering believe NATO leadership means the United States should force a proposal down the throats of our allies when they oppose it?
Gen. Obering: I cannot believe that the Russians truly believe these are a threat to their security. (Reuters)
Reality: Moscow likely regards the initial deployment of 10 European interceptors as a precursor to much larger and more ambitious deployments in the future. Russia also sees the third site proposal as yet another encroachment upon Moscow’s borders, a perception aggravated by past and current calls for NATO expansion. One cannot fully account for Russia’s opposition to the proposed European deployment absent an understanding of this crucial context.
Adam Ptacin provided research assistance for this analysis