by John Isaacs
The Bush Administration planned to deploy a National Missile Defense in 2004, claiming that it could protect the United States from a small attack from North Korean nuclear-tipped missiles. It failed, and it failed miserably.
The most recent flight test on December 15, 2004, the first in two years, would have been the first time the recently developed operational booster rocket was flown with the warhead designed to destroy incoming nuclear warheads; however, the interceptor failed to launch due to what the Missile Defense Agency called a “minor glitch.”
Despite the lack of testing of the new components of the ground-based system, the deployment of ten interceptors, six at Fort Greely, Alaska, and four at Vandenberg AFB in California, is scheduled for completion in January 2005.
Ten more of these interceptors are programmed for deployment at Fort Greely in 2005, and an additional 20 at an undisclosed location or locations in 2006. This is a commitment to purchase 40 untested interceptors, each costing $50 million, for a total of $2 billion.
There have been nine highly artificial and carefully scripted flight intercept tests, five resulting in hits. The previous test, conducted in December 2002, failed at least in part because the warhead or kill vehicle (EKV) did not separate from the surrogate booster rocket.
U.S. Northern and Strategic commands, the organizations that would be responsible for operating the new missile defense system, clearly have considerable misgivings about taking over and operating the system in its current state. No major component of the full system had, or has yet, been tested in its deployable configuration, and operational testing of the integrated system is far into the indefinite future.
Despite the president’s directive, the year 2004 passed without any claim that National Missile Defense had achieved operational status, and for good reason. This system is in its preliminary development phase, and it simply has not demonstrated that it can perform the mission for which it is designed.
The ground-based mid-course missile defense system (GMD) is intended to protect the United States against one or very few long-range ballistic missiles, armed with weapons of mass destruction, which may be launched by rogue states. The concept is to intercept and destroy the attacking warheads during the mid-course of their flight in space.
The National Missile Defense Act, passed by the Congress in 1999, directs the Department of Defense (DOD) “to deploy as soon as is technically possible an effective national missile defense system that is capable of defending the territory of the United States against a limited ballistic missile attack [emphasis added].” Although the effectiveness and capability of new system have not been demonstrated, there has been a rush to deploy this untested system and declare it operational against a threat that is unlikely to materialize until at least several years into the future.
If, or when, rogue states acquire the capability, it is highly unlikely that they would attack the United States with long-range ballistic missiles because our nation can pinpoint the location of missile launches and deliver devastating retaliatory strikes. Nevertheless, the president in December 2002 directed the operational deployment of the National Missile Defense in 2004, apparently to fulfill his campaign pledge to accord high priority to protecting the United States against a limited ballistic missile attack. DOD set the date for “initial defensive operations” of GMD, later downgrading it to “limited defensive operations,” at the end of September 2004.
To succeed, GMD must flawlessly perform a complex sequence of operations:
- The launch of the attacking missile or missiles is detected and their general headings determined and reported to the fire control component.
- Fire control commences planning for the interception based on the initial report.
- The primary radar or radars are cued to track the missiles.
- Radars provide high-quality tracking data to fire control, which develops battle plans.
- Authority to engage is granted. Interceptors are launched. The kill vehicles disengage from their booster rockets.
- Radars provide updated tracking data to fire control, which sends updated targeting information to the kill vehicles.
- Radars discriminate among objects in the target complex, and this information is communicated to the kill vehicles.
- Kill vehicles acquire, track and discriminate within the target complex, make final target selection and steer themselves for a hit-to-kill impact with the attacking warheads.
- Primary radars assess the outcome of the engagement.
Detection of the launch of attacking missiles and their general headings can be accomplished by early warning (EW) radars that require upgrading to communicate with the broad band missile defense system. Since they are not positioned to cover all of North Korea, and since they cannot see over the horizon, additional detection capabilities are required.
The infrared sensors on the existing constellation of Defense Support Program satellites, which employ decades-old technology, are capable of detecting the launch of ballistic missiles and determining their general headings. The next generation of detection satellites, the Space Based Infrared Satellite system, or SBIRS, is designed to provide a “critical increase … in surveillance capabilities.”
However, this program has suffered extensive delays and substantial cost overruns. Its ground system is not scheduled to be ready until 2010; and the cost of the system is currently estimated to reach $10 billion. Reprogramming of the system, which is scheduled to be announced in June 2005, is currently estimated to extend the development of SBIRS through fiscal year 2013.
For the primary radars, which must track the attacking missiles, the ground-based system will depend for the foreseeable future on upgraded early warning radars, principally “Cobra Dane,” located at Eareckson Air Force Base (AFB) in Alaska. Other early warning radars being upgraded are located in California, Greenland and the UK.
However, all these radars have poor resolution capabilities, limited to tracking the composite target complex and incapable of discriminating among its components. Moreover, there are no plans through fiscal year 2007 to include any of the upgraded early warning radars in integrated flight intercept tests to demonstrate that their new software is able to gather and process data on the location of the target complexes and to transmit these data in real time to the fire control station, which develops the battle plan and then launches, and provides updated target information to, the interceptors.
Recognizing the limitations of existing radars, the missile defense program director stated in 2000 that a ground based radar which operates in the X-band would be developed and deployed in Shemya, Alaska, as a critical element of the new system. However, this project was canceled; instead, development of a sea based X-band radar is underway in Corpus Christi, Texas.
This sea based X-band radar will be 390 feet long, 25 stories high and weigh 50 thousand tons. It is scheduled to be mounted on a self-propelled, modified oil-drilling platform in 2005, and then sailed around the tip of South America to its base near Adak Island in the Aleutians where it currently is programmed to serve as a test radar, not an operational asset. If it were decided to adopt X-bands as primary radars for the GMD system, additional units would be required since a radar based in Alaska cannot see missiles launched from Iran. Moreover, it is not evident that this radar will be able to operate effectively in rough seas.
There are preliminary plans to develop and deploy a constellation of 24 to 27 satellites, called the Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS), to track attacking missiles and to perform the discrimination function. The current schedule calls for launching two satellites, built for a system canceled in 1999 due to technical problems, in 2006, just to determine whether it is feasible to track missiles from space.
The STSS program has shifted to a research-oriented approach, focused on improving technology one satellite at a time. Since the current plan is launch the first experimental satellite at the end of this decade, a production run for an STSS capability is obviously very far in the future.
The kill vehicles, or EKVs, are equipped with a computer, thrusters, antennas to receive data, optics to navigate, sensors and a refrigeration unit to form krypton ice cubes to cool the sensors. There have been problems in previous intercept tests with separation of the EKV from the booster and with cooling the EKV sensors sufficiently to facilitate closure with the target; and, as yet, it is not known whether the EKV’s sensitive equipment can successfully withstand the vibration and stress of the booster rocket, which is much more powerful than the surrogate rocket employed to date in intercept tests.
For the foreseeable future, the EKVs will not receive any assistance in discriminating among the components of target complexes. They must select the target warheads on their own and then steer themselves for a hit to kill impact at a closing velocity of 15,000 miles per hour or more.
Even if X-band radars and STSS were operational, however, it is highly doubtful that the system could perform the vital discrimination function successfully. Several authoritative organizations, including the National Intelligence Council, have warned that any state capable of developing and deploying intercontinental ballistic missiles could easily incorporate decoys or other countermeasures that would render a mid-course missile defense system ineffective because it would be incapable of identifying the attacking warheads.
In a joint article, a former deputy director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and a former chair of the Federation of American Scientists expressed grave doubts that “the problem of discriminating between warheads and decoys in the mid-part of their trajectories can be effectively solved in the near future, if ever.” Commenting recently on GMD, a distinguished defense scientist stated bluntly: “It’s totally useless.”