The Defense That Does not Defend: More problems for national missile defense

by Kingston Reif

America’s troubled national ballistic missile defense system just found more trouble.

For the first time, the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, Dr. Michael Gilmore, has determined that this system, known as Ground Based Midcourse Defense (GMD), may be too flawed to save.

In his Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 report to Congress, Dr. Gilmore states that the design of the two types of “kill vehicles” that sit atop our 30 long-range interceptors in Alaska and California are of questionable “robustness” and that the Pentagon should consider redesigning them. Translation: the system as currently configured – which has cost the American taxpayer roughly $40 billion – can’t be relied upon to perform its intended mission of protecting the U.S. homeland against even rudimentary long-range missiles launched from North Korea or Iran.

Dr. Gilmore’s report is but the latest in a long list of setbacks for the GMD system, all of which cast serious doubts over the wisdom of the Pentagon’s plan to spend $1 billion to deploy 14 additional ground based interceptors in Alaska with the existing flawed kill vehicles – to say nothing about building a third site for the system in the eastern half of the country, as proposed by some Republicans in Congress.

The release of the 2013 Pentagon testing report comes at a tumultuous time for GMD. A September 2012 report by the National Research Council unleashed a devastating critique of the system, stating that it “lacks fundamental features long known to maximize the effectiveness of a midcourse hit-to-kill defense capability against even limited threats.” In plain English, the system is a failure. The report went on to recommend a major and costly overhaul of GMD, including the development of new interceptors and radars and their deployment at additional sites in the United States.

Then, in July 2013, the system suffered another major setback in the form of a failed flight intercept test. There have been NO successful GMD flight intercept tests since the end of the 2008. You read that right: ZERO. Two tests failed in 2010 and then, until last July, MDA hadn’t tried again, only to have another failure.

The July test was of the older “CE-I” kill vehicle, which was thought to be the more reliable of GMD’s two kill vehicles. The Pentagon says a decision to deploy 14 additional interceptors in Alaska will be tied to the results of a flight intercept test of the newer but still unproven “CE-II” kill vehicle. The CE-II has never had a successful intercept test, though 10 of them are currently deployed in Alaska. These 10 missiles are the poster child of failure to “fly before you buy.” The next intercept test of the CE-II is scheduled for this summer.

What makes the recent intercept test failures especially disconcerting is that these tests have occurred under highly scripted and controlled conditions. For example, the GMD system has never been tested against an intercontinental range missile. In addition, the system has yet to prove effective against decoys and countermeasures that an adversary could deploy to fool our defenses.

Despite the well-documented and obvious shortcomings of GMD, the Pentagon continues to vouch for the system’s effectiveness. After last July’s failed intercept test, then-Press Secretary George Little stated: “We believe that we have a robust missile defense architecture in place and we are in a position to respond to any threat that emanates from North Korea.”

Congress, however, appears to be losing patience with the existing system. The final version of the FY 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, signed by the President last December, requires the Pentagon to prepare a plan not only to improve the existing GMD system, but also to develop, test, and deploy an upgraded kill vehicle for the system as early as 2018. The bill also states that the new kill vehicle should be capable for use on other US missile defense systems, such as the sea-based Aegis system. Furthermore, the final FY 2014 defense appropriations bill provides $55 million in unrequested funds for the Missile Defense Agency to develop enhanced discrimination and sensor capabilities, since existing capabilities are far from adequate.

Which brings us back to the latest testing report by Dr. Gilmore. The section on GMD states that the system “has demonstrated a partial capability to defend the U.S. Homeland from small numbers of simple intermediate or intercontinental ballistic missile threats launched from North Korea or Iran.” “The performance of GMD during flight tests in FY13,” Gilmore continues, “prevented any improvement in the assessment of GMD capability.”

These conclusions closely comport with years and years of testing reports highlighting the shortcomings of GMD and the lack of significant progress in improving the system. Unlike previous years, however, Gilmore went a step further, recommending that the Missile Defense Agency “consider re-designing the EKV [Exo-atmospheric Kill Vehicle] applying rigorous systems engineering practices to assure the EKV is robust against failure.”

In light of Dr. Gilmore’s recommendation, which also mirrors the advice of the 2012 National Research Council Report, the Pentagon would be unwise to field 14 additional ground based interceptors in Alaska. The Pentagon has said that it will move forward with this deployment if the next test of the CE-II kill vehicle is successful. But one, likely highly scripted, test does not a successful system make – especially if the test is less complex than the prior two CE-II tests. No more of the old interceptors should be deployed, either in Alaska or any other location. Instead, once a new kill vehicle has been designed and proven effective in operationally realistic tests, that new kill vehicle and interceptor should replace existing deployments. The $1 billion in planned spending to expand the existing GMD system would be better spent designing a new kill vehicle, upgrading the defense’s ability to detect and track potential incoming missiles, and addressing the problem of discriminating between an incoming warhead and debris or decoys.

Members of Congress might also want to ask whether it makes sense, at a time of constrained defense budgets, to spend another dime further developing a failed system that the National Research Council recommended should be put on ice.

The latest indictment of the GMD will no doubt give greater urgency to the Pentagon’s nascent plans design of a new kill vehicle. The Missile Defense Agency requested $70 million in its FY 2014 budget to begin early conceptual work on a common kill vehicle that could be used across multiple missile defense platforms. According to a February 7, 2014 Reuters story, as part of its FY 2015 budget request, the Pentagon plans to ask for nearly $1 billion for a new homeland defense radar to be placed in Alaska and $560 million for the new kill vehicle. As one Congressional source interviewed by Reuters put it “We need a new interceptor that actually works.”

Though the pressure to finish the new kill vehicle in time to meet the Pentagon’s stated goal of deploying 14 new interceptors in Alaska by 2017 will be intense, it may not be achievable in such a short time frame. The Missile Defense Agency must avoid repeating the mistakes of the past by rushing to deploy the new kill vehicle before it has proved effective in a rigorous set of tests, lest it once again have to spend hundreds of millions to fix deeply flawed hardware that was prematurely deployed.

Designing a more effective homeland missile defense architecture will not be cheap, and the Pentagon and Congress could ultimately balk at the high price in a time of constrained military budgets. The National Research Council estimated that the costs to develop and build better kill vehicles, faster booster rockets to carry the kill vehicles, and improved radars and sensors (both on land and in space) could exceed $25 billion.

But as the latest Pentagon testing report makes clear, America’s existing homeland missile defense system is simply not up to snuff and spending even more money to expand it is a fool’s errand.